If the month of March comes in like a lion, and out like a lamb, then the college basketball season typically does the opposite. It sneaks up, almost unannounced, offering the utilitarian but scratchy gift of wool along with several tasty cuts of meat.
For Shaka Smart and the Texas Longhorns, we start with wool only. Texas faces Eastern Illinois, out of the Ohio Valley Conference. The Panthers had a 12-19 record last season, and head coach Jay Spoonhour turns over a significant portion of his roster this year. This combination suggests that the Panthers are in for something of a long season, but I guess we will have a better feel for that after the game tonight.
The beauty of the opening game of a season is that a compelling matchup isn’t unnecessary; this is our first look at the 2018-2019 Texas Longhorns, a team that despite its lack of an obvious NBA lottery draft pick looks on paper to be Smart’s strongest squad at Texas yet.
Texas is a team with experience at every position, particularly — and refreshingly for Longhorn fans — in the backcourt, where Matt Coleman and Kerwin Roach II look likely to be one of the best guard duos in the Big 12. (Kerwin Roach will not play tonight, as he is sitting out after an offseason violation of team rules.) This experience creates an additional luxury; Texas can bring its promising freshman class along at its own pace.
This is compelling stuff for Texas fans, at least for now. Even more compelling is the possible return tonight of guard Andrew Jones, who has been through the ringer of leukemia, and now gets back to hooping.
And what will the Longhorns face tonight? Eastern Illinois returns only three contributors from last season’s team, which makes them difficult to get a read on. One thing that does seem likely is that the Panthers will get most of their offense from the perimeter.
The best of the returning players, by far, is 6’2 sophomore guard Mack Smith, who had an outstanding season as a freshman last year. Smith’s specialty is as a perimeter shooter, but he is also a threat to put the ball on the floor and score around the basket. Also returning are big men Aboubacar Diallo and Lucas Jones, two players who finished last season as members of Spoonhour’s rotation.
The gaps in this roster will be filled by junior college transfers. The best of the bunch is Josiah Wallace, a 6’4 scoring guard who was an honorable mention JUCO All-American and who can really shoot the ball from deep. Junior transfer Shareef Smith is a playmaker and the likely starter at point guard. Sophomore JUCO transfer Kashawn Charles is a perimeter shooting guard. 6’9 Rade Kukobat will see minutes along the front line.
I am not going to sell this game as more than it is; the Longhorns are substantial favorites. But I can still get excited, because it is a real, competitive basketball game for the first time in a while. If it stays close, it probably is due to hot shooting from long range by the visiting squad. If this doesn’t happen, then the game is unlikely to remain close.
The season tips in Austin at 7 p.m. Central, and airs on the Longhorn Network.