Shaka Smart spent his first year at Texas experiencing a career’s worth of highs and lows in just one season. The Longhorns beat four top-10 teams — including victories over Final Four squads North Carolina and Oklahoma — which was enough for a 20-win season and a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Once they got there, Longhorns fans were reminded of how cruel college basketball’s postseason can be.
Texas was stunned in the round of 64 when Northern Iowa’s Paul Jespersen hit a halfcourt buzzer-beater to send the Longhorns packing. It was a bitter end to an otherwise promising debut season for Smart that saw him breath new life into the program. Now everyone in Austin knows it’s time for the next step.
If Year I was about laying down the groundwork of Smart’s vision, Year II is about seeing his own recruits bring it into realization. Senior center Shaquille Cleare is projected to be the only major contributor left from the Rick Barnes era. The core of this team consists of players Smart added over the last two years. The Longhorns will be young, but they’re talented, hungry and relentlessly athletic, too.
Three sophomores -- Kerwin Roach, Eric Davis Jr. and Tevin Mack — serve as the foundation of the team. Roach and Davis are explosive guards who will have an edge athletically against anyone they face. Mack offers some versatility at 6’6 to man either forward spot and provide Smart with high-energy minutes on both ends.
Smart has augmented that group with the country’s No. 5 recruiting class, led by a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans in big man Jarrett Allen and combo guard Andrew Jones. Jones gives the ‘Horns a guard able to create offense off the bounce with the size to play on or off the ball. Allen’s combination of length and speed in the front court makes him a projected one-and-done. It will be fascinating to see what Smart gets out of him if this really is his only college season.
Whether a team this young can win right away is up for debate, but there’s no question Smart has Texas trending in an exciting direction. This sleeping giant might not be sleeping for much longer.
Let’s start here:
That’s Kerwin Roach Jr., a guard who began his freshman season by breaking the vertical jump test machine and ended it with one of the best dunks of the year. Now a sophomore, Roach inherits the starting point guard spot from the departed Isaiah Taylor. At its best, Texas hopes Roach can embody the type of recruit Smart is clearly targeting: a bundle of energy unbound by the standard laws of gravity.
Roach will be joined in the backcourt by Davis, a fellow sophomore. Both players averaged just over seven points per game last season and should each jump leap into double-figure scorers in year two. The hope is that Roach and Davis will be able to keep the turnovers down while cranking up the tempo.
Texas couldn’t crack the top 300 in tempo last season, which was a far cry from Smart’s best work at VCU. Smart’s teams finished in the top 80 in tempo his last three years in Richmond and topped out at No. 25 in 2014. He certainly has the athletes to push the pace in his second year at Texas if he wants to.
Allen is the other part of that equation. At this stage of his career, his best attribute may be his mobility. Allen runs the court hard and should find himself with some easy buckets by getting out in the open floor with Texas’ guards. His 7’5.5 wingspan is another game-changer that could help kickstart some transition opportunities via blocks or rebounds.
Cleare should find himself with plenty of minutes as this team’s lone veteran, but he’s limited in both length and mobility. Texas’ best lineup will be when they go small with Allen at center, Mack at the four and the three guards on the perimeter. The rest of the Big 12 better get used to it, because this is just the start.
The trade-off for all that athleticism? Texas doesn’t have any true shooters from the outside.
Smart will have to hope his sophomores can improve from deep. Davis is the best shooter of the trio after hitting 38.2 percent of 110 threes last season. Roach (32.8 percent) and Mack (29.8 percent) need some work. Spacing and shooting will become even more of an issue when Texas plays two big men with Cleare and Allen on the court at the same time.
It will be interesting to see if Smart tries to overcome the lack of shooting by pressing more this season than he did last year. The athletes are in place. If history is any indication, you can trust Shaka Smart to turn them into basketball players before long.