For various reasons, Shaka Smart’s debut season as the Texas Longhorns head coach could have been considered both a success and a bit of a disappointment.
Smart inherited a roster of talents he didn’t recruit, but was among the deepest and most seasoned in the nation. Without any legitimate NBA talent, Texas found success in the Big 12 — arguably the most competitive conference in the nation — but dropped five of its last nine conference games, including the double-digit Big 12 Tournament loss to Baylor.
Smart’s four wins over top-10 competition led the nation, but Texas again fell during its first NCAA Tournament effort, repeating the common trend during the latter years of the Rick Barnes era.
For various reasons, Smart’s second season in Austin won’t be the same roller coaster with a premature ending.
To describe what the burnt orange faithful may be in for in Year II of the Smart era, the term better could be loosely tossed around, but more successful seems a bit more fitting.
Smart’s tallest task will be replacing his entire starting cast from 2015-16 — one headlined by an All-Big 12 first team talent in Isaiah Taylor and the reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Prince Ibeh.
As a result, Smart was left with only 37 percent of last season’s point production, 35 percent of the team’s rebounds after losing Texas’ top three rebounders, and a mere 24 percent of the 2015-16’s facilitating duties.
The talent to help fill the void of what was left behind is certainly in place, though.
Can Texas’ talent supersede its youth?
To counter the offseason mass exodus, Smart hauled in the nation’s fifth-ranked recruiting class — one headlined by a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans in Jarrett Allen and Andrew Jones. Considering the current roster landscape, there’s some legitimacy to the claim that Texas may boast more sheer talent than last season’s unit.
More specifically, Smart now has some NBA-caliber talent at his disposal, which can often aid in masking a heavy youth presence. Regardless of how experienced and college award-worthy as last season’s unit may have been, neither Taylor nor any of the five graduates are currently on an active NBA roster.
As for the current Texas roster, Allen is a projected lottery talent in next year’s draft and Jones, along with sophomore guard Kerwin Roach Jr. are projected first-round selections in 2018.
In a league often headlined by professional prospects, as 2015-16 was with Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, Baylor’s Taurean Prince and Iowa State’s Georges Niang — all of whom are currently entering their rookie season in the NBA — even having that one presence makes a substantial difference.
Will the pro potential on the team be enough to replace last season’s key contributors?
That remains to be seen, but it’s a plausible possibility.
During a Texas All-Access feature over the summer, assistant coach Jai Lucas said of Roach, “It's kind of like a switch has been flipped in his head and he is a superior athlete, but right now he's becoming a better basketball player and a much better leader."
Roach said the hyper-athletic Jones was “like a 2.0 of me,” which will be necessary as the two take over ball-handling duties in Taylor’s absence.
Even in a perfect world, it may be a bit of a stretch for Roach, Jones or a collaboration of the two to successfully make Taylor’s absence go unnoticed — he was unquestionably one of the more efficient floor generals in the nation. But in what many have noted as one of the most athletic backcourts in college basketball, there’s reason for optimism as Texas seeks a new floor general.
In the frontcourt, Allen and fellow freshman and Team USA teammate, James Banks, will be largely responsible for providing a presence in the paint that Ibeh once protected.
Shaquille Cleare called Allen, a “freak of nature” on the court, while Smart said he “runs the floor as well as any big guy I’ve ever seen.” En route to a gold medal in Chile, Allen nearly averaged a double-double (10.6 points, 9.0 rebounds) in five games, while the Fro Bros collectively rejected 12 shots.
It’s worth noting, too, that Banks has only been around organized basketball for a few years so he’s quite literally scratching the surface of his potential.
Considering Ibeh spent more an average of 21.8 minutes per game on the bench — more than half of the game — due to foul trouble, Texas may surprisingly see an uptick in defensive productivity from its freshmen big men, compared to last season.
As far as depth goes, the ‘Horns should be right on pace with last season.
The ‘Horns lost six contributors from last season — five if you consider Cameron Ridley missed the entire Big 12 slate with injury — but adds four freshman, a capable graduate transfer and should see a trio of sophomore’s take a noticeable step forward.
Graduate transfer Mareik Isom came home to Austin in hopes of filling the stretch forward role Connor Lammert filled last season, and he should to an extent after adding 2.6 3-pointers and 5.6 rebounds per 40 minutes last season at Arkansas-Little Rock.
Kendal Yancy returns as a threat from deep after hitting a team-high 41 percent last season, while Shaquille Cleare will be key rotational big in a guard-heavy system abundant with youth.
And there’s value to Smart having a roster tapered towards his coaching style — one full of athletic guards, capable shooters, and big men that don’t become boulders on the block.
Texas could gobble up a cupcake non-conference slate
Smart and his ‘Horns may be building up an appetite with the season inching nearer, as Texas may finally be able to feast on lesser competition prior to Big 12 play. Quite unlike virtually every non-conference slate in recent memory, Texas won’t face elite-level competition.
Of the 11 teams Texas will meet before conference play, only four — Northwestern, Alabama, Michigan and Arkansas —are Power Five programs, and only the Wolverines made the NCAA Tournament last sea son.
If Texas can escape Ann Arbor with a victory, there’s good reason to believe the ‘Horns could be undefeated, or with only a single loss, for their Big 12 opener against Kansas State. It helps that eight of Texas’ non-conference games will be in Austin, which is a considerably more comforting entrance to the season than traveling to China and the Bahamas in 2015, which resulted in three losses in five games.
While this won’t make for the most intriguing set of match ups, the non-conference schedule should provide room for error against lesser competition as Smart tinkers with a rotation primarily showcasing youth.
The Big 12 isn’t what it has been
“It’s not you, it’s me,” said the Big 12 to Texas.
Thanks to a fairly balanced distribution of talent, experience and depth in the Big 12 throughout the past few seasons, the nation’s most competitive league continually proved to be a gauntlet during conference play. But also courtesy of a wave of veteran departures, the conference shouldn’t quite be the bloodbath of yesteryear in 2016-17.
Kansas is still going to be Kansas, and that’s something every Big 12 team will have to simply accept until someone actually dethrones Bill Self’s powerhouse. But across the board, the competition level won’t be as formidable as in recent years, which should prove beneficial for a young Texas team.
Sure, Oklahoma, Baylor, West Virginia and Iowa State are all going to remain solid, but it’s difficult to imagine any can reach the same heights as last season when each was ranking within or just outside of the top 10. Oklahoma was as high as No. 1 overall, while Iowa State was No. 5 more than a month into the season.
With the Big 12 finally taking a step back, a young Texas team should benefit from not facing a national power on a nightly basis — something that may have easily overwhelmed the ‘Horns’ current youth last season.
With youth and inexperience comes growing pains, and that’s something the ‘Horns will almost surely suffer through at times with a rotation comprised of true freshmen and sophomores that observed more than they played last season. But Texas has talent and talent wins basketball games — enough to eclipse last season’s 20 victories with the help of a less inspiring schedule.