Dear Texas Football Fan:
As you are well aware, the Texas football season is now over, reaching its conclusion in Waco last Saturday. The end of this disappointing season may have left an empty feeling inside of you, and now you may be considering filling this place in your heart with basketball.
First off, you absolutely should do this. Basketball is a wonderful game. I say this as an otherwise well adjusted 39 year old who retains one weird obsession from his childhood for this maddening and frustrating (and incredible) game. (And obsession is the only word to describe the sorts of things I do.)
I grew up with the game. I have loved hoops for as long as I remember, and I was blessed with the genetics to play the game myself. I started playing the seriously when I was ten, and by the time I was a six foot tall 12-year-old playing and watching basketball consumed a tremendous amount of my time.
But you don't need a lifetime of obsession, or to have spent thousands of hours in your youth in the solitary pursuit of refining your shooting form and learning Jack Sikma''s low post moves to enjoy this game. Basketball is simple and approachable; you put the damn ball through the damn hoop more than your opponent, and you go home a winner. That is all you need to know.
With a new coach and a lot of new excitement, now may be the perfect time to dive in. However, for the longtime Texas football fan who is a hoops novice, I have to warn you about a few things. These characteristics make the sport quite different from college football, and if they bother you, I suspect you will find your basketball experience unsatisfying.
The competitive landscape
The distribution of talent and success in college basketball is rather different from football. It turns out that it is possible for a small number of schools to take in a disproportionately high percentage of the top high school recruits each year. Right now, these programs are Kentucky and Duke, although North Carolina and Kansas also take their share as well.
These programs have large institutional advantages against the rest of college basketball. These advantages have little to do with geography or the proximity to top players, but rather have to do with a history that has produced massive fan bases and a tremendous amount of media exposure. These schools have the most famous and highly paid coaches, and they tend to attract the best players.
For an example of how a program's history plays into creating a long term advantage, consider Kansas. Kansas is a top basketball program largely because of a tradition that is more than a century old. The first coach at Kansas (James Naismith) literally invented the sport, and a legacy of great Kansas coaches dates back to Naismith protege Phog Allen -- one of the sports most influential figures -- who took over the Jayhawk program in 1919. After playing for Allen at Kansas, Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith would go on to establish comparable programs at Kentucky and North Carolina.
But fear not, because while these top programs can concentrate a tremendous amount of talent by taking advantage of their seemingly overwhelming institutional advantages, there is something to level the playing field. This is the so called "one-and-done" rule.
One and done
For many years, it was rare for players to jump to the NBA before their junior or senior years of college. Up through the 1960s, the NBA would not allow players who were less than four years removed from high school, meaning most NBA players would play after using up their college eligibility. But a 1971 Supreme Court case changed that, and the NBA started allowing underclassmen to join the league.
While a handful of high school players jumped straight to the professional ranks over the intervening decades, it was in 1995 when Kevin Garnett, a skinny kid from South Carolina who had spent his last year of high school in Chicago, opened the floodgates by jumping straight from high school to the NBA. A year later, Kobe Bryant, the son of a professional basketball player, would pass on an opportunity to play at Duke and along with Jermaine O'Neal would join Garnett in the NBA.
From this point on, a number of top prospects would make the jump straight to the NBA from high school each season. This continued until the collective bargaining agreement of 2005, which set a minimum age to enter the NBA draft. The result of this is that now most high school seniors need to find something else to do for a year before declaring, and that "something else" is usually NCAA basketball.
But in a way, the one and done levels the playing field. Dean Smith used to load his roster with future All-Americans and NBA stars who would have to come off the bench for a season or two before entering the starting lineup. This doesn't happen now, as no one can stockpile talent like Smith did. (Seriously, check out North Carolina's roster in 1982.)
There is a dichotomy in the college game. Duke and Kentucky in recent seasons have featured loaded teams of talented teenagers, while the rest of college basketball competes with these programs using a mix of freshman and older players. From a competitive balance standpoint, this kind of works.
Basketball is sort of a funny game, in that it only takes a couple of really good players to have an outstanding team. A great offensive player has such a distorting effect on a defense that it makes things easier for everyone else, and a dominant defensive big man can shut down an opposing offense in much the same way as a great pitcher -- with the advantage that the big man plays every game.
When individual players are able to influence the game so much, the barrier to entry for smaller programs becomes lower than in college football, where you need to acquire and develop a roster full of players to be nationally relevant.
Most of the time, the best players end up in power conferences, but not all the time. As a result, a lot of teams that reside outside of the power conferences are also good -- in many cases far better than the supposed "majors." The two top national player of the year candidates this season play for Providence (Kris Dunn) and Gonzaga (Kyle Wiltjer). The reigning NBA MVP who has this year appeared to have completely rewired the circuitry of the game went to Davidson (where he was amazing), and when Brad Stevens took Butler to its first national championship game in 2010, the Bulldogs had better future NBA players than the Duke team they lost to.
Low barriers to entry makes it entirely possible for a small Jesuit college to build a powerful program capable of competing head to head with large state universities. This season, one of those Jesuit schools is Xavier, which has been to four out of the last seven Sweet Sixteens, and this season has already beaten Michigan in Ann Arbor by 16 points. Villanova, another small Catholic school (although not Jesuit) is currently ranked even higher than Xavier in the polls. You may think this is weird, but it is always the way this sport has worked.
The college basketball season is long
The short season of college football imparts every game with cosmic significance. This is not the case with college basketball, where teams play around 30 regular season games before starting into a multi-game post season. (Last season national finalist Wisconsin played 40 games between the regular season, the Big Ten tournament, and the NCAA tournament.) It takes about four and a half months to play from the start of the non-conference season to the end of the Final Four. Most teams will go thorough many ups and downs over the course of such a long season.
Because of this, if every loss triggers a personal existential crisis for you, following basketball is going to be a rather unpleasant ride. With so many games, there will be nights were the team is lethargic, or when shots don't fall, or when an opponent hits 12 three pointers. There will be a stretch in January or February where Texas will lose several games in a row.
I like to think of the college basketball season as consisting of four distinct stages. We are now in the first stage, the non-conference season. This is a period where Texas plays a mix of teams that will range in quality -- just in this week the Longhorns will play both UTSA (a team that is likely in the bottom 50 of the 351 D-I schools) and North Carolina, a top ten team that held the number one ranking in the AP preseason poll.
The non-conference season will take us to the new year, when Texas will start its annual two month run of conference play.
After the end of the Big 12 season, all the teams of the conference spend a few days in Kansas City playing in the Big 12 tournament. The Longhorns haven't historically done very well in this event, in part because these games are effectively road games for Texas. Kansas and Iowa State fans, in particular, will pack the arena in Kansas City. If the Longhorns are on the NCAA tournament bubble, the Big 12 tournament serves as a chance to pick up another key win.
And finally, the season progresses to the NCAA tournament, the greatest event in American sports.
Texas basketball has a new coach
You have surely heard that Texas has a new basketball coach. First year head coach Shaka Smart had tremendous success in six seasons at Virginia Commonwealth University, going 163-56, making five NCAA tournaments, and reaching the 2011 Final Four.
While the coaches are the biggest names in college basketball (and this is mostly because the players come and go in college sports), basketball is fundamentally a player's game. Certainly the right coaching strategies, and the proper execution of these concepts, help, and teaching and player development are critical. But so much of basketball happens on the fly. Try as they might, coaches cannot micromanage a basketball game in the way that football coaches pull the strings from the sideline. If your players play better than the other team's do, that is usually enough.
Smart has been known for a particular system of full court pressure defenses. Through the first part of the 2015-2016 basketball season, it appears that Smart's system is only partly implemented with this first Texas team. In particular, the highly effective man-to-man press that VCU deployed on roughly two out of three defensive possessions in recent seasons doesn't appear on the menu of options.
It is important to note that it took Smart several years to implement his full defense at VCU, and his Final Four team in season two did not press and defend nearly as well as some of his later teams. The transition from Rick Barnes' tough half court oriented defensive style to Smart's 94 foot defense will take some time.
If you have the view that changing coaches should bring about an immediate transformation, and that Texas should immediately start contending again for Big 12 and NCAA titles, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment.
Texas is deep, with a lot of experience and some intriguing young players, but lacks a top tier star
One good thing for Shaka Smart is that he inherits a pretty good team; this is not a total rebuild. Rick Barnes didn't get fired because his teams were bad, but because they were no longer good enough for Texas fans.
The Texas Longhorns feature five seniors and three juniors in the rotation. All five Texas seniors have been multi-year contributors to the team, and all can play. Through the early season, Cameron Ridley, Connor Lammert, and Javan Felix have been playing well, and along with junior Isaiah Taylor have been doing most of the heavy lifting for coach Smart.
The Texas Longhorns also feature a really strong freshman class. Smart was able to retain two Rick Barnes' recruits: Eric Davis and Kerwin Roach, as well as switching Tevin Mack's commitment from VCU to Texas.
Through the early part of the season, Davis has played the best, and is likely to emerge over the course of the season as one of the Longhorns most reliable offensive performers. Roach hasn't been as effective offensively yet, but he is already perhaps Texas' best perimeter defender, and has made some truly spectacular plays. The phrase "elite athleticism" gets overused in sports, and this overuse has devalued it to the point where it really doesn't sufficiently describe what Roach is capable of. So just check out the examples below.
Them boys up to something they just not just bluffing pic.twitter.com/SRYjH9Ca9x— K2 (@KLR_doce) September 30, 2015
The third freshman, Tevin Mack, is the prototypical Shaka Smart recruit: tall, athletic, skilled, and a good shooter. So far, Mack has really struggled, particularly with his shot. He is rushing things and is still adjusting to the college game. Give him some time.
While Texas has plenty of quality basketball players and solid depth, the Longhorns lack the top level talent of the best teams in the Big 12. When Kansas needs a basket, it can look to Perry Ellis. Iowa State has Georges Niang and Oklahoma has Buddy Hield. The Texas Longhorns don't have a top tier scoring option that is at the level of any of these players -- when push comes to shove Smart will end up riding with Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix.
Texas plays a strong non-conference schedule
The Longhorns get some fun games during the non-conference season. I have previously looked at the slate of opponents, and with several good games in the next few weeks, will reproduce some of that previous piece here:
12/12/15 -- North Carolina (Austin): Guard Marcus Paige is Carolina's best player, but this is a deep and talented group. Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, and Justin Jackson make up one of the nation's best front courts, and coach Roy Williams seemingly has an endless number of guys who can kill you.
12/19/15 -- Stanford (Palo Alto, CA): Texas' only true non-conference road game will be a trip to play Stanford. The Longhorns will be looking to avenge an overtime loss from last season.
This season's Stanford team is probably not as good as last year, after losing the top three players off of last season's postseason NIT championship team. But this is still a true road game against a major conference opponent, meaning it won't be an easy contest.
12/29/2015 -- Connecticut (Austin): Old friend Sterling Gibbs makes his return to Austin. Do you remember Sterling Gibbs? Because I sure do.
Gibbs originally signed to attend Maryland, but enrolled as a freshman at Texas after Maryland coach Gary Williams retired and the school released Gibbs from his LOI. Gibbs showed some potential as a freshman, but he was buried on the bench behind a logjam of perimeter players, and transferred after the season to play closer to home at Seton Hall. (Had he stuck around, there would have been plenty of playing time for him, but no one has a crystal ball.)
After murdering the Big East for two seasons, Gibbs graduated and has again transferred. And now he is at UConn.
The Big 12 is murder, and Texas is likely to finish in the middle of the pack
It is difficult to overstate just how good the Big 12 is this season. Kansas has shared or won outright the league title for 11 consecutive years, and 13 out of the last 14 seasons. This doesn't look like the season where Kansas' streak will end, as this is probably the best Jayhawk team we have seen since Bill Self's squad went to the 2012 Final Four. Additionally, Iowa State and Oklahoma both started the season in the AP preseason top 10, and both are led by All-American candidates. Baylor and West Virginia also look to be good.
But it is more than the top of the league that turns Big 12 conference play into a total meat grinder. The Big 12 seemingly has no bad teams. TCU, Kansas State, and Texas Tech were picked this year to finish near the bottom of the conference, but when we measure these schools against the rest of Division I basketball, all are fairly good. This league doesn't provide anyone with many easy wins, and with a true round robin format, you have to play everyone twice.
It is reasonable right now to expect that Texas will finish with something approaching a .500 record during the conference season.
All that regular season stuff is great, but how will Texas do in the NCAA tournament?
After appearing in 24 out of the last 27 NCAA tournaments, Texas fans reasonably look forward to March each and every year.
Texas coach Rick Barnes wasn't let go for the performance of his teams during December, but because the Longhorns hadn't make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2008. With a new coach, one might reasonably hope that the Longhorns will do better in the season's final event.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First, Texas has to make the NCAA tournament, and through the first part of the season, the Longhorns haven't played like an NCAA tournament team.
I want to be very clear on this point: the Texas Longhorns will need to improve substantially between now and January to earn a bid on Selection Sunday. The level of play we have watched over the last few weeks won't get it done -- it is frankly not even close to getting it done. I am not ready to start talking about how the Horns might fare in a single elimination post season tournament that I am not yet convinced they will even make.
But significant improvement is possible, because the talent is there and there is still plenty of time. While Texas isn't as talented as the top teams in the Big 12, it does have the talent to build a reasonable NCAA tournament resume. The team just has to start playing better.
So, are you ready to dive into basketball?
If you are, now is the perfect time. Texas plays twice a week, and the college basketball schedule serves up interesting and entertaining games virtually every night.
And what else are you going to watch?