Each basketball season is different, and virtually all are hard to predict. For the second year in a row, Texas fans enter the season with optimism, although almost nothing else is the same. Except for the stuff that is.
Some of that stuff that is the same -- the fall of 2012 brought a new highly rated freshman class to Texas. The cornerstone of that group was high school All-American Cameron Ridley who, along with teammates Javan Felix, Connor Lammert, Prince Ibeh, and Demarcus Holland, is now a senior.
That first season for this senior class was not a good one. The Longhorns would struggle all year, and for only the third time in a quarter century, Texas basketball would sit out the NCAA tournament.
The sophomore year for this group was better. The 2013-2014 Texas Longhorns would bounce back, sparked by an unheralded freshman point guard named Isaiah Taylor. After the season finished, the momentum continued through the offseason, when five-star center Myles Turner committed to the Texas program.
Which brought us to the fall of 2014, and the optimism. Texas fans were seriously contemplating a Final Four run for the first time in several years.
I don't really need to recap many details, other than to point out that the Longhorns would fall far short of that goal. While the 2014-2015 team wasn't bad, it came nowhere close to meeting expectations, and has come to be viewed as a disappointment. This view is fair.
Failure to meet high expectations in 2015 would lead to a change in coaches, with longtime coach Rick Barnes being replaced by Shaka Smart.
And so while there is optimism for Texas basketball again this fall, it is of a different sort. No one is picking Texas to go to the Final Four -- frankly, finishing fifth in the conference seems far more likely. Instead, the optimism around Texas basketball is of the sort that you usually get with a new coach.
The Window is Still Open
Despite the coaching change, Texas basketball is not in a rebuilding situation; there is no reason to write off the 2015-2016 season as you might normally do the first year or two after a coach was fired.
This Longhorn basketball has three things going for it -- talent, experience, and size. While the Texas roster may be short on stars, Shaka Smart takes over a team with roughly 12 players who deserve minutes -- this is a roster that looks to have exceptionally little dead weight. Even better, it is an experienced group, with five seniors and three juniors among the top 12. And with Ridley, Ibeh, Lammert, and junior transfer Shaquille Cleare, the Texas upperclassmen include four players who combine to give the Longhorns a significant size advantage over most opponents.
So the optimism makes sense; while last season may have ended as a disappointment, this year's team stands a decent chance of achieving some degree of redemption.
And a new coach, with a new approach, may be just what was needed.
Transforming the Defense
The high hopes for Texas basketball last season were based on the very credible assumption that the Longhorns would field one of the nation's best defenses. That didn't happen. While the Texas interior defense was exceptional, holding opponents to less than 38-percent shooting from inside the two point line, the lowest total in the country, Rick Barnes' defense finished just outside of the top 20 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings.
The most significant thing holding last season's defense back was a total inability to create turnovers. This was somewhat by design -- the Longhorn D was constructed to shut off the paint to opponents -- but it ended up being a liability, as Longhorn opponents turned the ball over less often than all but one team in Division I.
I believe in the strategic application of pressure, and in the use of a more aggressive defense that occasionally gives up some easier shots in exchange for forcing more turnovers. I believe in this because most of the time, the math for this approach works out.
This Texas Longhorns team will benefit from a few more steals a game, which takes points off the board for the opponent and puts a few more on the board for Texas. And Texas' big men will help cover up some of the mistakes that occasionally happen with a pressure defense. I think it is reasonable to assume that Texas' defense will improve, and a top ten ranking in defensive efficiency by the season's end is not out of the question.
What Will Happen to the Offense?
For this iteration of the Texas Longhorns to achieve its best case scenario, it will also have to realize significant improvements on offense. While I believe a better showing on the defensive end this year for this team is likely, I have no idea if we will see improvements when Texas has the ball.
On the positive side for the Horns O: Texas will have more experience, a more efficient shot distribution (Smart's Texas offense is almost certain to have fewer mid-range shots than Barnes' did), and will play much faster with the ball. On the negative side: two of the Longhorns three best offensive players from last season (Jonathan Holmes and Myles Turner) are gone.
If offensive improvement comes this season, it may come from better perimeter shooting, something that has been a weak link for recent Texas basketball teams, and more than anything else is what ultimately did Rick Barnes in.
This Texas squad probably has more respectable three point shooters than any Longhorn team of the last few years. Javan Felix is coming off a season where he connected on 39 percent of his 130 threes, Connor Lammert is likely to find clean looks from distance in the new offense, and Texas' three freshman (Eric Davis, Kerwin Roach, and Tevin Mack) all can stroke the ball from outside. If Demarcus Holland again is able to hit open threes when the defense gives them, and if Kendall Yancy can maintain something close to his career 34-percent average from long range, the Longhorns might again have a team that can do damage from the perimeter.
And if Texas is hitting outside shots at a reasonable rate this season, then things could get quite interesting.
Another Season Starts
Every season is different, and yet every season is the same. At its core, basketball is a simple game that never really changes. It is five guys, an orange ball, and two hoops. Play smart and aggressive, get good shots and hit them, protect the ball, disrupt the opponent's offense, and go at the glass like a madman and good things are sure to happen. Fail at most or all of these things, and the losses will follow.
You don't ever know what is really going to happen when the ball is first tossed in the air.