Shaka Smart’s third season on the Forty Acres gets underway on Friday and much of the success of his Texas Longhorns will be dependent upon the productivity of yet another elite recruiting haul.
With the need to erase the stench of an 11-win season, Smart is incorporating a No. 6-ranked class in hopes of injecting a fresh breath of life and talent into a less-than-overwhelming roster tasked with replacing its headliner, Jarrett Allen. Smart found that replacement in the form of the most prized prospect to side with Texas since Kevin Durant — five-star power forward Mohamed Bamba. To address the point guard conundrum that plagued the ‘Horns throughout 2016-17, Smart added Oak Hill Academy floor general Matt Coleman.
Factor in the depth and versatility that arrived in Austin through a trio of four-star newcomers in Jericho Sims, Royce Hamm, and Jase Febres, and there’s reason to believe Texas at least boasts the talent necessary to be a much-improved product in 2017-18.
In fact, the collective crop of talent currently on hand has Smart confident that Texas can compete for a Big 12 Championship and reintroduce itself to the NCAA Tournament.
"Right now, I would answer that question with a yes," Smart said of whether or not the ‘Horns compete for the conference title and make the Big Dance. "I think we can be better than a lot of people think,” Smart added.
For such aspirations to prove true, though, the handful of freshman will be required to produce relative to their lofty rankings, especially considering Smart said four of Texas’ top eight players are newcomers.
Although the ‘Horns can certainly use contributions from all five freshmen, just how successful Texas can truly become begins and ends with Bamba.
“The challenging thing in our game that's different than any other sport is if you're recruited to a place like this, a level like this, everyone wants to come in and have major success," Smart said. "Everyone is evaluating themselves compared to a Ben Simmons or a Brandon Ingram or a D'Aaron Fox or a Lonzo Ball and the reality is that's one percent of freshmen. Maybe we have a guy like that on our team in Mo [Bamba], but we don't have five.”
Fortunately for Texas, you don’t need five talents quite as tantalizing as Bamba to enjoy a significant amount of success — you just need one, surrounded by the right complimentary pieces.
In Bamba, Texas has a bona fide defensive anchor with tremendous game-changing length. His offensive acumen is tailored for the modern game with the confidence and touch to stretch the floor out to the perimeter, and when his expansive skill-set is packaged with his seven-foot frame, the result is a surefire one-and-done with No. 1 pick potential.
An NBA-calber big man patrolling the paint wasn't exactly the issue for Texas last season, as Allen exchanged his Longhorns jersey for Brooklyn Nets attire after a lone season in Austin.
Bamba is a different kind of beast, though.
As Smart noted, "Mo creates the best offensive option for us around the basket and even in the elbow." For a Texas team that ranked No. 303 in points per game last season (67.0), Bamba, much like Allen, should provide the ‘Horns with a security blanket and often times, their most potent scoring weapon.
Unlike Allen, though, Bamba will enjoy what should be a much more free-flowing offensive orchestrated by a true floor general in the aforementioned Coleman.
A former four-star prospect ranked as the nation’s No. 51 player, Coleman comes to Texas with a championship pedigree instilled courtesy of winning 80 games throughout the past two seasons at Oak Hill Academy, including the Dick’s Sporting Goods National Championship in 2016. More notably as it pertains to Texas, Coleman is the embodiment of a true pass-first point guard, evident in his 6.6 assists per game and 5.7 assist-to-turnover ratio last season on a roster abundant with Division I talent.
The ‘Horns didn’t exactly enjoy such proficient productivity from Kerwin Roach II and Andrew Jones last season, with each adding 117 assists and combining for 165 total turnovers en route to a collective assist-to-turnover ratio of just 1.4.
The apparent struggles were the result of two natural scoring guards playing out of position for the betterment of the team, although the lack of a pure point guard hindered the ‘Horns far more often than it helped.
Thus, a major selling point in Coleman’s recruitment was the opportunity to arrive in Austin and be handed the keys to the offense from day one.
That said, how well has Coleman adjusted to coordinating a Big 12 offense that he’s the heartbeat of, tasked with assuring life flows throughout the rest of the rotation?
Smart didn’t mince words when expanding to that end.
"He’s making progress,” Smart said. “He’s grown in a lot of ways since he got here. When we played LSU a couple days ago, that was his best outing he’s had yet, including our games in Australia. It’s good for him that he’s going into the start of the regular season coming off a good game.
“Finally starting to see some of the swagger that he has as a person carry over on the court. I’m sure he’ll continue to have some ups and downs as a freshman point guard, but my emphasis to him has been to focusing on the guys around him and not himself. He’s done a really good job of that. Any team needs more of that. We need more of that. He’s done a good job of that so far. He’s about where we thought he would be. Still has a long way to go. Hopeful he keeps growing and stays positive about some of the twists and turns that inevitably come your way."
As Smart detailed, Coleman will inevitably endure some twists and turns throughout his debut season. Given his passing prowess and innate ability to put those around him in positions to put points on the board, though, it’s a near given that the Texas offense enjoys a noticeable uptick in productivity, especially as the season progresses.
Although Coleman isn’t exactly the generational talent that Bamba may very well prove to be, the void his fills as a facilitator makes his presence on the court almost equally as significant as that of his lengthy teammate.
For Coleman and Texas to be as successful as it can be with him running the show and Bamba anchoring the paint, others guys will need to take steps forward — guys including, but not limited to Febres, Sims, and Hamm.
With Allen departing for the NBA and Tevin Mack transferring following a lengthy suspension, Jones stands as the only double-digit scorer returning this season.
Considering what’s expected to be a formidable frontcourt of Bamba and Dylan Osetkowski, and the ‘Horns most glaring weakness from last season being its 342nd-ranked three-point shooting percentage, Febres’ touch from deep could prove to be an essential asset. But the key for Smart will be getting his sharpshooter to shoot even more
Just how impactful Febres can become throughout his freshman campaign may largely be dependent upon how aggressively he’s willing to assert himself offensively. Smart noted that there’s work to be done to that end, although he likes where Febres’ mindset is at this point.
"Jase Febres is the most even-keeled of those guys and very, very bright,” Smart said. “I’m trying to actually get him to be more violent with the way that he plays. But him being even-keeled really helps him for the standpoint of not getting too high, getting too low
After only five teams in all of college basketball shot a worse percentage from deep than the ‘Horns did last season — Howard, UC Santa Barbara, UTSA, St. Francis Brooklyn, and Alabama A&M — the need to hit three-pointers at a higher and more efficient clip is absolutely essential. Returning players such as Jacob Young and Eric Davis Jr. have performed up to par throughout the offseason, but Smart reiterated that the team has to translate practice setting success to the live game situations.
With Coleman spreading the rock around and Bamba sure to attract an abundance of defensive attention, shooters will get their shots — the question is, can they connect?
As Smart aims to discover which of his player’s shot can be relied upon throughout the early portion of the season, Febres will be among those who certainly gets his opportunity, and as Smart noted, he’ll approach that time with an even-keel mentality.
"Royce and Jericho, those guys are a little more up and down,” Smart said, as opposed to Febres. “Both have really good moments. Their athleticism is impressive. They can help our team, particularly our bigs.
With Bamba and Osetkowski on board, Texas appears to have an immensely talented and versatile frontcourt to rely upon. But of course, those two won’t be playing 40 minutes per game, and along with James Banks, Sims and Hamm provide plenty of athleticism and versatility on each end of the floor off the bench.
In what he’s displayed throughout the offseason, Sims may very well be Texas most explosive athlete, and the potential to become an elite rebounder and threat around the rim is there as a result.
And similarly to Hamm, who is more of a modern stretch four with the skill set to play on the perimeter, Sims can defend numerous positions on the court, which aids in why Smart believes this Texas team can be dominant on that end of the court.
Although Sims and Hamm aren’t quite walking into a situation with two full servings on their plate like Bamba and Coleman may be faced with, or the need to help improve a porous shooting unit like Febres, the depth and athleticism they provide should prove invaluable once the Big 12 slate rolls around.
"We need all those guys to contribute to our team,” Smart said of Febres, Sims and Hamm. "You'll probably look at their stats or their averages a month from now or two months from now and not necessarily be overwhelmed, but they also can help up win games."
With five freshman each adopting differing roles and each being key to the success Texas ultimately enjoys this season.
As Smart noted, though, not everyone is a Ben Simmons or a Brandon Ingram. His job is to assure they’re progressing at their own pace as Texas progressions with a rotation largely built around freshmen.
“What we have to do is make sure each guy is running his own race and what he can do to move forward and progress as a player during the time that he's here,” Smart said. “Those guys all have major positive attributes that I think they can bring to the table, but they're just figuring it out.”