The Shaka Smart Effect on Full Display in Texas' Epic Upset over UNC

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 13, 2015

Shaka Smart celebrates the monumental victory over North Carolina.
Shaka Smart celebrates the monumental victory over North Carolina.Associated Press

Javan Felix had the game of his life in Texas' 84-82 win over No. 3 North Carolina, releasing the final shot of his game-high 25 points just a fraction of a second before the final horn sounded on what is certain to be the first of many memorable moments in Shaka Smart's tenure in Austin.

In the final six years of Rick Barnes' reign as the head coach of the Longhorns, they went 1-10 against teams ranked in the top five of the AP poll.

It took just a month for Smart to secure his first such win.

However, this wasn't the type of game we've come to expect from Smart's teams, and it's probably a good indication of what's to come in this chapter of his career. The pace of the contest was often hectic, but this was no HAVOC. North Carolina committed just six turnovers and was clearly the victor in the fast-break points department at the Frank Erwin Center.

Rather than outracing the Tar Heels like Smart's VCU teams of yore, the Longhorns outmuscled and outshot them.

Texas came into the game as one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country before holding one of the nation's better offensive rebounding teams to just four offensive boards.

Better yet, KenPom.com had the Tar Heels ranked as the nation's sixth-best defensive-rebounding team before the gameallowing opponents to corral just 21.4 percent of their own missesbut Texas grabbed 13 offensive rebounds and absolutely dominated North Carolina in second-chance points.

Yet, the guards were even more impressive than the forwards.

Freshman Eric Davis rises up for one of his four made three-pointers on the day.
Freshman Eric Davis rises up for one of his four made three-pointers on the day.Chris Covatta/Getty Images

Even with the return of Marcus Paige, North Carolina's perimeter defense has been suspect at best. But that shouldn't detract from the incredible performance put on by Felix, Isaiah Taylor and freshman Eric Davis. The trio combined for 59 of Texas' 84 points while shooting 61.1 percent from three-point range.

All told, this looked absolutely nothing like the team that gave up 25 offensive rebounds and shot 26.0 percent from the field in a loss to Washington on the first day of the 2015-16 season—and that's a testament to the environment Smart is trying to foster.

"We've been through some up and downs already in this early season," Smart told ESPN's Jay Bilas and Dan Shulman after the game. "Our guys have hung in there. They've tried to follow the process. I think with each game we've gotten better and better."

At the risk of putting too much emphasis on one game in mid-December, that process has already resulted in Texas' most noteworthy victory since advancing to the 2003 Final Four.

Very early in the broadcast, Bilas said what a lot of college basketball people have been thinking, declaring thatwith Paige back in the lineupNorth Carolina is the best team in the country.

And Texas just beat that team.

Let's face it: No one knew what kind of learning curve was to be expected in the transition from Barnes to Smart. Good luck finding anyone who felt it was a bad hire, but VCU and Texas couldn't have been much different in terms of style of play and recruitability.

Shaka Smart last season with VCU.
Shaka Smart last season with VCU.John Minchillo/Associated Press/Associated Press

The bread and butter of Smart's VCU Rams was turnover-forcing defense. In three of his six seasons, they led the nation in defensive turnover percentage, per KenPom.com. They had a turnover rate of at least 21.1 in all six years.

That was not even remotely Texas' game under Barnes, though. According to KenPom.com, the Longhorns failed to post a turnover rate greater than 20.6 in any of the past 14 years, ranking in the bottom half nationally in each season. Last year, they ranked 350th out of 351 teams.

There was legitimate concern that Smart's style in Texas might be like trying to fit a high-energy, square peg into a less intense, round hole.

"Once he got hired, there was a little questioning, a little wondering about what exactly, how big men are gonna fit in his system," Connor Lammert told ESPN.com's Myron Medcalf this summer. "But the next thing, after he introduced himself, he looked at us big guys and he was saying, 'Whatever system we had there, we didn't have the size, we didn't have some of the personnel that we're gonna have here.'"

The big men certainly seem to be faring well so far, as Lammert has been a key piece in the starting rotation and Cameron Ridley is playing with a fire that was completely missing from his game last year. Watching Ridley lay out for loose balls and crash the glass against the Tar Heels was a vivid sign that this is already a much different team than the Longhorns we've seen in recent years.

The general synopsis seemed to be that Texas would struggle initially while adapting to Smart's style of play, but with access to better recruits, he would eventually turn the Longhorns into an annual national powerhouse.

But how long would that "eventually" last?

Three weeks?

Three months?

Three years?

Nobody knew, and, well, we still don't know. The Longhorns have yet to play a true road game and are 1-3 on neutral courts this season. Despite Saturday's epic victory, try not to be too surprised if they struggle at Stanford next Saturday.

For at least one night, though, the future of Texas looks brighter under Smart than it has in a long time. If he's now ahead of schedule with this program, that's terrifying news for the rest of the country.

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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