Vic Schaefer is always straight up with reporters after games this season, as he has never been one to hold back.
The truth usually comes out in stream-of-consciousness waves, moving from good points to concerning ones, interchangeably. Such was the case earlier this week, after his No. 19 Texas Longhorns routed Lamar, 77-49, in their final nonconference match up.
“I’m proud of how we gutted it out,” Schaefer said, and didn’t pause before pivoting. “We didn’t play well, y’all. We had a miserable day in practice yesterday; my practice team destroyed us. Shootaround today wasn’t real good, and we played like it.”
“I didn’t think we played very hard, and I didn’t think we played well.”
Schaefer, in his first year at Texas, has had similar laments lately, though his team is 6-1, with their only loss to No. 10 Texas A&M. The Longhorns began the year unranked, and have slowly been inching upward in the AP top 25. Their statistics so far are similar to those of Mississippi State last season, where Schaefer spent eight years transforming the program into an elite power.
But for him, like similarly-calibered coaches, there is a way to do things, and there are standards to be met. And though wins are always the goal, they won’t be fully celebrated unless they’re achieved by the correct means.
Some of it for Schaefer is effort, as he has been emphasizing consistent execution to his players since he arrived in Austin. Another part of it is resilience and never giving up, whether on a possession or during a long game stretch.
“It’s hard, but we’ve got to toughen up a little bit,” Schaefer said Monday. “We’re a little soft in some areas, so we’ve got to toughen up as a team.”
Many of Texas’ struggles of late have been due to injury and eligibility issues. They played against the Cardinals without starter Celeste Taylor, who has missed three games with a foot injury; starter Audrey Warren, who is out with a concussion; and Lauren Ebo, who was only eligible after transfer two weeks ago before being injured. She has played just two games.
Duke grad transfer Kyra Lambert missed two games while waiting for her transfer waiver to be approved. Freshman Shay Holle missed two practices last weekend and only saw playing time against Lamar because of the Longhorns’ depleted roster.
“I would love to have, at some point, 11 kids who are ready to go and that I can pick from and that we can work with for a week – just a week of having the same 11 players every day,” Schaefer said, with a touch of exasperation.
Texas hired Schaefer with the expectation that he would restore the program back to the prominence it once had under Hall of Fame coach Jody Conradt. With the blessing of Conradt, who works in the Athletics Department, Schaefer came aboard with a lot on his plate.
The fact that the team found itself ranked again so quickly is a testament to the focus and work ethic that he demands in his practices. But the Longhorns’ growing pains have happened on the national stage.
Junior center Charli Collier, who is averaging 24 points and 9.9 rebounds this year, has been brilliant. But guards have had trouble getting the ball to her in the paint, and helping her when she is double- and triple-teamed. Collier’s frustrations finally boiled over in the game against Drake two weeks ago, but after taking a breather, she got back on the floor and went on a scoring tear, finishing with 17 points.
Since then, Collier has been more poised, and her teammates are figuring out how to put the ball into her hands.
“I feel like I’m more calm cool and collected (now), and that’s because I can trust my teammates,” Collier said.
Another issue for Texas has been having to rotate point guards due to injury. During the game against the Cardinals, Schaefer had to use a new lineup, which included two point guards.
“Our chemistry tonight wasn’t good, and it wasn’t good because we had some combinations on the floor that we haven’t had all year,” he said.
Freshman forward DeYona Gaston was a bright spot, coming off the bench for 18 points and 10 rebounds and providing some help for Collier down low.
“I had to step up for my team,” Gaston said. “It doesn’t matter how many payers are on the court. We all have to step up, so we can step up together.”
Schaefer doesn’t shy away from taking responsibility for the team’s hiccups, as he can be intensely self-critical.
“I’ve got to do a better job of coaching and teaching,” he said.
But Gaston said she and her teammates understand where he is coming from.
“He’s a really good coach, and he expects a lot from us,” she said. “He doesn’t really care about the score. He worries about how hard we play, and how aggressive we play.”
Restructuring a program against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the uncertainties of the season that come with it is a tall order. Injuries add yet one more wrinkle. But Schaefer said he and his team have to adapt to changing circumstances.
“If this is the team we’re going to have for a while, I’ve got to be a mad scientist and….get some chemistry going,” he said.
The Longhorns tip off Big 12 play Sunday at home, against Iowa State.