Key Returners: Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey, Jase Febres, Andrew Jones (leukemia), Jericho Sims
Key Losses: Kerwin Roach, Jaxson Hayes (pro), Dylan Osetkowski, Elijah Mitrou-Long
Key Newcomers: Will Baker, Kai Jones, Donovan Williams
Outlook: Winning a championship is one hell of a way to take yourself off the hot seat! Shaka Smart’s undefeated run through March and April made good on the faith shown to him by the Texas administration, and now he’ll surely be getting a multi-year extension and gobs of money.
Wait, it was the NIT? Uh-oh, this might not be such a rosy outcome…
The Longhorns had the big wins and the advanced metrics rankings to merit an NCAA Tournament bid last year, but the young team simply lost too many winnable games, and the 16-16 record/eyesore was ultimately too much to overcome. The ‘Horns showed impressive resolve, though, overcoming an injury to lottery pick Jaxson Hayes to rip off five straight victories in the NIT, breeding optimism for 2019-20.
Should that be the case, though? Winning the NIT has not been a harbinger of future success – just ask Penn State and Stanford, the Villanova/Duke of the NIT, who have won the event twice in the last ten years but struggled mightily in the ensuing campaigns:
Only one team has gone on to win an NCAA Tournament game, something Smart likely needs to do to keep the torch-and-pitchfork crowd away from his office. In fact, only three even qualified for the Dance, a concerning trend that Texas will need to buck if the Longhorn masses are to be quieted.
Texas has reasons for optimism, though, and the biggest of those is not a player: Smart hired Luke Yaklich as an assistant after John Beilein made the shocking jump to the Cavaliers, adding one of the best defensive minds in college basketball and the architect of Michigan and Illinois State’s recent brilliance on that end. Defense has never been Smart’s weakness at Texas, but with Yaklich in the fold, this could be a top 10 team on that end. Jericho Sims should finally get the minutes he deserves at the five after backing up Hayes and Mo Bamba his first two seasons, and the team obviously played well with him taking over for the NIT run. Freshman big man Will Baker is more of a finesse, skilled guy, so although he’ll certainly earn some minutes and be a scoring threat, Sims makes more sense to be the Jon Teske of Yaklich’s system. Fellow froshy Kai Jones oozes defensive potential with his bounce and endless arms, but he’s quite thin and may struggle with the Big 12’s physicality early in his career.
Another crucial part of what made Yaklich’s defenses so tough was their switchability. Matt Coleman and Courtney Ramey are two smaller guards, but so was Zavier Simpson – the key is competing on the ball and playing within the system. Sharpshooting wing Jase Febres has more size, and I’d expect to see plenty of sophomore Gerald Liddell and freshman Donovan Williams if they quickly take to the system, as they offer the kind of physical potential defensively that made players like Charles Matthews and Deontae Hawkins so effective. The mental side of defense is tougher to predict for young guys, and although Yaklich will have his guys as well-prepared as any team in the country, his scheme still requires precise rotations, maximum effort, and constant communication.
So if the problem hasn’t been defense, it obviously has to be on the other end, right? Right! Shaka’s offenses have consistently been stagnant and lacked imagination, banking far too much on simple pick-and-rolls with little to no other action happening on the court to draw the defense’s attention. Smart’s offenses consistently rank near the bottom of the entire country in play types most indicative of off-ball movement: cuts, dribble hand-offs, and shots off screens.
Coleman and Ramey are both talented players, but they were ghastly in PnR last year, ranking in the 24th and 37th percentiles, respectively, per Synergy. They rushed decisions and shots, and with the defense not worried about any weak side movement, it was easy to collapse on the young guards:
Still, though, that’s not an excuse to take the worst shot in basketball with 13 on the shot clock:
Both players need to make better reads, because with as much PnR as Smart wants to run, the Longhorns will struggle if their two primary ball-handlers can’t create efficient shots for themselves and others. Hayes was as good a roll man target as you’ll find in college basketball, particularly catching lobs (he used to be a 6’7 wide receiver), and although Sims is no slouch himself as a dunking threat, the guards will not have the same kind of security blanket barreling through the lane.
Under Shaka, the Longhorns have often lacked shooting to open up the court, compounding their offensive issues, although last year saw a noticeable uptick with Febres getting more minutes and the addition of Ramey into the lineup. Kamaka Hepa can play some stretch four, as well, and if he and Febres can open up space for Coleman and Ramey to attack, the offense’s ceiling raises noticeably.
The ultimate wild card for the Longhorns is Andrew Jones, who returned to the team last year after conquering leukemia. Jones was on the verge of stardom and an NBA career when he was diagnosed, but he looks to be far along the road to recovery, with several Texas outlets expecting him to figure prominently into this year’s team. I’m cautiously optimistic; if he does indeed return near the level he was at pre-leukemia, his playmaking, scoring, and defense will vault Texas up a tier nationally and possibly into serious contention alongside Baylor, Texas Tech, and Kansas.
Bottom Line: Texas has its question marks, but overall talent should not be one, and the addition of Yaklich could lead to a nationally dominant defense. If the offense can keep up, Texas should return to the NCAA Tournament without any issue, and the added experience for Coleman and Ramey should help. Given Smart’s position on the hot seat, though, a simple appearance may not be enough, and he’ll be hunting intently for his first Big Dance victory in Austin.