Despite Rick Barnes’ 17-year tenure at the helm of the Texas Longhorns basketball program ending on a disappointing note with yet another early NCAA Tournament exit, he left he successor, Shaka Smart, with anything but a bare-bones roster. In his inaugural campaign at Texas, Smart will be blessed with a unit littered with veterans and plentiful size in the paint, which is an advantage very few, if any other major programs in college basketball can lay claim to. The only exception to last season’s repertoire down low of Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh, Connor Lammert and Myles Turner is Maryland transfer Shaquille Cleare will replace Turner, who jetted to the NBA after only one season. But with such a towering front line to work with in a season where all eyes will be on how he performs during his first stint as a major D-I program, how will Smart utilize the interior advantage the Longhorns have on nearly everyone?
This massive frontcourt, which will feature the 6’9", 285-pound Ridley, 6’10, 260-pound Ibeh, 6’9", 240-pound Lammert and the incoming 6’9", 265-pound Cleare, will unquestionably be one of largest in the nation next season. This is a size advantage that would make just about any coach in the country salivate over at the thought of getting to coach. Smart gets the tall task of trying to utilize these three seniors and a junior in his initial effort to turn Texas basketball around, but surprisingly enough, Smart has some experience with this abundance of size.
In only his second season as head coach of the VCU Rams, Smart had a frontcourt that was nearly identical in size to the one Texas currently boast, with 6’9" Jamie Skeen, 6’9" Juvonte Reddic, 6’9" David Hinton and 7’0" D.J. Haley. This also happened to be the same season in 2010-11 where Smart led his Rams on a miraculous run to the Final Four. But as usual, with any team Smart assembles himself, the frontcourt wasn’t the strength of this unit. Skeen led the way with 15.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in 31.9 minutes of action per night, but Reddic was only a freshman playing 11.2 minutes each game, while Haley and Hinton combined for 11.2 minutes per game between the two of them. The same size
situation arose for Smart in 2012-13, but this time around, Reddic played 27.9 minutes each game, while Justin Yuoyo, Haley and Hinton played three of the four fewest minutes on the team.
As for last season; Michael Gilmore and Antravious Simmons were the two biggest bodies on VCU’s roster at 6’9" a piece, and the two combined for a mere 9.3 minutes per game.
But the situation Smart will be faced with next season inside is far different from any he’s had at VCU. Yes, he’s had size and skill in the paint with guys like Reddic and Larry Sanders, but Smart has never had multiple miniature mammoths down low who are all deserving of minutes. As juniors, Ridley and Lammert both played more than 21 minutes per game, while Ibeh registered 10.6 after sharing time with Ridley and Turner.
When you look at the sheer size of Texas’ frontcourt next season and consider the type of player each of them are, it’s clear they’re not a match made in Heaven for Smart’s "havoc" style of coaching. Defensively, Smart likes to press, press and press some more from baseline to baseline, while on offense, it’s all about pushing the tempo and getting up quick shots and 3s in flurries. This isn’t the most ideal system for a team whose strength – when utilized properly – is their size and can serve as a distinct advantage throughout the season.
So with a roster that doesn’t fit perfectly with Texas’ new head coach’s scheme, how can we expect Smart to utilize this size advantage the Longhorns will have down low?
My best guess would be Smart meeting the players halfway to get the most of out their skill sets and the style of play he wants to implement. Clearly, the Longhorns’ big men aren’t cut out for consistent transition offense. The press defense won’t be as much of an issue, as the majority of that responsibility falls on the guard’s shoulders. But that doesn’t change that fact that forcing guys like the 285-pound Ridley to get up and down the court quickly would not only exhaust him, but limit his production, as well. The same can be said for Cleare and Ibeh, although, Ibeh’s athleticism could allow him plenty more minutes than he’s ever seen at Texas. As for Lammert, well, he simply isn’t a threat in transition, at all; as he’s more of a half court, spot up stretch forward.
It would be unwise to abandon the identity that matches Texas’ roster with size control, rim-protection and rebounding, but it would be equally as unwise for Smart to try and become a coach he’s not and void his up-tempo style next season.
This is where meeting halfway comes in.
What we can expect to see is Smart slowly implementing his coaching style into the mold of the current roster. For Texas to live up to their potential next season, Smart has to get the big guys involved. For that to happen, he’ll likely make that transition slowly with conditioning and fast-paced practices, among other things to ease guys like Ridley, Cleare and Ibeh into the system. But as I mentioned, this isn’t your stereotypical Smart team. He’s going to have to utilize half court offense more frequently, and this isn’t just because of the big guys. Smart’s teams are usually pretty good and hitting threes. That doesn’t translate to these Longhorns, who ranked 97th in the nation last season in 3-point percentage at .316.
Next season, the result of a half court roster being taken over by a fast break coach will likely be a more up-tempo, higher scoring pace than what we’ve grown accustomed to during the Barnes-era, but it won’t be exactly what Smart had at VCU. Texas simply doesn’t have the big men for that, nor shooters that are skilled enough to live from beyond the perimeter.
One way or another, it’s hard to see Texas being anymore inefficient and stagnant on offense than they were last season. If Ridley, Ibeh and Cleare have to shed a few pounds, while Lammert plays more in the paint than he’s used to, so-be it. Smart has proven year after year that what he does leads to wins and although this roster isn’t tapered to his system, we should see the results in the win column if he can successfully find a way to utilize the big men properly; however that may be.