These are heady times for Texas Longhorns fans. After a season opening victory on the gridiron over a highly-ranked Notre Dame team that humiliated Texas just a season ago, Longhorns fans are starting to get... optimistic? Is that something we still know how to do?
If there is one thing that I have learned in my five years writing for BON (holy crap, it’s been five years — and I am getting older) it is that sentiment from the football team, positive or negative (OK, usually negative), has a way of spilling over into how people look at the basketball team. And with all of this new-found optimism I am beginning to brace myself for dealing with all of you during the season ahead.
Because I am a little less sure about how this year will go for Texas hoops.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I think the long-term trajectory of Texas basketball looks strong. There are few things I can find wrong with Texas head coach Shaka Smart: he teaches an interesting style of basketball, appears to connect well with young people, seems to be succeeding in the recruiting game, and generally appears to be an interesting and thoughtful guy.
I highly recommend watching his press conferences. They mix interesting thoughts about the team and basketball with observations and insight into people, personal motivation, and life.
I suspect he and his wife would make excellent dinner companions — we are all even roughly the same age. (Contemplating that I am just slightly older than Shaka Smart makes me feel both young — he is still a “young head coach” — and also somewhat disappointed in what I have made of my life up to this point. Life was more fun when there were dreams.)
But let’s put all of that to the side. I am not talking about the long-term trajectory of Texas basketball here, or where I would go on my hypothetical double-date with the Smarts. I am talking instead about the upcoming season.
I have a lot of questions about the season.
It is actually rather hard to transition from a team loaded with seniors to a team that will rely almost exclusively on freshman and sophomores.
There are three upperclassmen on the team — grad transfer Mareik Isom, guard Kendal Yancy, and center Shaquille Cleare — but all three of these players are more likely to function as role players than a focus of the Texas offense or defense. The rest of the minutes — the majority of the minutes, almost surely — will go to freshmen and sophomores.
The thing about incoming freshmen — particularly highly-rated ones — is that most fans have never seen them play. Five-star freshman Jarrett Allen is right now a blank canvas onto which Longhorn fans can paint whatever picture they like. In your imagination he can be Tim Duncan crossed with Patrick Ewing crossed with Dikembe Mutombo crossed with Mechagodzilla; a nearly indestructible robot from outer-space who scowls as he wags his figure at you after dropping an eight-foot bank shot from the pivot. Meanwhile, Texas fans can imagine fellow McDonald's All-American Andrew Jones is like Joe Dumars, but with more unruly hair.
But these fantasies aren’t true. Allen and Jones are real people who are very good at basketball, but also very young, and will have good games and bad games. We still don’t know how quickly they will adapt to playing against older, more physically developed players. Allen is a fine player who is exceptionally fast and agile for someone so large, but his game is of the sort that will gradually reveal itself to you over the course of a season. He is unlikely to come out and run college basketball from wire to wire. Jones is a freshman guard; most freshman guards occasionally get the yips.
Which leaves us with a talented but very young roster of college basketball players. Some of those players — Kerwin Roach, Eric Davis, and Tevin Mack — are likely to play better as sophomores than they did as freshmen. Some of the freshmen will make meaningful contributions — it is hard to see Allen and Jones not having decent freshman seasons — while other newcomers will struggle. There may be an All-Big 12 player in this bunch, or there may not be one.
This is an exciting season because of the newness — it is like adopting an entirely new team in a way that Texas basketball fans haven’t experienced in some time. It can be a fun season. But don’t be surprised if, at least for a year, Texas basketball takes something of a step backwards. Don’t take it so hard if it happens.
Want to know more about what to expect from the Longhorns this season? Want to get an in-depth look at Texas’ new players? What to read 40,000 words of far more carefully thought out analysis than was contained in this simple blog post? “Smart Texas Basketball 2016” is coming in late October to an ebook retailer near you.