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Previewing Texas Basketball: Depth, Expectations, and a Behemoth Big 12

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The Texas Men’s Basketball season tips off Wednesday against UT-Rio Grande Valley and expectations are as high for this season as any in Shaka Smart’s tenure and possibly (excluding the season Rick Barnes was let go to make way for Smart) the past decade. “Optimism? Do Texas basketball fans have a slight sadomasochist streak?” While I will neither speculate nor kink-shame in this article, the facts point objectively to Texas being very talented and literally the deepest team in the nation. The #19 pre-season ranking seems like a floor rather than a ceiling.

Do you want to hear a depressing stat to temper this verboten optimism? Since Shaka Smart arrived on campus, Texas has been ranked in 11 of 96 possible AP Polls. That’s…not great, Bob. This is only the second time to be ranked in the preseason…the other saw them never rise and fall out after three weeks. The #19 ranking is the second highest Texas has achieved in Shaka’s Texas tenure.

YEAR Preseason Peak Weeks Ranked Polls Final Rank
15–16 23 5 19
16–17 21 21 3 19
17–18 0 19
18–19 17 1 19
19–20 22 1 19
20-21 19 TBD 1 1 TBD
11 96

But perk back up: in the age of the “One-and-Dones,” continuity is typically the biggest differentiator from first round tournament teams and those playing well after your bracket is busted. There are only 10 teams that return over 90% of their possession minutes from the 2019-20 season. There is only one that returns 100%. This is a rare preview with nothing to cover in the “Key Departures” section; literally zero scholarship players left, and one walk-on who totaled 6 minutes in blowouts is no longer with the program. Texas returns an absurd 678 combined appearances, and almost 350 starts. In reality there is even more depth than numbers might insinuate: of the 12 returning scholarship players, 11 started a game last year (due to rotation and injury). They are DEEEEP. We’ll discuss that.


Coaching:

Even though Shaka Smart found himself anywhere from Jalapeño-to-Carolina Reaper on the Scoville Seat scale last season, it was BECAUSE of the talent on the roster and the feeling of underachieving. The Longhorns ultimately finished 19-12 last season, good enough for 3rd in Big 12 (note when comparing records, they will play ~5 fewer games this season). If take a look at expectation last year and add in a sprinkling of expected development, this is the “put up or pack up” season for Coach Smart as he enters his 6th year as Head Coach. Joining him on the touchline is 3rd year assistant Neill Barry and some new faces in Associate Head Coach K.T. Turner from SMU, internally-promoted Assistant Coach Cody Hatt, and Director of Program Development Nevada Smith (real name) – a former G-League Head Coach.

Luke Yaklic took a HC job of the UIC Flames (there were many who thought he might have been the informal “Will Muschamp Coach in Waiting” endowed chair of Texas basketball…so read into him taking this job as you will) and Jai Lucas took his coaching talents and recruit rolodex to Kentucky.

After a 4-8 start to Big-12 play last season, the team seemed to rally around Smart in spite of injuries and a general consensus that the Smart-era was done in Austin. The season was defined by a end-of-season 5-game conference win streak that included wins over Texas Tech, WVU, OU and probably saved Shaka’s job (in combination with the season-cancelling COVID-19 pandemic arriving minutes before they tipped the Big 12 Tournament). Bottling that magic with the full roster is the expectation.


Key Returners The Roster:

Have you ever heard the term “Guards play in March?” I doubt it, because I think I just made it up, but it basically checks out. Experienced guard play is typically a direct success factor to a deep tournament run, assuming the guards are actually…you know…good to go with experienced. Five of the last 10 men’s college basketball national champions have had a junior or senior All-American as their lead ball-handler. I bring this up because as much size and frontcourt talent as Texas potentially has, ………

  • Senior Matt Coleman led the team in scoring (12.7), assists (3.4), and three-point % (39.5) last year and the consensus is that this teams realizing their ceiling will go as Coleman does. Experts seem to agree, as he was named to the Preseason All-Big 12 Team and as one of 20 watch list candidates for the Bob Cousy Award (nation’s top point guard). A player Smart has recruited since 8th grade, Coleman has started 101 of 102 games since he arrived on campus (streak of 96 straight when he sat out 1 game with an injury last season). Last season, Texas looked to run a pick-and-roll offense (~25% of possesions), and Coleman showed promised but needs to improve his ability to get to the line and finish at the rim. There were also some turnover issues for the team as a whole, and Coleman’s TO rate was 1.48 (1.08 in B12 play), a regression from previous years coming in closer to 2. In addition to ball-handling, he has an ability and often a desire to set the done as the point of the defensive spear as well. How he balances the two will be an interesting watchpoint for the season.
  • I don’t think I need to brief anyone on the incredible story of RS Junior Andrew Jones overcoming Leukemia – just know that the 5-star McDonald’s All-American senior has two years of eligibility left, and would probably be in the NBA by now in an alternate universe. He has changed his game and reshaped his body completely, now two years back with the team. Last season, he had six 20-point scoring efforts, and when he was on, he was a complete difference maker. He has become a better shooter through his career, posting 38.3% from three-point range last year. During the late-season win streak, he averaged a team-high 17.2 points per contest while hitting 47-percent from deep. In addition to scoring, he was third in steals (23) and assists (1.9 apg) last season, two areas that could see improvement this season.
  • Coach Smart describes Junior Courtney Ramey as the “heart” and “fire” of this team. If Coleman is the more quiet “lead by example” and Andrew Jones is the energy and soul of Texas, Ramey is the voice and glue. A combo-guard in the truest sense, there was some disappointment that Ramey didn’t make the second year step up that coaches and fans hoped. As a ball handler and initiator of the pick-and-roll, Ramey will have an obvious and seemingly ripe opportunity for instant improvement if he can simply get to the rim and finish. When he was aggressive on both ends, the team thrived—Texas went 6-1 in the 7 games he scored 15 last season. In that defining five-game win streak last season, he averaged 15.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game while converting 41.7-percent from deep. The game that makes a best-case-scenario fan salivate was the incredible 26-point, 6-rebound, 5-steal effort at Kansas State in that streak. Ramey did a bit of everything last season, ranking second on the team in assists (2.9 apg), rebounding (3.9 rpg), steals (31) and minutes (31.5 mpg) and third in scoring (10.9 ppg). With the weapons around him, he should be able to pick his spots and focus on being an all-conference defender.
  • Senior Jericho Simms is one the most explosive leapers in the country and that alone makes him an NBA prospect. There was a very high probability that he would explore the draft last season before a back-injury derailed those plans and saw a rare Texas Big with an All-Big-12 ceiling make it to his fourth year on campus. Last year, he had the Big 12’s 2nd-highest 2-point make percentage, was a top-five rebounder, and was solid in the post defensively against some NBA-level bigs. The main question: can he be consistent? He averaged 18.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in the two contests against eventual No. 1 Kansas in 2019 — and 5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 0 blocks in the two games immediately following! He should thrive playing in a frontcourt with GB3, freeing him to do the things he does best: rebound, block shots, and rim run.
  • A consensus 5* recruit and McDonald’s All-American, Freshman Greg Brown III is the entirety of the “Key Additions” section of this unusual preview article—hence we’re just looking at the roster in it’s entirety. “GB3” is a lot of things: hyper-athletic, a walking highlight reel, a surprisingly adept “hustle and sweat” player, and an impeccable social media presence. He could immediately start at the “4” — arguably the Longhorns weakest position last year (he was named to the Karl Malone PF of the year watchlist). Texas could also go BIG with him at the 3, giving defenses nightmares with the athleticism that helped him average over 26 ppg in HS. This will depend on how well his three-point shot translates to the next level…which will also determine whether he gets compared to Kevin Durant 3 or 13 times per game (no pressure, kid).

Second Unit

Shaka Smart recently said that there is basically a starting 6 of the five above plus Kai Jones and that he hasn’t determined which five will start. For this exercise, I am imagining Andrew Jones and Greg Brown get the initial nod over Kai Jones (one of my favorite players on the roster). Looking just at success last season (when healthy) the next quartet of Jones, Donovan Williams, Gerald Liddel, and Royce Hamm is blessed with tremendous length and defensive potential, however the four combined for about 14 ppg last season. I don’t know if they contribute enough offensively to spend serious minutes unless Andrew Jones or a fully-realized Greg Brown is the fifth. But for arguments’ sake:

  • 6-foot-11 Sophomore forward Kai Jones is explosive with as much potential as anyone on the team, Brown and Sims included. Legitimately lottery pick ceiling if everything comes together. Can play the 4, projects to a very good 5, but is a bit skinny – has enough athleticism to be a MONSTAR-sized wing. After last season’s injury crisis, Jones scored 20 of Texas’ 59 points in a season-ending loss to Oklahoma State, adding seven rebounds, 1 block, and 1 steal. He also did one of the silliest things a Texas player managed last season with 5 blocks in 16 minutes in Texas’ first game against OSU. His block rate in conference play ended up 6th in a loaded Big 12.
  • 6-foot-6 Sophomore wing Donovan Williams is streaky with TONS of upside, and boundless energy. He is fully cleared from last season’s injury, and “Stretch” is an intersting name to watch in the minutes rotation —  he could be anywhere from 7 to 14 minutes a night depending on how Andrea Hudy is filling out his very NBA-worthy frame.
  • Listed 2 inches taller at 6-foot-8 this season, Junior wing Gerald Liddell is one of my favorite players on this roster (and not just because his high school coach Lonny Hubbard was a mentor when I was too young to be able to use a full-sized basketball). He has a ton of upside as evidenced by his 14 point, eight rebound, and four assist showing in a big win over Purdue last season. He may be lower in the minutes rotation if he can’t find consistency as the Texas staff has to play immediate floor over ceiling with this much depth.
  • 6-foot-9 Senior PF Royce Hamm came on at the end of the season and became a force on the glass. He started the final 7 games for Texas, of which they won 5. With everyone healthy, I think he will not only cede minutes to Greg Brown and Kai Jones, but to Will Baker as well. If Hamm can see the court for 8-10 minutes a night, you will get 200% effort and a player who can excel at one or two things.
  • 6-foot-11 Sophomore Center Will Baker is a pretty large question mark this season. The way he played last season would see him as the 11th man off the bench on this year’s team, but the former 5* from Austin has too much talent to think he won’t continue to get chances. Shaka has taken time to praise his development – but also used a reporter’s question about him to mention that “the reality for our team is there’s going to be guys on our team that have made progress and are making progress. And that may or may not be seen in a given game…” Hard to tell exactly how much he plays until we see how he is shooting. He could be the second player off the bench or a player who sees 5 minutes if Shaka gets to a shortened 8-man rotation.

Rotation+

  • Can 6-foot-9 Junior Forward Kamaka Hepa contribute enough to crack a deep rotation? Can he master the three to make him more appealing on a nightly basis? He has one of the highest basketball IQs on the team, but this is a team loaded with athletic monsters who may bring more. Hepa had 10 starts, is a vocal defensive leader, good at organizing the d, passes well from the 4 spot. I am truly unsure how his minute breakdown will look.
  • Can Brock shock? Redshirt Sophomore Brock Cunningham is not the first guy off the bench, but he’s the type of player every coach wants on the roster. With injuries at the end of last season, he was given a chance and responded with 8 points, 8 rebounds and 8 points, 11 rebounds in consecutive games last season (WVU, OU during the win streak). He is a plus defender and will have games where he plays a lot simply for what he can do on that end: last year, he helped lock down Desmond Bane of TCU and Xavier Sneed of KSU.
  • We all know what Senior wing Jase Febres can do: shoot the basketball. He shot 37.2% and 37.4% from beyond the arc the past two seasons. The question will be whether he can take another leap once he is fully clear from the season-ending micro-fracture knee surgery he sustained in March. He still hasn’t been cleared, so he could be a good candidate to keep a year of eligibility fro this odd COVID sports season if rehab sees him behind the curve on a deep, deep bench.

Keys to success

  • ROTATION: Stop me if you’ve heard this mentioned a dozen or more times already: the season ultimately hinges on how Shaka can manage the rotation. Does this become an 8 or 9 man rotation that builds on each player’s strengths or is it a half-dozen bench guys getting 7 minutes each? Shaka commented on his own tendencies, saying “At times I’ve tried to play too many players and focused on how the 9th-11th players are doing mentally, but I’ve realized I need to do what is best for Texas.” In a year where COVID-19 is bound to play a large part for nearly every team, having the deepest team in the country may not be a bad thing – but this feels like a gift/curse, depending on how it is deployed.
  • IDENTITY: Shaka’s identity when arriving half a decade ago was as a relentlessly-pressing, defensive-minded coach who could put a unit on the floor that maximized talent and played efficient enough offense. The Longhorns are replacing defensive-whiz Luke Yaklich, and there are questions to be asked.
    • DEFENSE: We don’t really think the much-discussed, often quoted, “Havoc” is necessarily coming to Austin this year, but there is certainly some upside to pressing (especially with the depth and athleticism on the team this year). Will the Longhorns continue to utilize it  situationally or does that become a more central defensive component? If Shaka were to be reading my thoughts for some reason, I might suggest defending inside out—this may be the deepest stable of shot blockers in the entire country with half-a-dozen fairly adept ones.
    • OFFENSE: It is unknown what roles and to what extent the new coaches in the program will have input into the offense that Shaka has mostly allowed Neill Berry to run up to this point. My guess is that with this team’s athletic blue print there will be changes regardless of who is making them.
      • Can Texas play faster to maximize athleticism? Last season they ranked 321st (of 353) in possessions per game and ~300 in KemPom’s adjusted Tempo rating. This has not been a priority in the past, but you can’t worry about players getting tired when (see above, repeatedly)…depth!
      • Last season offensive efficiency dropped without Jaxson Hayes rim-running, need to see all 3 guards (and at least 2 or 3 others) attack more inside the arc. Coleman especially struggled at finishing and converting — this needs to be a priority area.
      • Last year, 25% of offensive possessions ended with the P&R handler/screener attempting a shot. That offense is as effective as the guards initiating it…see directly above.
      • Texas posted the 4th lowest free throw rate in the country last year. They fell in love with the three-pointer, even if it didn’t always love them back at times. Matt Coleman was in a “drive-to-kick mode” by design last season. Can a “drive to score” mentality open more threes AS WELL as improve the easy 1 point attempts?
      • Finally, Texas had the lowest offensive rebound rate in Big 12, which seems like a thing that might change with Simms, Jones, Brown, Hamm being around the rim a lot. This could be by design, but I have to think there is some execution percentage error that can be improved.
  • LUCK
    • Shaka Smart has had an unbelievable tenure at Texas in terms of injuries of the normal variety and the…unbelievable (again, Andrew Jones is a literal inspiration). Can Texas stave off an injury bug – or can this unit at least prove to be as deep as we believe to better handle it? In a year with a pandemic raging, I hate having a coach who has been unbelievably unlucky, but maybe this was all prepping Shaka for this moment in time.
    • Texas has been on the wrong end of some close games, can the OU game-winner be the sign of better things to come in that department. I wouldn’t hate a modus operandi of “that dang Texas won another one by 3” as opposed to the opposite.

Rest of the Big 12

Y’all…the Big 12 is good. Like GOOD good. Like how good the SEC thinks they are in football or how good the West was in the Lakers/Spurs NBA of the Duncan/Kobe post-Jordan era. Last year was the first since 2013 the KemPom didn’t have the Big 12 as the highest-ranked conference – and that was a combination of injuries and re-loading to any team not called Baylor or Kansas.

I think there are seven tournament teams in this conference – and that’s WITH OSU’s post-season ban.

Tier 1 (5):

Baylor, Kansas, Texas, Texas Tech, and West Virginia all find themselves in KenPom’s Top-10 (Texas, of course at #9). Those are basically all #1 or #2 seeds if they were the final March rankings! That is absolutely nuts!

  • At the top is Baylor…if they unfortunately win the conference, it’ll be their first since 1950. They have Jared Butler – a probable top 5 player in the country
    • With another Top-25 player in Macio Teague, this is looking like the best backcourt in the country
    • Davion Mitchell is 2nd on his team, but 7th in the country in steals. An incredible two-way player and a Top-75 player in the country
    • Mark Vital is somehow probably the 4th best player on the team and yet another reason Baylor has the best defense in the country. A top-75 caliber player sitting down here.
    • This is all with former Preseason-Big 12 selection Tristan Clark medically retiring from basketball after never quite coming back to his self after the 2019 knee injury…
  • Kansas’ Marcus Garret is one of the best PG in the country, last year’s DPOY will look to lead a “rebuilding” Kansas team that is still loaded.
    • Ochai Agbaji is a candidate for breakout player of the year – fringe top-50 player
    • Have to replace by far the most talent of any team in this tier — Devon Dotson and center Udoka Azubuike carried Kansas to last year’s season end #1 ranking
  • Kyler Edwards for TTU is another fringe Top-50 player, the Jr. combo wing will probably dictate TTU being a 2 seed or a 5 seed.
    • Terrance Shannon is an athletic NBA prospect and a Top-100 talent
    • Mac McClung was cleared to play after transferring from Georgetown and will have a lot to say if Tech can challenge the rest of the teams in this tier.
  • If Oscar Tshiebwe make a second year leap, he could be the best big in the Big 12 and a lottery pick
    • Miles McBride came out of nowhere last year to make the Big-12 freshman team. Looks to breakout even further — a Top 75-player
    • 6’10 Derek Culver is one of the best rebounders in the conference a fringe Top-100 player – there aren’t many front courts in the country better than WVU and they may be the best rebounding team in the NCAA.

Tier 2 (2):

Oklahoma (31) and Oklahoma St (33) — These are 7 or 8 seeds: very dangerous teams on their night

  • OU’s Brady Manek is just about a Top-50 player and has the best nickname in CBB: Larry on the Prairie. 6’9, knockdown 3-point shooter, looks like Larry Bird.
    • His partnership with PG Austin Reaves will be one of the better 1-2 punches in the conference
  • Cade Cunningham for OSU seems to be a consensus Top-2 pick in next year’s draft, so you know he’s talented. He will be more focal to the Cowboys offense than Greg Brown for Texas, so he is the front-runner for Freshman of the Year and not that crazy of a pick for PoTY if he get’s it going to full-speed early. Who else steps up for them and if they can learn to shoot the 3 will dictate a lot.

Tier 3 (3):

TCU (53), ISU (67), KSU — These are Bubble Teams…well maybe not Kansas State (but hey, we have been surprised by them before…in literally any sport).

  • The upside of this Jamie Dixon TCU team is that if the transfer portal parts can come together, this could be a team that punches way above their weight a few games this year (please God, don’t do it to Texas in basketball AND football). They could flirt with the bubble even with a Desmond Bane sized hole in their roster. The obvious other side of the coin is that they finish last in the conference and never gel. Time will tell.
  • Iowa State has had a serious talent drain to the players going pro early and Fred Hoiberg isn’t walking through that door. Rasir Bolton, Solomon Young, and George Conditt IV are all good players, but I don’t think any of them are potential lottery picks like Tyrese Halliburton was last season.
  • Bruce Weber may be on the hot seat (…again) for Kansas State unless some freshmen can come in and surprise some people.

 

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