Now that the angst of waiting for Isaiah Taylor’s decision to return to Texas for his junior season is behind us, the focus can finally shift to offseason routines, development and ultimately, what Shaka Smart is able to do with these Longhorns in his inaugural season. In most cases with a new head coach, the roster they walk into isn’t littered with talent, but Smart walked into a far more fortunate situation, to say the least. The roster Smart inherited presently includes nine current or former ESPN 100 recruits – which surprisingly doesn’t include Taylor – as well as a tremendous veteran presence with five seniors and three juniors, all of which will likely see significant minutes.
Between the veterans, the depth and the highly skilled additions headed to Austin next season, Smart’s tenure at Texas will kick off with not only one of the most talented rosters in the Big 12, but arguably one of the top 15 in the country.
With that said, let’s take a look at what Smart will have to work with as we begin a new era of basketball on the 40 Acres.
I’ll begin with Taylor, as he’s the Longhorns best player, leader and floor general, as well as likely being the only member of the roster guaranteed a starting position. Taylor, who will be entering his third season at Texas, has all the makings of a player who can grow into one of the very best point guards in all of college basketball next season. Many believed this would be the case during his sophomore season, but the fractured wrist he suffered against Iowa emerged as a roadblock in those efforts, leading to inconsistencies and limited improvement from his freshman season. Now that he’s set to be back for a third season, it will be hard to Imagine Taylor failing to improve as a jump shooter, facilitator and game manager, which will be a crucial role as the team translates to the guard-oriented "Havoc" style of play.
In the backcourt with Taylor will be seniors Demarcus Holland and Javan Felix, junior Kendal Yancy and newcomers and ESPN 100 guards Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis.
Due to his defensive presence on the perimeter, Holland will likely be the most valuable of the Longhorns’ remaining guards. You can’t necessarily notice Holland’s impact by looking at his numbers, where he averaged only 0.1 blocks and 0.4 steals per game, but he provides the most length and physicality on the wing in a backcourt that is void of any notable size, which adds to why he often guards the oppositions best perimeter option. Between his defense, which will be of heightened value should Smart continue to implement his various full court press defenses, and his team-leading .464 percent shooting from the perimeter, the qualities Holland offers should make for a smooth transition into Smart’s system.
Felix isn’t the most feared defender, which is understandable with his 5’11" stature, but he can be feisty when he’s engaged and active. Entering his senior season, it would be nice to see a bit more offensive consistency from Felix, which would go a long way towards helping the Longhorns’ scoring woes improve this season, considering he knocked down nearly 40 percent of his looks from deep last season. How he translates to becoming the defender Smart will want in the press remains to be seen, but whether he comes off the bench or finds himself alongside Taylor in the starting lineup, it’s hard to believe Felix’ ability to score in bunches won’t be of great value in Smart’s first season.
The same can be said for Yancy, who began to emerge as a scoring option near the end of last season, but inconsistencies were an issue, with Yancy averaging six points per game in his final four outings after churning out 14.5 in the five games before that. It wouldn’t be surprising to find Yancy in the starting lineup to kick off the season, but if he can’t become more of that consistent offensive threat Texas lacked from the perimeter last season, he could find himself competing for minutes in a backcourt that will include at least six worthy contributors.
Roach and Davis, the incoming freshmen, will almost surely find their roles providing relief for the veteran guards. Davis has excelled as a knock down shooter from deep, which may serve as a benefit when trying to find minutes, as Smart has a history of aggressively utilizing the perimeter.
As for Roach, who is more of a ball handler that can score at the rim, trying to find consistent minutes behind Taylor, Felix, Yancy and Holland could be an issue, but Smart prefers guard-oriented lineups, which should help in getting these freshmen on the floor.
Something to keep an eye out for, as well, is the awaited decision of Tevin Mack, an ESPN 100 small forward who decommitted from VCU after Smart took the head coaching job at Texas. Mack is currently considering Texas, Georgia and Kansas.
Once we start to stray away from the guards is where things will get interesting for Smart and how he utilizes Texas’ depth and interior size.
As of now, sophomore Jordan Barnett is the only true small forward on the Longhorns roster. It’s safe to say Barnett didn’t have the most ideal freshman season. He watched from the sidelines for all but 8.5 minutes of each contest on average and scored only 1.9 points per outing. As I’ve mentioned, Smart favors a guard-heavy offense, which could allow Barnett to find some minutes as a stretch four with his ability to knock down perimeter shots from time to time. But with so many options on the outside next season for Smart, anything outside of some stretch four opportunities could lead to Barnett sitting for the majority of his sophomore season.
The Big Men
This leaves the Longhorns’ repertoire of post presences and Smart will have plenty of intriguing options to choose from next season.
Cameron Ridley headlines this bevy of big men as a 6’9", 285-pound senior. Just as I mentioned earlier with Taylor, Ridley will also likely enter the season as a guaranteed starter, as he’s the Longhorns’ most imposing and offensively capable option down low. We saw how impactful Ridley can be when the guards are getting the ball to him in the right spot as a sophomore and in spurts as junior last season. Ridley shed a few pounds and came back noticeably more fit last season, which was a process he’ll likely need to repeat this offseason to assure he can keep up with the up-and-down pace of Smart’s offense.
Prince Ibeh will also be in the mix receiving minutes down low. As a junior, the 6’10" big man averaged only 2.1 points and 2.5 boards in 10.6 minutes of action per night. But when you consider what Ibeh can bring to the table when he’s actually seeing time on the hardwood, there’s a strong case to be made for why Smart would be wise to utilize his senior center. When you look at Ibeh’s per 40 numbers, he averaged 9.5 rebounds and 5.2 blocked shots. His defensive presence surpasses that of former Longhorn Myles Turner, who led the Big 12 in blocks last season and averaged 4.7 rejections per 40 as a freshman. Of course, we all know his offensive game is nonexistent outside of dunks, but Smart certainly will be able to utilize having an intimidating rim protector down low.
The junior transfer from Maryland, Shaquille Cleare, will also be in the mix down low for the Horns. Cleare hasn’t seen live game action since the 2013-14 season, when the 6’9", 285-pound big man played only 13.8 minutes per game as a sophomore. Cleare isn’t as offensively gifted as Ridley and isn’t the defensive force Ibeh is, but his size could serve as a tremendous option off the bench, especially if Smart ever decides to run lineups that feature two true post players at one time.
This brings me to Connor Lammert, who could be one of the most intriguing weapons Smart has next season. Last year, Lammert saw time in the paint and out on the perimeter, due to Turner, Ridley and Ibeh all being worthy of time on the court. But next season, Texas will be absolutely loaded in terms of options at the guard spot, and the same goes for the big bodies Smart will have at his disposal. Realistically, where I see Lammert is back at power forward due to his ability to help facilitate and knock down the perimeter shot, but with Texas depth at center and on the perimeter, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lammert get locked in as a stretch-four and play nothing other than that as a senior.
And then, of course, your last four off the bench will be senior Brandon Allums, juniors Danny Newsome and Ryan McClurg, along with sophomore Joe Schwartz. It's always fun when these guys get some action, but as you could expect, those minutes will be scarce at best.
There will be no shortage of talent on this team next season. Smart will have a roster that can go 10 or 11 deep and he’ll have plenty of versatility to experiment with countless varieties of lineups. With the exciting and fast-paced style of play Smart likes to implement, I’m certainly excited to see what he can do with this talented bunch once November rolls around.