Shaka Smart never lacks energy or positivity. Even during last year’s 11-22 disaster, the Texas head coach arrived at weekly media sessions with the energy and outlook of a 22-11 coach, masking a competitive fire burning within but remaining true to himself and his message to his team.
But even by Smart’s standards he was unusually energetic last Wednesday, and radiated a level of confidence and optimism that didn’t match last season’s results and the recent news of Jarrett Allen’s official departure.
“What you don’t want to do is flush the season down the toilet as much as some of those guys might have wanted to do that. You have to get up and close and personal with it and learn from it and understand here are some of the things that went into the season we had both individually and collectively,” said Smart.
Once he revealed he’s in the middle of rewatching last season, the sunshine and rainbows that followed him into Texas’ Centennial Room on the UT campus was even more surprising because, well, those that watched last season would probably deem watching it again a form of torture.
“For me, first time and hopefully last time in a long time I go through a season like that. It was something I’m able to reflect on and look back at. I’m in the process of watching games, started in reverse order and just taking a lot of notes on things that we did, and things we need to improve on,” the Texas head coach said. “Next year’s team will be different. But I think there’s a lot to learn.”
In all seriousness, Smart isn’t wrong. There’s a lot to learn, and 11-22 offers plenty opportunities to learn. Reflection at Texas was and is still needed, and next season’s Longhorns need to be a much different team.
Perhaps seeing Matt Coleman’s signature arrive can have that effect. After all, Smart desperately needed a true point guard, and he’s known Coleman since eighth grade. Now, the Texas head coach can check that box with his number one choice, and Coleman is coming off a performance in the Jordan Brand Classic – eight points on 3-of-6 shooting with eight assists, three steals, and just one turnover in 16 minutes, including all the crunchtime minutes for a winning side - where he was arguably the best true point guard on the floor.
“There’s a ton of time that goes into it. In his case, way more than anyone else that I’ve ever been part of recruiting,” Smart said about the amount of time that goes into recruiting a top target, specifically Coleman. “You always know that it might work out, or it might not.”
For Texas and Smart, it worked out, and Coleman is the type of personality and player at a premium position that can change the trajectory of a program still establishing its culture. Texas wants culture-drivers. Coleman is exactly that, but being a culture-driver means there’s culture that needs to be driven.
Smart conquered the challenge of going head-to-head with Duke for his guy, but that’s merely a prerequisite to unlock a chance to tackle an even bigger challenge: finalizing and stabilizing a 2017-18 roster that can not only elevate the Texas program substantially next season, but can also bat leadoff for a lineup of successful, winning rosters that follow.
“Now, you may or may not really factor this in, but the challenging dynamic we had was we had that older group our first year, we lost seven guys (five seniors a transfer and Isaiah Taylor) and we did a pretty good job recruiting with the 2016 class,” Smart told the media last week. “But we still didn’t have the roster to do some of the things we wanted to do. We still didn’t have the experience ultimately to win some of the games we needed to win. Now, hopefully that’s something we can learn from, grow from. What you try to do as a coach is stabilize the roster you have and there’s a lot of moving parts. Our sport is unique compared to every other sport at the college level in that the best players play one year and those guys are gone.”
How can Smart do that? It’s not easy, but as Texas becomes a program filled with more experience and more of his players, it’s achievable. Plus, Smart’s recruiting at Texas thus far has been stellar. In this instance, there are three parts to the 2017-18 Texas roster construction: current players, future players, and future players that have yet to commit or sign.
PART ONE: RETURNING PLAYERS
Let’s start with the returning players, and because he’s yet to play a game in a Texas uniform, we’ll treat redshirt junior Dylan Osetkowski as a recruit.
Juniors – Kerwin Roach, Jr. (combo guard), Eric Davis, Jr. (guard)
Sophomores – Andrew Jones* (combo guard), Jacob Young (combo guard), James Banks (center)
Jones making a return to Austin for his sophomore season isn’t a guarantee. Anytime a talented player puts his name into the NBA Draft to test the waters, there’s at least a very small chance he might not come back. So, before a true discussion about returning players can happen, Jones’ status lingers around the program like an overcast day when the weather forecast said zero chance of rain.
“He’s been great. With Andrew, he, like any other guy coming in here, he has really big aspirations and goals and I think he’s a guy that has a great opportunity to be a good player at the highest level,” Smart said when asked about Jones’ status in relation to his NBA Draft declaration without an agent. “He also understands he needs to continue to grow and get better and improve. So, what he wanted to do is exactly what they call it – test the waters.
“What’s been really good is he and I and his Dad, who has a coaching background, have been in constant communication. He’s been in Cooley every day working out with our guys, working out with coach (Daniel) Roose… he’s lifting weights right now as we speak. He’s very engaged with our team and our guys. We’ve put certain things in place just as a team to move forward off the court. He’s been really good about that. His work-ethic has been terrific. He’s really, really motivated, which is great.”
As quoted above, Smart mentioned he’s been in constant contact with Jones and his family regarding his future next season. People with knowledge of the decision and process would be surprised if Jones isn’t at Texas next season.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to coach him next year. Obviously, at the end of the day, like anyone else, it’s up to a young man and his family what they do. I feel good about [it]... I think he really wants to see kind of where he stacks up and get some great experience with workouts with NBA teams.”
So for discussion’s sake, let’s include Jones on the 2017-18 Texas roster. As the 2016-17 season progress, Jones started to show why he was a five-star prospect and a McDonald’s All-American. However, he too needs to make a big jump next season just like the rest of Texas’ returners. Although he’s immensely talented with a bright future, being a better player next season it’s a guarantee.
“I think all of our returning guys need to make a really big jump. I think our freshmen… I always feel like that the year where you have an opportunity to make a seismic jump, but it’s not a guarantee. I tell those guys every chance you get learn from Eric Davis, Jr. because, I tried to warn him of this, but he kind of felt like, ‘Hey, I’m automatically going to be anointed as this great player after a very good freshman year,’ and I think we all know that wasn’t the case he had his struggles. In fact, Andrew and I were just meeting about an hour ago talking about this you have to do what goes into creating that jump.”
“I think Andrew Jones, Jacob Young, James Banks, those guys have really demonstrated a terrific work-ethic since the season ended. They’re willing to do extra. They have a chance to take a real jump, but what goes into winning is… here are a lot of things that go into winning: obviously, points and rebounds and assists help, but I think it’s beyond statistics. For us, when we measure the jump they take it’s not just about Andrew going from 11.5 points to whatever it may be. It’s about taking a jump as a teammate, as a leader; it’s about learning more of the intricacies of handling late-game situations. I think with those three freshmen the reason they have a chance to take a big jump is they have their feet under them, and they’re not in this cloud.”
Jones lived at 24 Hour Fitness in high school. Young is the son of Phi Slamma Jamma’s Michael Young, the brother of NBA player Joe Young, and a graduate of his father’s infamously grueling hoops workouts. Banks, through hard work, transformed himself from a clumsy big guy that outgrew high school football and rode the JV bench to a Team USA U18 member.
Those are the types of personalities, stories, work-ethics, and mentalities Smart wants to serve as his program's foundation – hard work, competitiveness, and skill and talent. While the development of Roach and Davis will play massive roles in how big of a jump Texas takes next season, the Longhorns’ sophomore trio could shape the culture of the program just as much, and probably more. Yes, even as a potential two-and-done, Jones’ impact in those areas could be significantly felt as they’re passed on.
As for Roach and Davis, they should be better players next season, assuming they learn from sophomore slumps and approach their junior seasons more focused on work-ethic and their roles than assuming basketball will get easier.
Roach won’t be asked to handle the ball as much, allowing him to slide into his natural position off the ball and as a slasher and playmaker. However, his true growth will depend on the realization he can be one of the league’s best defenders if he wants to be, and one of its better players if he plays with the mental focus, effort, and confidence he showed more as a freshman, like a truly dominant game against Vanderbilt (15 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, one turnover, four steals).
We know Davis can shoot. A career 73.5 percent free throw shooter that shot 38.1 percent from three-point range over 110 freshman attempts, Davis can knock down shots when his mind is in the right place, and when he’s flanking playmaking guards. That kind of a freshman season doesn’t happen by accident. Davis’ 2015-16 shooting percentages and stats were extremely similar to Jordan Matthews’ his freshman season, and Matthews developed into a key starting piece for a Gonzaga team that played for a national championship.
What we don’t know is whether he’ll bounce back from his ugly sophomore season the way he needs to, but it can’t get any worse than an extremely humbling sophomore campaign.
Texas’ returning group includes a potential star, three other potential key rotation pieces with some experience, and a role-playing guard that might best represent the chip-on-the-shoulder, warrior-like mentality Smart wants to infect his program.
But, again, this group’s 2017-18 season-defining role will be founded by its work-ethic, mental approach, and its ability to establish a culture after being handed its blueprint in the form of cruel, 11-22-type lessons. Those five players above are, along with Smart and his staff, in charge of starting a cycle of culture being passed from one team to another, because besides Jones - assuming he’ll turn pro after his sophomore season if he doesn’t this year - they will be in the program for multiple years.
“It’s hard to say anyone is more important than the guy that’s going to be all the things that Jarrett’s (Allen) going to be or all the things Kevin Durant was here, T.J. (Ford). But, I think if you look at any successful teams at the college level there is a level of upperclass leadership that allows those very, very talented young guys to flourish and be the best they can be,” responded Smart when asked if in a way the three and four-year players as just as important as the one-and-dones because of their ability to elevate those future NBA players.
“So, every situation is different. We’re recruiting to Texas. When I was at VCU, we recruited to VCU. Everyone has their own deal. For us, there’s no question. If we can recruit a good number of solid guys that become leaders on our team, become culture-drivers on our team, and help us build the culture and the mindset that we want to have, then that’s what allows it to be pervasive and go from one year to the next. If not, you’re just going from year to year, which is basically what we were doing going from year one to year two just because we lost so many guys.”
PART TWO: THE FUTURE LONGHORNS
Freshmen – Matt Coleman (point guard; No. 43 overall nationally), Jericho Sims (forward; No. 56 overall), Jase Febres (shooting guard; No. 66 nationally), Royce Hamm (forward; No. 117 nationally)
Redshirt junior – Dylan Osetkowski (sat out last season after transferring from Tulane)
“With those four players, Dylan, plus some others we may add as the spring goes on, really excited about what our team is going to look like,” Smart said. “Very much excited about the look of the way our guys have approached this offseason. When you combine the new with the returning guys, looking forward to seeing how that [looks].”
While Coleman has been a topic of discussion for well over a year, and could end up being the most important recruit Smart ever signs at Texas, Osetkowski might make a bigger impact next season. After sitting out a year, per NCAA transfer rules, Osetkowski, who some on the 40 Acres have compared to Georges Niang, is ready to unleash his all-around game.
“Even though he’s been here, he’s kind of like a recruit. He has been terrific in practice all year,” Texas’ head coach said about Osetkowski. “I worked him out on game days so he and I could stay engaged during the season. It was really good for me as we were going through a really challenging season getting a chance to be around him for an hour in the gym. He and I connecting around what we need to do to help him take a big jump… he has a chance to be a very, very good player here. He’s cerebral. He’s tough. He’s 260 pounds. Really strong. He’s going to be an impact player.”
Not only will Osetkowski’s versatile, inside-outside skill in the frontcourt make an immense impact, but his vocal presence and toughness are two things the Longhorns lacked in painfully obvious ways last year.
“That’s something I see some guys on our team that, some younger guys that could become that in time. But you have to gain a level of self-assuredness first… probably the best candidate, to be honest, is Dylan (Osetkowski),” stated Smart during last season when asked about the team’s lack of vocal leadership. “He’s not playing right now, but long-term he’s a guy that’s not afraid to speak up. Guys know he cares. But that’s big when you have someone like that.”
Joining Osetkowski as a vocal presence will be Coleman. Frankly, he’s a chatterbox, and extremely competitive.
“Coached a kid at VCU named Briante Weber, who is from what they call in that area is the ‘757,’ the Norfolk/Tidewater area. … players from there are a little bit different. They take a real pride in a toughness level and they have a swagger about them. Briante is from that area, and Matt was like a little brother to him, and still is,” said Smart when asked what first stood out to him about Coleman. “I think the first time we met Matt he was in eighth grade and he just had a confidence about him that really belied his age… he just had a swagger and confidence about himself that caught my attention. When I saw him play, he’s always been beyond his years in the way that plays. He was more of a savvy of an older guard, older point guard and he’s just gotten better and better over the years.”
What Coleman offers is almost everything Texas didn’t get last season from the position last season. The 6-2 lefthander does a lot of things instinctively at the position that most believe can’t be taught. Plus, he makes players around him better, and takes pride in doing so. Running an offense and being a floor general is what it looks like he was put on Earth to do, and he won’t shy away from a chance to lead.
“Matt becomes one of the perimeter players on our team that is really going to drive the success that we want to have,” stated Texas’ head coach. “Matt Coleman is a pure point guard. He orchestrates offense; he gets other guys shots; he makes everyone around him better. He’s one of those guys when he’s on the floor anyone else playing with him takes a step forward and that’s regardless of what position he’s playing.”
Adding someone with Coleman’s skill and mentality is a perfect complement to a veteran that is at best being set up as a shooter (Davis), a veteran best at playing off the ball and slashing as a playmaker (Roach), and a do-it-all, potential star combo guard that can feast on attacking defenders in space, run the show, or can spot up (Jones). Plus, Coleman, combined with other playmaking guards, has the ability to enhance strengths of guards like Febres and Young while also running offense and working the ball inside.
“The exciting thing is if you look at some of the teams that played late into the NCAA Tournament, they had multiple playmaking guards on the floor. If anything to me, Matt is going to help our other guys improve, and also with our bigger guys on our team going to help put them in a position to be successful,” said Smart.
Make no mistake about it, Coleman isn’t a magic wand to wave in the air, and erase everything about 11-22. His biggest impact will be if he’s able to make every other guy on the roster better, and bring out the best in them. He’s a piece to the puzzle; a unique, desperately-needed piece Texas hopes is one of the final ones it needs, but a piece nonetheless.
“The first thing is communication and making sure he and I are on the same page, and also making sure he understands he doesn’t have to do anything alone,” Smart responded when asked about people viewing Coleman as the solution to all Texas' problems. “We have quite a few returning guards that had, let’s be honest, a lot of experience this year with the ball in their hands, or in position to make decisions. And they didn’t always have the best outcomes, but they had some good outcomes, other outcomes that we would have wanted to be better. As I told our guys after our last game, if we have a willingness and ability to internalize those lessons, we can really grow.”
Grow is something that Sims, Febres, and Hamm should do a lot of over the 40 Acres, and all three project to be in the program at least three years. More on that last part in a minute.
At 6-9, Sims is a rare combination of athleticism (has jumped as high as 12-9) and skill (can put the ball on the floor with both hands, and ran point guard for a year in high school). A young man that’s definitely on the quiet side, Sims was loud on the court, nicknamed the ‘Slim Reaper’ by his high school team because of his play. After an adjustment period, he could make a noticeable impact next season in a variety of ways, including scoring and defending. With his rare length and agility and foot speed, Sims can probably defend every position on the floor. Frankly, he has pro potential, and probably doesn’t even have a clue he has it because he’s just scratching the surface.
As for Febres and Hamm, the two close friends and future teammates will make their marks in different ways. At 6-6, Febres will add a desperately-needed shooting presence from the outside, but he’s more than just that. The Westfield (Spring) prospect is developing an all-around game, which includes slashing from the wing, and he’s a very smart player. Hamm needs to envision himself doing all the little things, because that’s where his impact will come from – running the floor, defending, playing with toughness, rebounding. Eventually, his skill and comfort will grow to a point that allows him to be a pick-and-pop four, among other things. However, it’s going to take time.
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Time is a theme that needs to permeate the Texas program as it relates to its young players, and it appears like it will. For culture to be established, and for it to infect the current roster and ones beyond it, players have to stay in the program. Players have to stay in the program, develop, and experience winning and live the culture while experience builds.
Make no mistake about it, teams win in college basketball with experienced players. There is only one Kentucky, a program that can choose the best of the best talent over experience and development. That’s why the development of Texas’ sophomores and its incoming freshmen is so pivotal, and why the experience it now has on its roster – three juniors, which could grow – is going to be felt because it didn’t have experienced, key players last season.
“I think it’s our job to [help them] become their best, so that they can go on to do what you said you’d help them do. At the same time, it’s our job to build out a roster around those guys that can support success and growth and winning because again, if you do look at the Final Four this year, those are older teams,” said Smart about the departure of Allen, and the challenge of building a roster that can sustain the loss of that kind of player. “Those are teams that have been through the wars.”
Smart needs a roster that’s been through the wars, and can live the program’s culture in order to tell and show the next guy what it’s going to take at Texas under Smart to win those wars.
Courtesy of McDonald's All American Game
PART THREE: FUTURE TEXAS PLAYERS THAT HAVE YET TO COMMIT OR SIGN
Texas has four recruits currently signed to join a projected six returning players. So, obviously, it has three scholarships remaining to use, if it chooses, to finish its 2017-18 roster. Texas has a few ways it can do that.
Since Allen is officially gone, and likely a lottery pick when the NBA Draft rolls around, the Longhorns have a big void to fill in the frontcourt. Smart has proven for two years now he will work inside-out on offense, but the Longhorns now need the inside of that tandem. Osetkowski can score down low, but he’s going to be at his best as a guy that can make plays both inside and outside, which includes shooting the three. Banks is going to be a good player in time, but he’s not going to be ready to handle being a consistent, featured part of the offense.
Smart is hoping that void in the frontcourt plays a significant role in pulling five-star 2017 big man Mohamed Bamba to Texas. He can’t mention recruits by name that haven’t signed, but he described his approach, and that Texas is indeed looking for a big.
“We’re looking for a big that can really fit who we want to be on and off the court. It’s the same thing we look for in at any position,” he said. “We’re excited about the returning bigs we have here. We’re excited about Jericho and Royce coming in. With losing Jarrett, there is a spot there. We’re going to continue to recruit… we feel like we have a lot to offer. We feel like Jarrett is a really, really good testament to what happens if you come in here and you work hard, you develop, you grow and you follow our plan. We’re going to keep working on it.”
They are working on it. In most situations, elite, five-stars that are in the conversation as the best player in the country usually see their circles grow as the hype increases and they near college. Bamba is the opposite. His circle shrunk, and he’s kept everything within a tight-knit family that wants to go about the process the way Bamba wants to, which includes evaluating more than just basketball. The seven-footer from Harlem, New York will value things like education, alumni base, ability to make an impact in the community, opportunities in that city post-basketball, and more. However, he also wants to be featured and developed.
Will Texas win out? It’s certainly possible, and even somewhat plausible. As we inch closer to the end of April, the conversation nationally is linking Texas to Bamba more and more. However, Kentucky’s track record in recruitments like this is impossible to ignore. Let’s just call it 50/50 at this point.
If the Longhorns land Bamba, the roster goes from better to really good no matter how it finishes the rest of the class. Regardless, it needs to add a transfer, either graduate or traditional, no matter what, and the importance of at least one of those transfer additions would grow substantially if Bamba picks somewhere other than Texas.
Ideally, Smart probably wouldn’t take many transfers. High school recruiting offers a coach an opportunity to gather information, and develop a wide-ranging report on a player on and off the court.
“It’s interesting the transfer dynamic in college basketball is continuing to snowball. We always want to build our program primarily with high school guys. The way we do things… some of the work we put in to some extent is a delayed effect. So, some of the things we did this year won’t really pay dividends until maybe next year with some of these guys,” stated Smart, referencing how they approach developing their players out of high school. “High school guys it makes the most sense because you’re putting deposits into them and hopefully as time goes by they figure it out, if you will.”
With transfers, it’s different: coaches are often cramming evaluation and getting to know the player into a very short window, and often depend on what other coaches and people say about the person and the player. There are times when coaches have relationships with transfers that dates back to high school, but those types of transfers don’t grow on trees.
Smart taking a player like Osetkowski probably took some convincing, but the results project to be so strong that he’ll likely open the door for more transfers at Texas in the future.
“With that being said, I think the addition of a guy like Dylan is very, very impactful for us," he said. "You look around the country and it’s been impactful for a lot of teams, a team like Gonzaga playing in the national championship game I think they had three transfers in their starting lineup. I think you’d be negligent as a coach to not look in that area at the same time you don’t want to add one just to add one. You have to make sure you get the right piece.”
“The thing that is interesting about transfers is they have a year to get engrained in what you do and what you’re about. It can be truly be all about the process because there are no results for them individually. I think that was really beneficial for Dylan. Now he still hasn’t played a game yet, but he’s been able to really sink his teeth into the process and make some major strides. I would take a Dylan if we could, but those guys aren’t growing on trees. We have to make sure we do our homework. We just have to make sure we do our homework because guys that transfer there’s a reason they’re transferring. Sometimes it’s what we would call a good reason, sometimes it’s because a coach wants them to transfer, so we have to do our homework.”
Smart and Texas are doing their homework on transfers right now, and have already made contact with Pittsburgh graduate transfer Cam Johnson, Memphis graduate transfer Markel Crawford, and Cleveland State transfer Rob Edwards. The latter two are much more realistic than the first, and both are tough, scoring guards with size that can knock down shots beyond the arc.
While the Longhorns won’t rush into taking a transfer without spending the time they feel necessary on the evaluation, it would be a surprise if they don’t take at least one, especially because they haven’t been linked to other high school seniors recently. Frankly, they definitely need one, and offer an appealing chance at playing time.
Ideally, the player is a graduate transfer that can step right in and offer experience and ability. Texas definitely needs both of those in a 2017-18 season that must be much, much better than the one before it. Maybe the ideal scenario is two transfers – one a graduate, and the other a traditional player that can take the path that projects Osetkowski for stardom at Texas.
We know that Texas needs a wing-like body, but we also know that it’s going to need a frontcourt player, especially if it misses on Bamba. Bamba isn’t putting Texas in limbo, but its roster construction challenge is definitely affected by his decision.
Simply put, the Longhorns need to add at least one transfer, and if they miss out on Bamba, they’ll absolutely need someone that can come in and immediately impact the 2017-18 team. Although Smart is clearly trying to build a roster that includes pieces projected to stay in the program for more than just a couple of seasons, he must win a lot of basketball games next season, and missing on Bamba would put a lot of pressure on Osetkowski, two juniors coming off up-and-down seasons, and seven freshmen and sophomores.
What happens over the next two months - freshmen begin reporting to campus May 28th - will not only shape, probably substantially, what Texas will be next season, but also will significantly affect Smart's quest to build his Texas program; a program that needs an established culture in place, and a stabilized roster. The Texas head coach has a few ways he can try to accomplish that, and the end product is still a work in progress.
However, his next big challenge as Texas' head coach is clear. Between now and the time workouts begin the first week of June, he must put a roster in place that can not only win now, but also later. There are no more transition periods, or seasons.