With the freshman class now on campus and going through fours hours of workouts per week with the Texas Longhorns coaching staff, Shaka Smart and his assistants are developing points of emphasis for the 2018-19 season.
Last Wednesday, Smart revealed that skill development is currently taking center stage after Texas shot only 32 percent from three-point range and 66.5 percent from the free-throw line. Those are the two primary areas of focus as Smart reduces the amount of live play in practice to keep players from feeling like they practice the entire year, though the staff have done some implementation on offense and defense.
Two players expected to lead the way for the guard corps are Kerwin Roach II and Matt Coleman. For the Longhorns to shoot better as a team, both of those players need to take steps forward in that area and in others.
“Coleman and Roach have been really good,” Smart said. “Snoop has taken another step with his shooting, which has been impressive. Matt has done a really good job as a leader. We just want to keep those guys developing.”
Roach already showed development at the end of last season — in the last 17 games, he hit 40.6 percent of his long-distance attempts. If he can match that number this season, it would mark significant improvement from where he was early last season.
And it could help Roach become the team’s leading scorer. Smart pointed out that Roach can make so much happen in transition and off the bounce that by adding a more consistent shooting stroke at the rate he hit last season, he can become a prolific scorer.
There’s be some help arriving, too, as Smart said that guard Courtney Ramey, the final addition to the 2018 recruiting class, has shot the ball well in workouts — as good or better than the rest of the guards, in fact. The Missouri native is going through an adjustment period as he works on learning the game, but Ramey’s work ethic has already caught the attention of his coach by showing up at 45 minutes early to a 6:45 a.m. guard workout.
With the addition of transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long, who played a big role in helping Mount St. Mary’s to an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2017, the Horns should have a talented and experienced guard corps.
“I told those guys it’s been a while since Texas has had a backcourt that people would consider one of the elite backcourts in the Big 12,” Smart said. “I said this is a year if we do our jobs, that can be a reality. That’s what we’re working towards.”
That group could also include Andrew Jones, who is staying in a dorm this summer while continuing to undergo out-patient treatment at MD Anderson in Houston. Smart said that Jones is gaining weight again while working on his game in between treatments. Most importantly, the Longhorns head coach noted that he’s been responding well to his treatments and is finally smiling again.
As much as the team needs to become more efficient shooting the ball in general, the frontcourt has focused on different areas since the season ended.
Last season, forward Dylan Osetkowski came under criticism by fans because it appeared that he was carrying extra weight, which caused him to get fatigued at times as he played nearly 85 percent of the minutes for Texas. So a major hope of many during the offseason was that Osetkowski would commit himself to a high level of conditioning.
“It’s a huge point of emphasis,” Smart said. “He’s in really good shape. He’s worked his butt off since April when we got back going after the season.”
In fact, Smart said that Osetkowski has lost about 20 pounds during that time.
“The key, obviously, is getting in better, better shape and staying in that kind of shape during the course of the season. As I’ve always tried to communicate to him, I think it’s a combination of mind, body, everything together. His work ethic has been terrific. The way that he’s been disciplined with his diet. The way he’s treated his body has been really good.”
The fatigue caused by Osetkowski’s extra weight likely contributed to him shooting less than 29 percent from three-point range last season and hurt his lateral quickness on defense. Osetkowski is far from the best athlete, so maximizing his jumping and movement abilities, as well as increasing his conditioning, should help him significantly as a senior.
For fellow forward Jericho Sims, Smart wants to see his bouncy sophomore build off of his early dunk against West Virginia and overall play when Mo Bamba missed time due to a toe injury.
“That dunk that he had early in that game made everyone in the building believe that not just Jericho, but his teammates — everyone — could step forward in a game where we were a little short handed and win that game,” Smart said.
Texas won that game in overtime over No. 20-ranked West Virginia, a major late-season victory that ultimately helped cement an NCAA Tournament bid. Sims had 17 points and eight rebounds that game as he hit 6-of-7 shots and made 5-of-8 free throws.
“The thing that’s exciting about Jericho is that last year, in a lot of ways, he was our third big... this year with Mo moving on, he’ll have a chance at much more opportunity, if he grabs hold of it,” Smart said.
The hope is that Sims can approximate the 12 points and nine rebounds that he averaged last season when Bamba went out — “we’d take that for sure,” Smart said.
With the soft-spoken Sims, it’s often about how much he feels that the team needs him. When Smart pressed Sims about why he was so aggressive when Bamba was out, that was his response about why he elevated his level of play so significantly. Smart told him that the team always needs him and believes that Sims now understands that fully.
In terms of skill development, Sims is one of the players on the team with the most upside, but also a lot of development left to consistently impact games like he did against the Mountaineers as he becomes more of a focal point for defenses.
In the freshman class, Smart said the ability level of wing Gerald Liddell has been a “pleasant surprise,” but wants to see how he responds to adversity. Likewise, the other wing in the class, Brock Cunningham, also has some skill, yet the question for both of them is much like the question for the rest of the team — can they make shots?
Along with Ramey, the freshmen as a whole received praise from Smart for their receptivity with coaches and older players. Still, Smart and his staff have already talked with the incoming recruits about managing expectations internally, in part by focusing on getting better and helping the team, rather than the mindset adopted by Jarrett Allen and Mo Bamba in previous roles. Both knew they were expected to be the team’s best player as soon as they stepped foot on campus.
So, for as much as Smart relished coaching some of the most talented big men in the country, he’s ready to coach a more experienced team.
“I’m excited about the fact that this is our first year in a few years where are our best player isn’t a freshman big,” Smart said. “I’d love to have a Jarrett, I’d love to have a Mo, any year, but when you have a year where you have a few more guys who have little bit more experience and level understanding what it’s gonna take. Especially earlier in the season, and then later in the season when you hit that wall, ‘Okay, in the high school season we’d be done, but we have another month.’
“That’s something I’m really excited about. Big different not having a freshman point guard — we have that in Courtney, but we also have some older guards that we can play that position by committee and those guys can help each other.”
In addition to working on skill development to ensure that the playmaking in the guard corps leads to high-percentage looks from three-point range, the Horns are also focusing on the components of offense, as Smart put it. All the little things that go into getting good looks.
While the Longhorns are still months away from even holding an official practice to start the 2018-19 basketball, the summer workouts, aided by the increase in allotted time, are important to grow in all the areas necessary to ensure that last season’s close losses starting turning into wins for Smart and his team.
“I think for us as a team, focusing this summer, a lot of our attention, on what we call a low-hanging fruit, particularly on the offensive end that we can improve on, that is the better way to approach pressure. When you apply pressure on something that you know you can go do, you just have to have a disciplined approached, and you have to be committed as a group to the same, that to me is a good thing.
“That creates the results, but no question, we think we can take a real step this year. Obviously, in a lot of cases, when teams do take a step, part of that of is having a level of good fortune, and certain things going your way. In terms of things we can control, absolutely. That’s where our emphasis is.”