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Texas basketball still searching for its identity to fully tap into significant upside

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The Horns aren’t a great driving team, post-up team, or shooting team, but there are signs of an emerging identity.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Texas vs Nevada Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Following a 65-55 loss to the Texas Longhorns on Monday evening at the Erwin Center, Louisiana Monroe Warhawks head coach Keith Richard put into perspective one of the most significant questions facing head coach Shaka Smart’s team this season.

As Richard put it, what are they?

“They’re a little bit of a hard team to figure out in that... obviously great size, obviously talent, but are they a great driving team, are they a great post-up team, are they a great three-point shooting team? What are they?”

Richard’s thoughts led into the player availability following the game, during which the first question from Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman was about whether this team is still trying to find itself.

Senior forward Dylan Osetkowski opted for a pregnant pause and a light chuckle to find the right answer.

“Not figure ourselves out — I don’t think so,” Osetkowski responded. “I think it’s early in the season for us, I mean, for every basketball team in college right now. Trying to find that game rhythm. Practices are a whole lot different than games, but shots are going to go in some nights and shots aren’t going to go in.... Yeah.”

The game rhythm has been difficult to come by for the Longhorns so far this season, especially from distance

Back to those questions posed by Richard.

Is Texas a great driving team? Not at the moment, but senior guard Kerwin Roach II can get to the rim, sophomore guard Matt Coleman can get into the paint to make plays for himself and teammates, and junior guard Elijah Mitrou-Long has the handle and experience driving the basketball. So there is potential there.

Is Texas a great post-up team? No. Osetkowski is more comfortable working from the perimeter and still doesn’t lift to finish over defenders. Sophomore forward Jericho Sims entered the season with much higher expectations in that regard, but has struggled with foul trouble. Freshman forward Jaxson Hayes hit a nice baby hook against Louisiana Monroe, but is still very much a work in progress offensively.

Texas should be able to score some points in the paint on post ups, but unless Hayes comes along quickly and Sims shows more of his game that he developed over the offseason, it’s not going to be a huge part of the offense.

Is Texas a great shooting team? Definitely not, but Smart believes that he has players who can shoot better than they have been through the first three games, considering that the Longhorns are currently shooting 29.6 percent from the perimeter. Some of it is mental — players passed up shots against Eastern Illinois and are still trying to work on their shot selection.

“I thought we took a lot more good shots tonights than we did against Arkansas. I can only think of two or three that were ill-advised,” Smart said.

The emerging identity of this Longhorns team is using full-court pressure to disrupt opposing offenses and create steals to initiate the transition offense and get quick, quality shots on that end.

“Our defense really triggered our offense,” Mitrou-Long said on Monday. “We were getting a lot of deflections of the ball and stops and we were pushing to transition.”

During that stretch, Texas finished at the rim multiple times, including Roach and Hayes, the two best finishers on the team in the back court and the front court. And the ability of those two players to finish in transition is good enough to finish against virtually anyone in the country.

In that regard, this Texas team is already closer than any other Shaka Smart team in Austin to replicating the identity of his VCU teams; the identity that propelled Smart to the Final Four and to a job at a big-time program. Some of the best moments this season have come when the Horns have used full-court pressure or, at least, used deflections and steals in the halfcourt to create momentum.

“That gives us some energy, not thinking about whether shots are going in,” Osetkowski said. “Come back on the offensive end and our pace is up, our movement is up.”

So that’s the major positive for a team that is still working to integrate five freshmen and a transfer into the team — there was a lot of turnover from last year’s team with the departures of Mohamed Bamba, the decision by guard Eric Davis to turn pro, and two transfers.

“We’re obviously a work in progress in a lot of ways,” Smart said. “I think are guys are still trying to figure out how to play together. I’m excited about where we’re going.”

Indeed, the roles have changed for a number of players. Roach is trying to build on his finish from last season, when he had to carry an extremely heavy load, but no longer has to provide so much of the scoring. Mitrou-Long is adjusting from having an extremely high usage rate at Mount St. Mary’s to coming off the bench and playing as one of four ball handlers on the team. Coleman and adjusting to the weight of increased expectations, and not handling things particularly well early to this point.

“They had great moments at times last year, but as players that we’ve coached over the years have learned, over and over again, it doesn’t just happen — you still have to make it happen on the floor,” Smart said. “They’ve put a lot of work in during the offseason. They are better players than they were a year ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s just going to happen.”

So there’s another aspect to increased maturity — showing the mental toughness to deal with disappointment and the inability to reach expectations by giving energy to their teammates.

With missed layups and other issues in the first half against Louisiana Monroe, Smart thought that his players got caught up in themselves mentally instead of working to energize their teammates.

Moving forward, Sims and Coleman in particular will have to respond better to adversity and give energy to their teammates in those situations.

Want a reason to feel excited about this team? After playing only six minutes a game as a junior and not joining the AAU circuit until that next spring, Jaxson Hayes has quickly emerged as a player worth watching every night.

“He can catch the ball at an elite level, he can finish the ball at an elite level,” Osetkowski said. “I really think he’s just scratching the surface. I tell him every day — he doesn’t realize how good he is, how much he can impact the game on the offensive and defensive end. For a freshman, his natural gifts, his basketball IQ, is at a high level.”

Following the opener against Eastern Illinois, Hayes demonstrated his basketball intelligence and his willingness to be vocal with his teammates.

After Coleman had missed Hayes several times on rolls to the basket, the freshman let the older point guard know that he was open. And if Hayes wasn’t open, the shooter posted up in the corner was open.

“I mean, I don’t want to say that everything was open, but everything was open,” Hayes said.

The physical gifts are obvious. After all, the public debut for Hayes at the Texas Tip-Off last month featured the Ohio native soaring from the free-throw line for a windmill dunk. On Monday, he left a handprint high on the glass when a Louisiana Monroe player pulled off the difficult feat of floating a shot above the reach of Hayes. Through three games, Hayes has seven of the 12 Texas blocks on the entire season.

A year after Bamba record 66 percent of the team’s blocks, Hayes has a legitimate chance to accomplish the same feat. Probably not with the same block rate over the entire season, but after three games, Hayes ranks No. 49 nationally at 12.5 percent, not so far off from Bamba’s 13.2 percent last season.

As Hayes continues to impress, the goal for the entire team is to make progress each and every game — to shoot better, to respond to adversity better, to learn how to play with each other better.

And yet, despite all the room for improvement, Richard succinctly summed up his informed opinion on where the Longhorns could end up this season.

“I think there is enough talent there — and my coaching staff talked about this leading into the game — I think they’ve got a real chance down the road, though, once they find whatever it is that they should be, this team could be a really good team,” he said.

“Like, a really good team.”