To say the Texas Longhorns struggled shooting the ball a year ago would be an understatement.
Texas finished the year shooting 43.9 percent overall, good enough to rank No. 213 in the country. Specifically, the Horns struggled shooting from distance, turning in a 32 -percent performance from beyond the arc, putting them just 30 spots from the bottom of all Division I schools.
That’s still a question for head coach Shaka Smart heading into the 2018-19 season.
“One of the things we’re looking for on this team is who can step forward and make outside shots. That’s going to be a big key,” Smart said during a preseason availability. “In the game, there’s a difference between making them in practice.”
From the coaching standpoint, there’s only a certain amount of control that Smart and his assistants have over whether their players can translate shooting success in practice to shooting success in games.
So the focus has been on the areas that are controllable — becoming a better passing team, pre-shot preparation, including footwork, and discipline in shooting the ball the right way.
“Great passers make great shooters,” Smart said. “And there’s a negative way to put that, too — bad passers make bad shooters.”
Basically, having an experienced point guard in Matt Coleman, an experienced backup point guard in Elijah Mitrou-Long, and more experience across the board should lead to better passing results and, therefore, better shooting results.
While Smart said that he would love to have a player who could make 150 three-pointers in a season, the coaches are hoping to see improvement from returning players. And, in fact, according to the data compiled by bitterwhiteguy at Barking Carnival, the key to shooting success is having experienced players. In the last eight seasons, half of the players who qualified for the list (making 2.5 three-pointers per game and playing in 75 percent of the team’s games) were seniors and only five percent were freshman. Juniors made up a little less than 27 percent of the list.
Smart believes that the best way to become a better shooting team is for returning players to improve from year to year, a belief that receives significant backing from the numbers.
When looking to see who will step up and be a playmaker for Texas, the common answer seems to be Kerwin Roach II, who saw an uptick in his shooting towards the end of a season as his workload increased dramatically.
“Near the end of the year last year [Roach] took a jump. He started making more outside shots,” Smart said. “He’s making better and better decisions; he started using pick and roll. We want to continue to move the ball in that direction.”
The jump Smart talks about came after Roach missed two games early on in conference play due to a minor wrist fracture. Following the break, he shot 40.8 percent from three-point range, which, if carried through the season, would have put him within the top 50 players in the country. In that run, Roach turned in four performances in which he hit three or more from long range, including his 6-of-10 performance in Texas’ overtime loss in the NCAA Tournament.
Two players that also should factor into the search for shooters are sophomore Jase Febres and junior transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long.
Febres was inconsistent shooting a year ago, which contributed to his inconsistent playing time, but he turned in some incredible shooting performances, including four games in which he hit three or more from distance. When Long elected to join the Longhorns, he added an immediate threat from three-point range. In his sophomore season at Mount St. Mary’s, Long converted on 38.2 percent of his three-point attempts, good enough to rank No. 56 in the country.
Newcomers Courtney Ramey and Kamaka Hepa should also factor into the mix as players who can help the Longhorns capitalize from beyond the arc. Ramey, who brings a diverse set of skills to the Texas offense, shot just over 39 percent from distance as a senior at Webster Groves. Hepa looks to factor in as a big man that can also connect from distance when required. While playing 16 games in the Nike EYBL circuit, the 6-foot-10, 225-pound foward connected on 41.6 percent of his three-point attempts.
In the frontcourt, Hepa joins senior forward Dylan Osetkowski, who — despite some inconsistency a year ago — has shown an ability to knock down shots when needed. As a junior, Osetkowski shot sub-30 percent on the year, but converted on three or more three-point attempts on six different occasions, including a 7-of-13 performance against Iowa State on the road.
But regardless of how the players look on paper or in practice, Smart knows that all that matters is what they can produce on the court, and the secret to that is mental, rather than physical.
“What we have to do is play with a level of poise in a game that allows us to carry over what we’ve practiced,” Smart said. “Sometimes when you lose the poise, what happens is sometimes a good practice shooter can turn into a bad game shooter.”