Texas coach Shaka Smart battled ‘significant’ COVID-19 symptoms, now ready for No. 2 Baylor

AUSTIN, Texas — Shaka Smart will return to the sideline Tuesday when sixth-ranked Texas battles second-ranked Baylor. He’ll be wearing his mask and coaching as hard as ever, no doubt.

“Glad to be back,” Smart said, announcing that he tested positive for COVID-19 one week ago.

But the Texas coach will be working from a different viewpoint now that he has battled through “significant” symptoms. “This was not a walk in the park for me,” he said.

Smart now views everything from a different viewpoint, actually.

“When you go through that kind of stuff,” Smart told reporters Monday, “you know, it certainly swirls some things around your mind.”

Texas coach Shaka Smart yells out plays to his players during a game against Kansas. The Longhorns won 59-84.

In six seasons, Smart has rarely wanted to talk about himself. He’s always wanted to keep the focus on the players. Still, it was clear Monday that he wrestles with various ethical issues related to playing out this season as the NCAA works to ensure its cash-cow tournament goes off in March as scheduled.

“I think it is a little frustrating, to be honest, that there is a wide variety of opinions, even amongst the doctors,” Smart said. “The one thing that I’ve learned going through this myself is that because COVID is relatively new, it’s not like we have years and years of experience dealing with this from a medical standpoint.

“So they say it’s safe to play the games, then we’re going to give our guys the opportunity to do that,” he continued. “I think if you talk to a majority of our guys, they want to play. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been moments where, for some of them, they’ve been like, ‘Wow, this is really, really strange’ and some thinking through is this what should we be doing?”

Since the games continue, the Longhorns must as well.

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Texas (11-3, 5-2 Big 12) has seen three of its last four games either postponed or canceled because of COVID-19 issues. Saturday’s game at Kentucky was the latest game scrapped; the game was part of the annual Big 12/SEC Challenge and will not be rescheduled.

Smart pulled back the curtain on just how much COVID-19 threw the Longhorns off track in January.

Smart said only two players were cleared to practice at one point last month. Assistant coach K.T. Turner said last week that Texas had only one practice with eight scholarship players the day before facing Oklahoma.

Over the last two weeks, multiple players have been held out for various COVID-19 issues. The school does not disclose who tested positive or who was just held out for contact tracing.

However, Texas was without starters Courtney Ramey and Jericho Sims last week. Reserve Brock Cunningham missed the Oklahoma game but was expected to play against Kentucky, had that game been played.

Smart said he’ll have a full roster of healthy players against the undefeated Bears (16-0, 8-0). Ramey and Sims are expected to return, as will Cunningham. Sunday was the Horns’ first practice with the entire team in 19 days, Smart said.

Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart talks with his team during a timeout against Iowa State on Jan. 5.

Unfortunately, Texas can’t ease back into it. The Horns are facing a team that has been obliterating people this season. The Bears lead the nation in scoring margin (plus-24.8) and is the nation’s only team to win every game by at least eight points.

Baylor’s 23-3 Big 12 record over the last two seasons is the league’s best record in that span.

At least Texas officials are giving the home team a little help. After being closed to fans in January, the Erwin Center is open again to limited attendance. If past games are an indicator, Texas could have approximately 2,400 fans in attendance for what looks like the biggest game of the season thus far.

“We’re in the Big 12. Guys came to Texas to play in the Big 12. Ever since I got here, this has been arguably the toughest league in the country,” Smart said. “I mean, everybody says that about their conference. I’m not being negative about anyone else’s league. But this is what you sign up for when you come to play or coach in this league. So, our guys are excited.”

What’s been even more frustrating for the players is how COVID-19 rearranged the schedule before big matchups.

In mid-December, Texas was 5-1 when the first matchup with Baylor was scheduled. The league opener would have been a huge barometer for the Horns to see just how good they really were. That game in Waco was postponed and has yet to be rescheduled.

Then, Texas lost a heartbreaker to Texas Tech and rebounded three days later to pummel Kansas State. Just when the Horns thought they were rolling again, the next two games were postponed and the team suddenly had a week off.

COVID-19 started causing havoc in the Texas locker room, and Texas had to scrap a trip to Kentucky to play in historic Rupp Arena. Say what you want about the Wildcats being down this season, but to the players, it would have been fun to play in Lexington.

Now comes Baylor at home followed by two road games to Oklahoma State and Kansas State. Nothing about this season has been easy for anybody.

“It’s easy to take something for granted if you get to do it every day,” Smart said. “But if you go 19 days without having a full group together … it’s a very emotional and moving thing even just to be out there trying to get better at guarding the ball screen or transition defense or whatever it may be.

“So yeah, extremely grateful for being out there with those guys and the chance to work towards moving forward.”

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