Last March, it took less than three seconds for Paul Jesperson to rip the heart out of Texas basketball fans.
Mere moments after an Isaiah Taylor floater found its way into the hoop, tying the Longhorns’ NCAA Tournament opener against Northern Iowa at 72, Jesperson unloaded a halfcourt heave that would have been remembered as the shot of the tournament if not for Villanova’s Kris Jenkins.
Many of the Texas players who suffered at the hands of Jesperson’s miracle rainbow are gone. Cameron Ridley, Connor Lammert, Demarcus Holland, Javan Felix, and Prince Ibeh all graduated in the spring. Taylor — the point guard many expected to lead the way this season — declared for the NBA Draft. Those six players accounted for 62.8 percent of the total minutes played and 61.8 percent of the total points scored by the Longhorns last season. The numbers would likely be even higher had Ridley, the team’s best post presence, not missed 20 games with a broken foot.
With much of Texas’ experience no longer on the roster, head coach Shaka Smart will turn to his underclassmen to lead the way in 2016-’17. The Longhorns return all three four-star recruits from a 2015 class that ranked 17th in the country, according to 247Sports. All three rising sophomores — Eric Davis, Kerwin Roach, and Tevin Mack — figure to play major roles in their second seasons.
Roach, a 6-foot-4 guard, was by far the most productive of the trio last season, posting a 6.3 Box Plus/Minus rating, which ranked fourth-best among the team’s rotation players. Although he averaged 16.7 points per 40 minutes coming off the bench, it was his defense that stuck out. Roach showed a penchant for ending opponents’ possessions both on the defensive glass (15.8 defensive rebound rate) and by creating steals (2.9 steal rate). Those skills should appease his head coach, who may rely more on the “Havoc”-style system that made him so successful at VCU now that he has better athletes on the roster. Although he was the most productive player in the class, Roach may not be the most important for Texas’s immediate future.
Only one Longhorn shot better than 36 percent from three last season (minimum 50 attempts): Eric Davis. A 6-foot-2 guard from Saginaw, Michigan, the 19-year-old will once again be one of the few shooters on the team during his sophomore campaign. In an era of smarter defenses on a roster filled with capable slashers, the impact of Davis’s ability to spread the floor will be magnified significantly.
Davis, Roach, and Mack will be joined in Austin by a top-five recruiting class headlined by five-star center Jarrett Allen and four-star combo guard Andrew Jones. While he likely won’t be an important factor in the Longhorns’ offense, Allen’s 7-foot-6 wingspan and solid perimeter mobility should make him a key cog in what could be one of the Big 12’s best defenses. If Allen is able to protect the paint AND switch onto smaller players for stretches, it will make Texas an incredibly versatile defensive team. Jones, meanwhile, will likely be tasked with picking up some of the scoring load without Taylor around. Despite not primarily playing point guard in high school, the 18-year-old Jones should have the ball a lot; Smart will be looking for playmakers to score.
The road to the Big 12 regular season championship runs through Lawrence, but Shaka Smart is doing all he can to build a conference competitor down in Austin. The Longhorns’ 2016-’17 roster likely isn’t experienced enough to knock Kansas from its perch, but don’t be surprised if Texas finishes the year as the second-best team in the league with a good seed in the NCAA Tournament.
From there, they’ll just hope any halfcourt heaves rim out.