Key Returners: Matt Coleman, Kerwin Roach II, Dylan Osetkowski, Jericho Sims, Andrew Jones*
Key Losses: Mo Bamba
Key Newcomers: Courtney Ramey, Gerald Liddell, Kamaka Hepa, Jaxson Hayes, Brock Cunningham, Elijah Long (Mount St. Mary's transfer)
*Jones' return remains uncertain as he continues his treatment and recovery from Leukemia
Outlook: First off, Andrew Jones: You sir are a warrior of the highest caliber. We here at 3MW salute you and sincerely hope to see you back on the hardwood in that burnt orange jersey this season - Godspeed...
For those that don't remember, Jones was one of the most efficient lead guards in America for the first month of the season before he was officially diagnosed with Leukemia in January. And while Jones' impact on-the-floor doesn't hold a candle to the importance of his off-the-floor health and recovery, it can't be understated how much the Longhorns missed him last year. Texas overcame a colossal hurdle battling through the Big 12 gauntlet without their best perimeter weapon, and racked up enough signature conference wins to earn the respect of the committee on Selection Sunday. Unfortunately, that postseason hype would come to an abrupt halt when 7-seeded Nevada edged past the 10-seeded Longhorns in OT, marking the 2nd time in three seasons Shaka Smart has been bounced in the 1st round.
Since arriving in Austin back in 2015, Shaka has consistently hauled in talented recruiting classes dripping with top-flight athletes who are built to defend at the highest level - the flagship recruits of this year's freshman class, Gerald Liddell and Kamaka Hepa, also fit that bill. And over the last two years, only four other schools in the country (Gonzaga, Virginia, Cincinnati and Alabama) have finished in the top-20 both seasons in kenpom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. The point is, Shaka's recruiting approach is clearly working from a defensive standpoint...
But as the great John Madden once taught us, "usually, the team that scores the most points... wins the game." [let that soak in for a minute]
And while the Longhorns can suffocate opponents to death with their defense, it's the other part of basketball - some refer to it as 'offense' - that has really confounded Shaka and the 'Horns over the past two years.
While Texas did chart a significant improvement on the offensive end of the floor last year, they still finished with the least efficient offense in the Big 12 for the 2nd consecutive season. Since Isaiah Taylor went pro in 2016, no guard for Texas has posted an Offensive Rating above 104 for an entire year - in other words, every guard except one has been 'average to below-average' from a pure efficiency lens during that span.
Somehow, of all the perimeter talent Shaka has trotted out onto the floor (names include Eric Davis, Jacob Young, Kendal Yancy, Kerwin Roach, Matt Coleman and Jase Febres) a grand total of ZERO have been able to develop a reliable outside jump-shot, which is why Texas' offense is often confused for a brick-laying competition. Even the enticing and versatile 6'9 Dylan Osetkowski may fool you with a smooth and confident shooting stroke, but his career percentages tell the true story - Osetkowski has made just 30% of his 203 3-pointers over three full seasons at Tulane and Texas. Unfortunately, those shooting woes didn't stop him from jacking up a team leading 146 attempts from behind the stripe last season.
But, as a detailed analysis performed by BurntOrange.com points out, the offensive limitations may be rooted in more than just poor outside shooting. This breakdown further confirms what I witnessed watching Texas play live at the PK80 last year: the half-court offense is repetitive and predictable, making it easy for opponents to prepare for and guard with a consistent defensive strategy. To Shaka's credit, he has explicitly called out that speed and athleticism will be the true strength of this year's roster (refer to Shaka's interview on Jon Rothstein's podcast). The question is how will he translate that team speed on both ends of the floor, particularly on the offensive side of the ball...
One solution could be trying to dictate a more uptempo style of game by ramping up defensive pressure and capitalizing on fast break opportunities via steals and defensive rebounds. Incumbent starters Matt Coleman and Kerwin Roach have to lead the way here, both of whom are plus athletes and disruptive defenders on the perimeter. There are some formidable reinforcements joining the backcourt rotation (incoming transfer Elijah Long, highly touted freshman point guard Courtney Ramey), along with rising sophomore Jase Febres, so there's certainly enough bodies to keep the backcourt fresh and sustain effective high-pressure defense on the perimeter for 40 minutes. Shaka has always favored playing multiple point guards on the floor together, which means Ramey and Long could get major minutes right out of the gate in their first season in Austin. Each guard brings something a little different to the table offensively, but a premium will be placed on consistent outside shooting as this group competes for playing time.
Compared to the backcourt, the depth up front projects to be rather thin behind Osetkowski and the high-flying Jericho Sims. Losing a top-5 NBA draft pick like Mo Bamba who can single-handedly protect the rim is near irreplaceable, but don't for a second think he was THE ONLY reason why Texas was so stout defensively. The advanced on / off numbers actually reveal that the 'Horns defense last year did not suffer with Bamba off the floor (see Figure 1 below) and while there was a downtick with Osetkowski and Sims as the primary forward combination, it was not substantially worse (see Figure 2 below):
Here's the takeaway - it will obviously be tough to sustain a top-15 defense without a generational physical specimen like Bamba patrolling the paint, but I'd also wager any regression this year will be minimal.
Bottom Line: Despite the offensive hiccups that Shaka and the boys need to iron out this offseason, this is still a roster stacked with talent. A good chunk of that talent will now benefit from a full year of seasoning as Shaka will have his most experienced roster since he first arrived at Texas in 2015-16 (that squad secured a 6-seed in the Big Dance by the way).
The wildcard this year is obviously Andrew Jones. If he can return anywhere near the form he was in prior to the tragic diagnosis early last season (and recently released videos sure look promising), Texas could trot out one of the best backcourts in the country. But even if he doesn't return, the Horns still have the DNA of a top-40 team and one which should have NCAA tournament expectations yet again in Shaka's 4th year at the helm.