In head coach Shaka Smart’s sixth season with the Texas Longhorns, his No. 19-ranked team finally looked like the version of Texas basketball promised by Smart’s Havoc style of play with the VCU Rams.
Wednesday’s 91-55 victory over the UTRGV Vaqueros at the Erwin Center marked one of the biggest blowouts of the Smart era, but more importantly, it featured an athletic and experienced team that worked to take advantage of those areas of strength by using more full-court pressure and getting out in transition.
Texas outscored UTRGV on the fast break 16-9, registered 36 points in the paint against 17 three-point attempts, and scored efficiently overall, hitting 57 percent from the field. The blemishes were 18 turnovers, including five by freshman forward Greg Brown III in his debut, 15 offensive rebounds allowed to the Vaqueros, and 24 fouls committed.
After the game, Smart said that he was happy with the effort that Texas made on defensive rotations, but after those rotations happened, the box outs weren’t there to secure the rebound.
“It has to start with defense. It has to start with intensity and aggressiveness on that end of the floor,” Smart said. “I thought we had that on and off tonight — it certainly was not 40 minutes worth. So it’s an area where we need to get much more consistent.”
The Horns were able to frustrate the best opposing player, as Vaqueros senior point guard Javon Levi only scored two points on 0-for-7 shooting and didn’t have a single assist after averaging 7.9 per game last season. Overall, Texas held UTRGV to 26.1-percent shooting from the field and 19-percent shooting from beyond the arc.
With junior guard Andrew Jones held out as a precaution due to a pregame cough that he developed after shootaround, junior guard Courtney Ramey and senior guard Matt Coleman led the way. Ramey scored 20 points on only 11 shots, while adding six assists and five rebounds in a solid debut following a disappointing sophomore season, although he did commit four turnovers. Coleman scored 17 points with five assists of his own.
“I thought Courtney and Matt did a nice job of leading and neither one of them necessarily played a flawless game, but they made a lot of really good plays for us,” Smart said. “They also did a heck of a job defensively on Javon Levi — he’s a really good player.”
In the first half, sophomore forward Kai Jones was the standout, getting out in transition for dunks and finishing the game with 14 points on 6-of-6 shooting.
“In my mind, running the floor opens up the floor for everyone else — the shooters and the drivers,” Jones said.
Smart praised Jones for buying into taking the right shots and getting into the paint. So even though Jones shows some promise as a three-point shooter, he also hit less than 30 percent last season. So the sophomore debut for Jones demonstrated growth in revealing the type of efficiency that he can produce if he does focus on running the court and scoring around the rim.
After playing at a glacial pace under Smart and failing to implement the type of full-court pressure that vaulted VCU to its surprise Final Four run, Texas showed signs of using that style of play, extending its defensive pressure into the backcourt and allowing forwards like Jones and Brown to handle the ball in transition.
The early returns were mixed — Texas wasn’t able to force a turnover by the under-16 timeout nor were the Longhorns able to score points in transition. In fact, the UTRGV defense was arguably more effective during that stretch in forcing three turnovers.
However, that changed quickly after the television timeout as the Horns started to provide a vision of what this team might look like this season. Junior forward Gerald Liddell, who has been playing point guard in practice when Smart puts the three lead guards together on the other team, pulled down a rebound and pushed the ball in transition. Instead of settling for a pass to a guard, he looked ahead to Jones, who finished through contact and made his free throw for the And 1. Then Jones finished again in transition with a two-handed slam that forced a timeout by UTRGV.
Hope you like some JAM with your stuffing.— Longhorn Network (@LonghornNetwork) November 26, 2020
- Kai Jones, probably. pic.twitter.com/dUNzOThcl5
Later in the half, Jones flushed alley oops from Liddell and Ramey. The Ramey-to-Jones connection is one that Smart said has been consistent and effective through preseason practice.
“It’s just easy when you can throw the ball up to the rim and we’ve got four people that can jump with their elbows above the rim,” Ramey said. “It makes it a lot easier for us.”
Liddell helped out with that playmaking, recording three assists and scoring 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting, including two made three-pointers. Smart considers those contributions from beyond the arc a bonus, but it is an area of the game that Liddell has focused on during the offseason. In high school, Liddell was known as a smooth, low-key scorer, but Smart is asking him to develop into a different type of player at Texas.
“What we need Gerald to do is to be a hard-rockin’ dude out there on the floor playing extremely hard and aggressive to get his hands on the basketball,” Smart said. “There was one defensive possession where he got a couple deflections in the same possession that led to a steal for us. That’s what we need from him.”
There were flashes of more aggressiveness and motor from Liddell offensively, too, including a put-back bucket after a drive.
Speaking of aggressiveness, Brown caught his first body in burnt orange and white early in the second half.
It’s simply part of Brown’s makeup as a basketball player to attempt those types of dunks and UTRGV’s Uche Dibiamaka chose not to make a business decision by getting out of Brown’s way. At Texas practice, it often works a different way, at least with Ramey.
“Yeah, I’ve been trying to stay out of the way of him killing people,” Ramey admitted after the game.
Brown struggled in his debut with those five turnovers and only hit 2-of-9 shot attempts, but Smart noted that it was remarkable Brown could struggle and still produce 11 points and 10 rebounds, the first double-double of his Texas career in the first game of his Texas career. For a team that struggled to get to the free-throw line last season, Brown’s aggressiveness in creating nine free-throw attempts, of which he hit seven, was an important development.
On defense, Brown showed flashes of being impact defender, but he’s also continuing to work on doing the little things right, like getting into a defensive stance so that he’s not surprised by whatever move an offensive player attempts to make. And compared to a vocal teammate like junior forward Kamaka Hepa, Brown still has to learn to communicate more frequently and more effectively on defense.
“I think he was really nervous coming to the game because he wanted to play really well,” Smart said. “He did some good things, but there’s a ton of stuff to take from the tape that we can improve on.”
The same sentiment applies to the rest of the Texas team as it prepares to head to Asheville next week for the Maui Invitational, but Wednesday’s performance was an important step towards becoming the type of team that Smart was supposed to produce when he was hired in 2015.