For the first time in 258 days, college basketball games will be played. Shaka Smart and the Texas Longhorns begin their 2020-21 season at home tonight against UT-Rio Grande Valley.
Expectations are mounting for what’s undoubtedly Smart’s best roster at Texas to date. He finally has a group of veteran players that have peaked experience-wise. For the sake of Smart’s future as head coach, significant improvement and results are desperately needed this season.
Can this program finally establish themselves as a contender in a top-heavy Big 12 conference? What will the offensive identity be behind a senior point guard, a senior center and a five-star wing? And is Smart willing to mix in ‘Havoc’ half-court and full-court pressure to mesh with Texas’ offensive pace and depth?
STATE OF SHAKA AND THE PROGRAM
Entering his sixth season as Texas’ head coach, legitimate questions remain regarding Smart’s job security beyond this season. A 91-83 (52.3 win percentage) overall record sure isn’t going to cut it at most power conference basketball programs.
There’s a lot at-stake here besides the fact that Texas needs to greatly improve under Smart. With decisions looming surrounding the football program and Tom Herman’s job, that is another factor that could impact whether or not athletic director Chris Del Conte has to make a decision about Smart’s job at the end of the season.
Winning games on the hardwood sure can solve a lot.
KenPom has Texas as a preseason Top 10 team and Bart Torvik projects the nation’s most experienced roster as the No. 1 team in his preseason metrics. With expectations mounting at a national level from the wise guys, on top of what is already being treated as a now-or-never type of season for Smart, the window is closing in on his time as the Longhorns head coach. He’s still yet to win a NCAA Tournament game. And while it all starts with winning your first, this team may need to go beyond winning a tournament game to extend Smart’s fate.
Without former assistant coaches Luke Yaklich and Jai Lucas on staff, the task at-hand for Smart and the rest of his coaching staff remains significant. Yaklich’s man-to-man defensive blueprint and tendencies remain throughout the roster, but his passion for defense and in-game coaching adjustments will be missed.
The addition of former SMU assistant coach K.T. Turner is a sign that Texas wants to play up-tempo offensively. Last year, Texas ranked No. 153 in adjusted offensive tempo. SMU was No. 28. Once players become acclimated with the level of play in games, why not attempt to push the pace more when Coleman can run the floor with options to kick out to shooters or lob to Brown and Sims around the rim? The Longhorns are at a luxury with depth, too. There’s nothing to lose by playing with some tempo.
You have to wonder if Smart has any plans to implement some kind of half-court and full-court pressure considering how deep this team is.
On paper, this roster depicts what-should-be the ideal mesh between experience, talent and depth for a Smart-coached team.
The kind of veteran experience he hasn’t had since his debut season at Texas coaching a roster full of Rick Barnes’ players. Texas will feature the most experienced roster in the Big 12, returning every scholarship player on a roster which boasts 678 career appearances and 344 starts.
This year’s team possesses length to remain a problem on defense and will be led by a senior point guard, a sensational five-star freshman talent and volume shooters at the offensive end.
Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey, Andrew Jones, Kai Jones, Greg Brown and Jericho Sims have all separated themselves in practice as the team’s six core players. Senior guard Jase Febres is still working his way back from a knee injury. He’s yet to be cleared for full-contact.
Smart on Febres’ injury, “He’s cleared for non-contact practice but he’s not yet at a point where he can cut, move and play with other players in a contact setting.”
Matt Coleman once again leads the charge on offense as the team’s floor-general. He’s coming off his best season as a scorer — 44.0 percent from the floor and 39.5 percent from three. If he improves upon those numbers and winds up shooting around 45-50 percent from, on top of averaging five or more assists, he’ll play himself into a Big 12 first-team honor as one of the conferences’ top guards.
Then there’s the transformed and now-muscular redshirt junior Andrew Jones, who had hip surgery in the offseason and added 10 pounds of muscle to his frame. He continues to be an inspiration for many on and off-the-court in his return to the game. It’s possible that Jones begins the next chapter of his comeback story as the team’s sixth-man off the bench, a role he played in 20 of Texas’ 31 games last season. His presence as a shooter and ball handler will be heavily felt alongside Coleman, as it was much-needed in Courtney Ramey’s offensive absence at times last year.
Incoming hometown five-star freshman Greg Brown headlines the wing position. He’ll either start at small forward or power forward. Listed as potential NBA lottery pick in next year’s draft class, Brown has all the skills and attributes required to succeed at the next level. From the moment he committed to Texas, it felt like a monumental win for Smart and the program. It’d be a shame if his talent was wasted in Austin.
In the frontcourt, senior Jericho Sims returns as the team’s best rebounder, shot blocker and main post option on offense. He was undoubtedly Texas’ most improved player last season. There were always questions about his physicality. He addressed those concerns by becoming more assertive on both the glass and offensive end, plus he added a soft hook shot and some post moves to his game. Another big season for Sims could leap himself onto NBA scouts’ draft boards.
Kai Jones has elevated his game to a level where he’s going to play significant minutes every game this season. He really emerged at the end of last season when Sims was out with an injury. Now up to 6’11” and 218 pounds, Jones has grown into the body of a big man and is versatile enough to stretch the floor as a wing. His jumper is still a work in progress but he has nearly every physical tool you could ask for at a long 6’11”. He was at 8.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per-40 minutes as a freshman.
For someone that didn’t start playing basketball until his junior year of high school, Kai’s ceiling as a player remains sky high.
Smart on the growth and potential of K. Jones, “He still has a ton of growth as a sophomore where he can continue to improve. His best basketball is way, way ahead of him. He didn’t play anything but the center position when he arrived.”
The length of Kai Jones, Brown and Sims will be daunting for opposing frontcourts. The combined wingspan between the three of them is 255.0 inches (7’1” average). To put this into greater perspective, the average NBA wingspan measurement at each position is as follows: 6’10 3/4” for small forwards, 7’0 1/2” for power forwards and 7’3 1/4” for centers.
To be one of the best, you have to be great at your most important position. It goes without saying, but college basketball teams are at their best when the play at the point guard position is being maximized. The same can be said about the quarterback position in football.
Led by point guard Cassius Winston, last year’s Michigan State Spartans basketball team serves as a prime example to back that claim. Despite playing like a bottom-tier Top 25 team for most of 2019-20, Winston’s leadership had the Spartans looking like a Final Four team by the end of the season. The chemistry between Winston and their best big man Xavier Tillman was difficult to stop.
Now, if only Texas managed to develop a reliable two-man game between Coleman and Brown or Sims that could somewhat resemble and produce similar results to what elite teams like Michigan State do. When the shooting isn’t on and it feels like there’s a lid over the basket, great teams find ways to win games through their defense and best players making winning plays.
There’s a lot to be determined across the Longhorns bench and not many minutes to go around, which isn’t necessarily a bad problem to have. That’s what happens when you have a stable roster.
Once Febres is cleared to return, there’s a good chance he comes off the bench primarily in an offensive role for his three-point shooting. Swapping his offense with Ramey’s defense works itself out. This way, depending on the situation of the game, Smart has options to work with.
The importance of Brock Cunningham’s role cannot be overstated. He’s type of player you can rely on to play with maximum effort for the short spurt he’s in there for. He’ll likely get under an opposing player’s skin, commit a foul or two and grab a few grown man rebounds.
As Kai Jones takes a step up in the rotation, plus the addition of Brown, minutes will be taken away from bench players like Cunningham, Will Baker, Donovan Williams, Kemaka Hepa, Royce Hamm and Gerald Liddell. So basically, about five or six bench players will be competing against each other for a few spots to earn anywhere from 0-15 minutes of playing time as the team’s No. 3, 4 or 5 option off the bench. It’ll be interesting to see who starts to separate themselves from the rest among those players.
Smart: “The reality for our team is there’s going to be players on our team that have made real progress that may or may not be seen in a given game. You don’t always have an opportunity to play 12-13 players.”
Things tend to work themselves out. The reality is one or two players will probably transfer out of the program when the season ends due to limited playing time. It happens at every program.
The reconfigured schedule Texas was dealt with isn’t a favorable one. 10 of the 25 scheduled games are against teams ranked within KenPom’s preseason Top 10. The first three Big 12 away games are at No. 2 Baylor, No. 6 Kansas and No. 15 West Virginia, in that order. Going .500 in conference games against Texas Tech, Baylor, Kansas and West Virginia would be a major success.
Jay Wright’s No. 3-ranked Villanova Wildcats and John Calipari’s No. 10-ranked Kentucky Wildcats headline the non-conference slate. Once again, both programs should be among the nation’s best this season. Villanova returns 76.1 percent of their scoring production from last season. Kentucky boasts another elite freshman class and has a couple immediate impact transfers on their roster.
Texas opens play at the Maui Invitational (in Asheville, NC) next Monday against a sneaky good Davidson Wildcats program, who has been one of the best offensive teams in college basketball over the years. They’re known for their notorious five-out motion offense, which can wear opposing defenses out through constant movement and cuts. Smart is familiar with Bob McKillop’s motion offense. He coached against him in the A-10 conference when he was at VCU.
There’s plenty of talent, experience and depth on this squad, the Longhorns just need to put it all together.
It’s safe to say it’s now or never for the Smart era in Austin. There’s reason to be optimistic about his chances to lead Texas to a successful campaign in 2020-21. Anything less than a Sweet 16 appearance will be considered a disappointing season.