In the fall, Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart and his program will embark upon a critical season — with a significant segment of the fanbase already convinced that he won’t succeed in Austin, the pressure will be on to improve in the Big 12 standings and make some type of impression in the NCAA tournament.
So far, athletic director Chris Del Conte publicly remains supportive of Smart and the situation isn’t yet dire enough for the dreaded vote of confidence, especially with Smart’s contract guaranteed for more than $15 million at this point.
With a trying season now in the past that included more than its fair share of adversity for the team itself and certainly in the results on the court, it’s worth looking ahead to assess how the roster could look when the ‘Horns tip off again in about eight months.
Back in January, the outlook seemed much more certain and those recent developments haven’t exactly improved that perspective.
Senior forward Dylan Osetkowski
The loss of guard Andrew Jones left Osetkowski as the team’s leading scorer at 13.4 points per game, in addition to playing more minutes than anyone else for the Longhorns. Entering the season, Smart regarded him as the team’s offensive engine coming off Osetkowski’s transfer season from Tulane.
Assessing his play is to a large extent an exercise in perspective. With Smart often allowing Osetkowski to lead huddles during timeouts and putting a tremendous amount of responsibility on the 6’9, 245-pounder, there was a lot of pressure on him to do more for Texas than he did for Tulane at a lower level. To Osetkowski’s credit, he improved his three-point shooting, free-throw shooting, and his scoring average compared to his sophomore season in the AAC.
So Osetkowski improved in significant ways against higher-level competition while playing more minutes, with his offensive rating largely remaining the same as his usage rate increased marginally. The loss of Andrew Jones forced Osetkowski into a bigger role — he took shots at 16 percent more frequently as a junior than as a sophomore and attempted 100 more three pointers.
However, he also turned out that high volume from distance despite mediocre results and was exposed as a relatively limited athlete, though those issues seemed to increase later in the season as the grind of a long Big 12 conference season seemed to weigh on him.
In the biggest moments of the NCAA tournament game against Nevada, he missed five key free throws and threw a bad pass on the in-bounds play in regulation to set up a final shot. Nevada got it instead.
Osetkowski also drew criticism for his apparent lack of ideal conditioning — he struggled to finish around the rim and with his lateral quickness on defense, in part because it appeared that he was carrying some extra weight. If Osetkowski chooses to make a commitment to maximizing his conditioning and athleticism, he could mitigate some of his biggest weaknesses.
Sophomore point guard Matt Coleman
After arriving on campus last summer as the program’s only pure point guard, Coleman received the keys to the program, as promised by Smart. As with most freshmen, the results weren’t always consistent — after attempting a failed lob in transition late in a game when the Longhorns led, Smart noted that Coleman “does dumb things sometimes.”
He also did some remarkable things, scoring 20 or more points in four of his final five games and showing an ability to create and make shots in late-game situations. When Coleman missed three critical free throws late in a close game against Texas Tech, he stayed late in the gym shooting after returning to Austin and made 34 of his last 39 attempts, good for 87 percent.
That’s a big-time response.
Defensively, Smart called him one of the best freshmen he’s ever coached, though he did struggle at times with foul issues, whether on the ball away from the basket or sometimes off the ball. Since many were rather questionable, perhaps he’ll earn more respect from officials as he ages or learn how to reduce the contacts he’s getting called for causing.
Hitting at a higher rate from three-point range is a major focus for Coleman moving forward, but after one season, he’s on track to become a really good point guard next season. There were certainly plenty of flashes of that this year.
Sophomore forward Jericho Sims
Becoming a vocal leader probably isn’t in the works for the quiet Minnesota native next season, but based on his late-season development, he could become a truly impactful player on both ends of the court as he taps into more of his significant potential.
When the team needed him to contribute more after Mo Bamba went down with his toe injury, Sims responded, becoming much more aggressive offensively and showing off a promising post game. His play faded once the regular season ended, but in the last three conference games, he surpassed 10 points with efficient scoring in each contest.
And there’s also the fact that he can jump out of the gym, as demonstrated by his incredible dunk on West Virginia’s Sagabe Konate, one of the nation’s best shot blockers — there are plenty more highlight-reel dunks on the way before Sims is done as a Longhorn.
As a rebounder, that ability to elevate serves him well, but he needs to improve his awareness and positioning on defense. The block percentage of Sims showed some promise and will increase once he learns to stay down on pump fakes more frequently.
If Sims can advance in the areas where he showed capability this season, he’ll be a key contributor. Unlocking his full potential, however, will require developing a credible jump shot and hitting more than 42.6 percent of his free throws.
The secondary contributors
Junior transfer guard Eli Long
Depending on what happens with players like Eric Davis Jr., Kerwin Roach II, and Jones, Long could easily move into the core group as the secondary point guard and ball handler behind Coleman.
Here’s a more in-depth look at the former Mount St. Mary’s. The short version is that he’s a dynamic ball handler who can create baskets for himself and others and would have been the team’s best shooter this season after losing Jones. On the defensive end, he doesn’t bring much height, but he was able to create steals for the Mountaineers.
Long will almost certainly see his usage rate go down and probably his scoring average as a result, but he’ll bring valuable playmaking and shotmaking to the Longhorns this fall.
Junior guard Jacob Young
Ah, yes, the latest Wildcard. The guarantee with Young is that things will happen when he’s on the court. Often, those things seem likely to end up badly, and did frequently, but became increasingly positive late in the season when the program removed Davis from competition.
Two steals helped provide a spark against Oklahoma in Norman and Young scored in double digits against Oklahoma State and Kansas for the first time since the season’s first two games.
And then there was the Texas Tech game in the Big 12 tournament, which prompted Smart identify that Jacob Young as the player he recruited out of high school. With 29 points on 11-of-17 shooting and six makes on seven three-point attempts, Young showed what can happen when his indomitable confidence and skill level fully translate to the court in a game.
In the previous game against Iowa State and the season’s final game against Nevada, however, Young only hit 2-of-13 attempts from three-point range.
That’s the Jacob Young experience in a nutshell.
Still, when Young wasn’t contributing much and was benched for three of four games in conference play (he fouled Texas Tech’s Keenan Evans on a three-point attempt when Texas was up by four with less than a minute remaining), legitimate questions circulated about his upside at Texas and whether Smart and his staff missed their evaluation on the state’s ninth best player in the 2016 recruiting class.
Young vindicated Smart and proved those doubters wrong down the stretch and will now have to continue finding that delicate balance between successfully aggressive and confident play and unsuccessful, sometimes out of control decisions.
Sophomore guard Jase Febres
Flashes. A 13-point debut. Eighteen points against Baylor in the first half. Twelve points against Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament.
Largely a catch-and-shoot player who took almost 80 percent of his field-goal attempts from beyond the arc and only attempted eight free throws, Febres didn’t show a particularly diverse game as a freshman.
Nor did he consistently deliver on his one trick, hitting only 30 percent from three-point range. Off the bounce, he often looked uncertain and mostly failed to show any ability driving to the basket.
At 6’5, he has good length defensively and provided some positive moments taking charges and rebounding.
Called one of the best pure shooters that Smart has ever coached, Febres needs to show the ability in games that he demonstrates in practice and in warmups. The statistics show that experience consistently helps in that regard.
Hard work and maturity can help him earn that sharpshooter label, but is his upside merely as a three-point shooting specialist? There’s some definite hope for what he can become defensively, but there weren’t really any positive signs for him as a penetrator during his freshman season.
The question marks
Junior center James Banks III
When Smart signed the 6’10, 240-pounder as a member of the 2016 recruiting class, he probably never anticipated that he’d land Mo Bamba in the subsequent class. As a result, Banks only played in 14 games and played only 97 minutes as a sophomore compared to 397 minutes as a freshman.
The issues moving forward are that Banks still doesn’t have any offensive skills to speak of and saw his free-throw shooting drop from 60 percent to under 40 percent, though the sample sizes were limited in each season. Based on assistant coach Darrin Horn’s track record of developing big men, if Banks isn’t getting better, it’s probably on Banks in terms of effort or ability.
And, in fact, Smart noted during the season that Banks wasn’t receiving playing time because he wasn’t earning it in practice. At this point, his career at Texas looks to be at a crossroads.
Sophomore forward Royce Hamm Jr.
In 90 minutes over 17 games, Hamm never really showed the skills that made him a top-100 player in the 2017 class, especially on the offensive end. He only made 2-of-11 shots, 7-of-15 free throws, and had a turnover rate of nearly 33 percent.
Coming out of high school, he was known as a guy who could finish on the break and shoot some, from the mid range out to the three-point line. None of that was apparent, so it’s difficult to project whether he can become a contributor next season without seeing what he did in practice.
Senior guard Kerwin Roach II
In the early part of the season, Roach played through a broken left hand that clearly impacted his shot. Once he returned, he still had some moments of inconsistency shooting, but improved significantly and turned in some truly impressive performances. With Jones and then Davis out, Roach became a player that Smart depended on to make plays off the bounce in critical situations.
Against Oklahoma State, for instance, Roach delivered with a game-winning shot to secure a much-needed victory.
However, Roach now has a decision to make about his professional future.
Senior guard Eric Davis Jr.
After battling through a handful of nagging injuries early in the season, Davis was largely able to pull out of his horrendous sophomore slump. However, he remained inconsistent, with a remarkably odd split between his guarded and unguarded jump shots — he was much better when defended.
Still, he didn’t turn the ball over much and had the team’s third-highest offensive rating.
And then he was implicated in the ASM Sports agency scandal for allegedly accepting $1,500 in improper benefits. Texas promptly withheld him from competition and it’s not yet clear what type of suspension who could face next season or even whether he’ll opt to stay in the program.
Junior guard Andrew Jones
A few weeks ago, it seemed improper to even speculate about whether Jones would be able to return to the court at some point, but his recovery so far has been remarkable. He’s said that he’s gaining weight and was recently allowed to return home to Irving and continue his leukemia treatment in Houston on an out-patient basis.
On Saturday, he returned to Austin for the first time to watch the women’s basketball team win its first-round NCAA tournament game. Jones has even been able to shoot and dribble some and is intent on returning.
Right now, there’s no way of knowing whether he’ll be able to play next season and if he’d still be the same player if he can return. Until the doctors can definitively say that his leukemia is in remission, the idea of playing basketball will remain secondary, even if the desire to do so is a driving factor aiding Jones in his recovery — his health will always be the most important thing.
Sophomore forward Mo Bamba
Would be a pretty amazing thing, wouldn’t it? Just wanted to try that out. Thanks for everything this season, big guy, and good luck in the Association.
Texas has spent the last two seasons as one of the most inexperienced teams in the country, then dealt with significant adversity this season. Adding Long will help, as well as the team’s returning core getting a year older. Battling through everything the team had to face this season made it more mentally tough in addition to providing more experience for the entire guard corps and Sims.
Looking forward, the upside of the team will depend significantly on some currently unknown factors. Will Davis Jr. depart or sit out for some portion of the season as a result of the alleged improper payments? Will Jones be able to play, and if so, to what extent will he be the same player? Will Roach return?
The odds of having two of those players next season are probably less than even. In an ideal situation, all three would be back, with Davis missing a few games and Jones recovering most or all of his athleticism. In the less ideal scenarios, the expectations for the upcoming season will have to decrease, especially if Roach leaves and Jones doesn’t return.
The coming months will add some more perspective regarding next season’s legitimate expectations.
Stay tuned for a look at the incoming signees.