Only a short month ago, nearly unprecedented optimism surrounded the Texas Longhorns basketball program; more specifically, the Horns’ efforts on the recruiting trail. Despite the fact Texas solidified itself as one of college basketball’s most underwhelming units last season, and despite Shaka Smart taking the reins as the first new Longhorns head coach in over 17 years, the initial indications suggested Smart’s tenure may kick off with a flurry of elite in-state talent to usher in the new era.
Tevin Mack, a four-star 2015 wing, followed Smart from VCU to Austin, while names like De’Aaron Fox, Marques Bolden and Terrance Ferguson brought excitement about a possibility of an incredibly talented 2016 Texas trio matched historically only by the 2006 arrival of Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin and Damion James. But things have since taken a turn against the Horns: Fox and Bolden’s recent cuts left the home-state hopefuls on the outside looking in, while Ferguson surprised many and headed out of state to Alabama.
Of course, it comes as a major disappointment to see elite recruits in Texas pass on the state’s flagship university – especially considering one of the most convincing knocks on Rick Barnes’ latter years was his inability to put Lone Star State talent in burnt orange. But in reality, it would be unjust to criticize Smart and his staff for missing out on kids ranked within the top 20 of their class. Luring future NBA prospects away from national powerhouses like Kentucky, Duke and Kansas is always difficult, even when the head coach at Texas has an opportunity to build relationships with those prospects over a long period of time.
Sure, Texas has more to offer than most -- seemingly unlimited resources, state of the art facilities, one of, if not the most recognized brand in college sports, and a lengthy NBA lineage headlined by one of the best the world has to offer in Durant. But the truth is, regardless of all the glamour and benefits that come with being a basketball player at the University of Texas, Smart’s facing an uphill battle in recruiting that will simply take time to overcome.
When you consider what the majority of the nation’s top high school recruits are looking for, it becomes evident why Texas is being overlooked at the moment. The new fad in college sports all but guarantees five-star recruits will be one-and-done, with a handful of exceptions. In that lone year, players look for programs that will build them as a future pro, while reaching a high level of team success and competing for a championship before jetting to the NBA. Between the Longhorns failing to reach the Sweet 16 since their 2008 Elite 8 run, and Smart having only one VCU player drafted in six years, the most appealing advertisers for top talent aren’t in Texas' favor at the moment.
But this is nothing new for Smart. He’s found plenty of success outside of the world of five-star, one-and-done recruits at VCU, landing four players ranked within the top 100 of their class prior to 2015 – Melvin Johnson, Terry Larrier, Mike Gilmore and Justin Tillman – and winning .744 percent of his games with said talent. And consider what he’s been able to accomplish on that front during his short time in Austin: Smart’s already brought in two four-star recruits; Mack for 2015 and Jacob Young in 2016, he kept Texas as a legitimate option for some of the most elite recruits, at least for a while, and still has a bevy of talent considering the Horns.
The initial evidence points to Smart becoming much more of a recruiting force than he ever was at VCU; he just needs the resources and some time to do so. As a result, Texas missing out on the very best the state has to offer during Smart’s first offseason at the helm can’t be chalked up as a failure, especially considering how much talent still has the Longhorns as a very plausible option.
For context, I’ll only be making note of the 2016 recruits Texas appears to be in favorable standing with.
According to 247Sports Crystal Ball projections, the Longhorns currently stand as the leaders to land four-star Virginia power forward Javin DeLaurier (70%) – who is set for an official visit September 12, four-star Georgia center James Banks (100%) – who just took an official visit to Texas August 28, five-star power forward and Austin native, Jarrett Allen (100%), and three-star small forward, Curtis Hollis, but he’s yet to receive an offer.
Texas is also considered to be in a two-horse race with Arizona for in-state talent Andrew Jones, a four-star combo guard with an unofficial visit set for September 12 with DeLaurier, while the Horns’ made the final three for four-star power forward De’Ron Davis and three-star small forward Cameron McGriff. Former five-star Arizona commit, T.J. Leaf, included the Longhorns in his list of eight schools, while four-star Minnesota shooting guard Amir Coffey is still a very possible addition.
Even with Texas missing on guys like Fox, Bolden and Ferguson, Smart could quite easily walk away with a top-10 recruiting class for his debut effort.
Simply put, there’s absolutely no reason to worry about the best the state has to offer in 2016 heading elsewhere. I find it hard to believe Texas won’t land at least two of the aforementioned nine recruits, and if that came to fruition, a recruiting class featuring three four-star or five-star recruits is one that would leave any coach in the country ecstatic.
Once Smart gets a few NCAA Tournament wins under his belt and sends a handful of kids to the NBA, it will be much harder for any elite recruit, much less those hailing from Texas, to pass on the Longhorns. Just as with Charlie Strong and the football program, Texas isn’t going to find its resurgence to prominence overnight, but whether it comes by way of a slew of three and four-star recruits, or the annual reload of All-Americans, Smart will get Texas there.