Zero returning starters from a team that lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament doesn’t signal “vote for this team.” However, when the preseason rankings were announced, there was Texas ranked No. 21 in the media poll and 22nd in the coaches’ rankings.
Such is life at a “brand” school.
“We’re a long way from being in the top 25 right now,” said second-year Longhorn coach Shaka Smart.
“Whoever votes on those polls, they have their opinions, but we all know in the preseason what that can mean.
“I do think this is a team that can grow and develop and become all the things that we want to become, including a team that’s talked about and voted in that area.”
What the voters see is Smart, one of college basketball’s brightest young (age 39) coaches at a big-time school. That combination has already yielded some impressive recruits with more on the way.
This season Texas will rely on a roster stocked with freshmen and sophomores. Isaiah Taylor, a three-year starter at point guard, left early for the NBA Draft. Post players Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh, who combined for combined for 15.2 points and 13.5 rebounds last season, exhausted their eligibility.
Two McDonald’s All-Americans – 6-foot-11 Jarrett Allen and 6-foot-4 Andrew Jones – figure to play large roles. James Banks, a raw 6-foot-10 freshman, joined Allen on a gold-medal winning USA basketball team coached by Smart over the summer.
“I think it’s definitely a more versatile group from the stand point of last year the ball was in Isaiah Taylor’s hands, and he was going to make a decision to make a play,” Smart said. “I think this year there is going to be more interchangeable parts, particularly on our perimeter with different guys playing the point guard position, different guys playing off the ball. We’re going to have to play point guard by committee, and that will be interesting to follow.”
Smart guided VCU to the 2010 Final Four by beating Kansas in the Elite Eight. His Rams teams created havoc with defensive pressure while sniping successfully from 3-point range. Last year’s Texas team was ill-suited to that style, but expect more of a return to that this season.
“I tell these guys all the time, if we care about two things above all others, we’re going to be just fine,” Smart said. “Care about each other and care about what goes into winning. Well, in order to care about something, you actually have to know what it is.
“That’s what our job is with these freshmen, to help them understand down to the smallest detail what’s going to go into success for them.”
Texas at a glance
Coach: Shaka Smart.
Last season: 20-13 overall, 11-7 in Big 12, fourth.
NCAA Tournament: Lost in first round.
Key departures: G Isaiah Taylor, G Javan Felix, C Cameron Ridley, C Prince Ibeh, F Connor Lambert, G DeMarcus Holland.
Starters returning: None.
Top returnees: 6-foot-3 Sr. G Kendal Yancy, 6-foot-4 Soph. G Kerwin Roach Jr., 6-foot-3 Soph. G Eric Davis Jr., 6-foot-8 Sr. F Shaquille Cleare, 6-foot-7 Soph. G/F Tevin Mack.
Newcomers: 6-11 Fr. F Jarrett Allen, 6-foot-10 Fr. C James Banks, 6-foot-4 Fr. G Andrew Jones, 6-foot-2 Fr. G Jacob Young.
Replacing Taylor, who ran the team and was the go-to scorer at crunch time, will be a major challenge. To start the season, it appears that sophomores Roach and Davis will share the point guard job while Jones could also be in the mix. Davis and Mack are the best returning 3-point shooters; the Longhorns struggled to score from deep last season.
Allen, a five-star recruit, will be counted on to step in as a starter. Cleare, who averaged 12 minutes a game as a reserve last season, has lost 40 pounds. If he’s able to gain more court time, he could provide a veteran low-post threat.
Yancy and Cleare are the only seniors on the roster. They both might wind up as top reserves. With seven underclassmen on the roster, finding consistent production from the bench might be a season-long quest.
Reaching the NCAA Tournament with players who didn’t fit was a major accomplishment last season. Repeating that feat with a young but talented team would be another impressive coaching job by Smart. Year Two in Austin could be a transition season that could set up Year Three as a season that could make some March Madness noise.