AUSTIN, Texas — The extremely unusual case of Rodney Terry successfully completing an on-job interview that lasted nearly three and a half months produced an unusual introductory press conference on Monday, as much about the devotion of the current players to the Texas Longhorns program’s new head coach as the program’s future.
The speed with which Terry’s contract was negotiated and signed less than 24 hours after Texas lost in the Elite Eight to Miami kept the former interim head coach from having the time to process the season and the team from having the time to process it, too.
As the team took pictures following the press conference, guard Sir’Jabari Rice, whose collegiate career ended on Sunday, looked like he still wanted another shot at the Hurricanes. Understandable.
All that to provide some perspective on Terry’s answer to guard Brock Cunningham asking him about the first thing he planned to do as head coach.
“First thing I’m gonna do is that I really want to sit down with our team — we hadn’t had a chance to talk,” Terry said. “We kinda gave you guys a farewell deal that night, we talked about the season, but I hadn’t had a chance to talk to you guys these last two days being back, we hadn’t had a chance to really sit down and visit about the year and tell you guys how much I appreciate you guys in the way you stayed the course and worked this season and that’s the first thing I’d like to do is express my gratitude for what you guys did this season.”
From a more practical standpoint looking towards the future, Terry also needs to conduct exit interviews with players that have remaining eligibility and sit down with his coaching staff to discuss their future plans.
Terry credited the experienced group of assistants for helping keep the team together in the wake of Beard’s arrest.
“Our staff, I’m telling you from day one that we faced adversity in the challenge that we did, we already had great chemistry, but from that point on, we banded together like no other in terms of a band of brothers in really wanting to try to help these guys be as successful as they can be this season and they did an incredible, incredible job,” Terry said.
Retaining as much of the staff is a priority for Terry given the group’s chemistry and results this season. Keeping program director Chris Odgen shouldn’t be difficult — the former Texas player already left his head coaching job at UT Arlington to return to the Forty Acres. And with Chris Beard seemingly close to completing the hires of the three on-bench assistants, Brandon Chappell, Steve McClain, and Bob Donewald could all return to Terry’s bench, but the future of strength and conditioning coach John Reilly may be more questionable given his ties to Beard, but he did also previously spend a year at Texas under Jeff Madden and Bennie Wylie.
With the NCAA transfer portal and the one-time waiver, roster management is more complex than ever in college sports beyond the players who are out of remaining eligibility — Rice, guard Marcus Carr, forward Timmy Allen, and forward Christian Bishop.
“In terms of our roster, every year I think in college athletics, not just in college basketball, but in every sport, you’re going to have roster management where you have to go in and really work your roster,” Terry said.
“You start by trying to work with the players that are currently in your program and at times you’re gonna have to re-recruit guys to come back and want to be a part of what you’re doing; hopefully continue to make them feel like they have a great opportunity to continue to get where they want to get to in their careers moving forward. So you start with those guys there and you sit down and you evaluate where you’re at.”
The player with arguably the biggest decision to make is forward Dylan Disu, who could opt to return for a fifth season of college basketball. Disu explored the NBA Draft process last season before news of his return to Texas broke in late May. In five postseason games this year, the Pflugerville product was a breakout star for the Longhorns, averaging 17.8 points on 39-of-54 shooting (72.2 percent) and nine rebounds per game while adding seven steals, earning Most Outstanding Player in the Big 12 Tournament during that stretch.
But the severity of the left foot bone bruise that Disu suffered prior to the second-round matchup against Penn State could impact the pre-draft process for him — he was officially listed as day to day by the school, but some bone bruises can linger a month or two.
Disu’s decision will be the most consequential of the offseason for the Horns given how he finished the season with his massive impact and surging flotation station shot to beat opponents on the short roll — it’s not an overstatement to say it will go further to establishing the team’s upside than any other.
Guard Brock Cunningham has already announced his plans to come back for a sixth season on the Forty Acres to provide his signature brand of toughness defensively and on the glass while showcasing a three-point shot that has steadily improved over the years.
The expectation is surely that guard Tyrese Hunter will return for his junior season hoping for a more healthy and more consistent campaign to bolster his professional prospects.
One-time potential lottery pick Dillon Mitchell almost certainly needs to do the same — he was a good teammate, a hard worker, and flashed his athleticism on both ends, but was also exposed as needing much more refinement offensively as opponents often played off of him throughout the conference season. In a sign of Mitchell’s lack of progress with his shot, he was 40.5 percent from the free-throw line, didn’t attempt a three, and finished 7-of-32 shooting (21.9 percent) on what BartTorvik.com describes as far twos.
Legal issues that still remain pending for guard Arterio Morris could potentially impact the start of his sophomore season. Playing behind an experienced guard corps, Morris was erratic, struggling at times with his shot selection, but did play some effective basketball with Allen out during the Big 12 Tournament and still has major upside on both ends of the court.
Forward Alex Anemekwe played sparingly and may do so again next season with Cunningham returning and the addition of forward Ron Holland, a consensus five-star prospect ranked as the No. 6 player nationally, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Anemekwe was efficient in limited opportunities and has better length and athleticism than Cunningham, so his longterm developmental trajectory as a somewhat undersized wing with a high motor is on track by all public indications.
Guards Gavin Perryman, a three-point specialist at best, and Rowan Brumbaugh, a former Northwestern commit who redshirted this year, round out the roster. Brumbaugh is another longterm play who could provide some backup minutes at point guard in 2023-24.
Holland should step into the starting lineup in place of Allen and is known for his high motor on both ends of the court, but the hope is that he’ll bring a more developed offensive game than Mitchell with his improving pull-up game and ability off the bounce.
The other member of the 2023 class is California combo guard AJ Johnson, the nation’s No. 18 prospect. Johnson has a frame like Rice did upon his arrival from New Mexico State — he’s listed at 6’5 and 160 pounds, so adding strength will be an immediate priority. Johnson is a smooth player with strong handles and a good stroke who possesses an intriguing combination of upside and current skill set.
After Terry and the staff conduct exit interviews, they’ll hone in more sharply on the additions they need to make from the portal.
“From that point, you start trying to see what you need to add around those guys because they’re the nucleus — they’re gonna be the continuity of your program moving forward and they’ve got to really defend your culture in terms of what you’ve established in your standards that you’re going to have in your program. So that’s kind of the process, that’s kind of what we’ll work with.”
Texas has already made contact with several players in the portal, providing some indication of the needs — to get older at guard and add one or two frontcourt players, depending on the decision from Disu or another potential departure.
One-time target Kel’el Ware, a 7’0-footer who was a consensus five-star prospect in the 2022 transfer, has heard from Texas after leaving Oregon, as has Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year Reese Dixon-Waters, a guard who spent three seasons at USC. The Horns have contacted another guard, too, Washington State transfer TJ Bamba, also a big guard, albeit one with more production, having averaged 15.9 points for the Cougars as a junior.
Overall, retaining Terry ensured that the Longhorns have continuity on the coaching staff, should maintain the core group of players with remaining eligibility, and avoided defections from the two extremely-talented 2023 signees. With some effective work in the portal, Texas can fill remaining needs to field a team that will not be nearly as experienced, but should be more athletic while benefiting from the entrenched culture that Terry mentioned.
“The culture is here, I think that’s the ultimate thing,” former Texas standout TJ Ford said on Tuesday. “I think we’re back with the excitement and understanding. You’ve got to remember, we’re competing with our football team of having that excitement. Having that excitement every year for our basketball program? It makes all players want to play hard and want to come here. That’s what it’s about.”