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Can Shaka Smart Turn Texas On Its Head Next Year?

The biggest coaching hire of the offseason in the college basketball world was the hiring of Shaka Smart at Texas. Maybe it hasn’t gotten the attention of some of the other major hires in college sports like Michigan football picking up Jim Harbaugh, but make no mistake–this was a massive hire.

Even the college coaches agree that Smart heading to Austin was the biggest hire of the offseason in college hoops. In a recent CBSSports poll, the coaches not only selected Smart to Texas as the top hire of the offseason, but did so by a pretty large margin. It’s not every day that a coach can take a program like VCU and turn it into a perennial Top 25 team, it’s even rarer when another program can lure them away from the program they helped build.

Of course, this did just happen in Austin and Longhorn fans have to be excited about the state and direction of their program. With 24 NCAA Tournament appearances since the late 1980s, Texas has actually been one of the more consistent and successful teams in the country. Still, under former head coach Rick Barnes, the Longhorns seemed to consistently underachieve in the NCAA Tournament while struggling to replicate the success Barnes experienced early in his time in Austin. In his final seven seasons with the program, the Longhorns failed to make it past the 3rd Round of the NCAA Tournament.

Now, Shaka Smart will hope to take the program to the next level.

On the positive side, Smart will have a lot of talent at his disposal. As mentioned, although Barnes had trouble getting Texas deep into the NCAA Tournament and competing at the top of the Big 12 consistently, his rosters were typically loaded with talent–and this past year’s Texas team was no exception. Thanks to that talent base, Smart won’t have to look three or four years down the road to win.

Of course, the Longhorns will have to find a way to replace its two major frontcourt contributors in Jonathan Holmes and Myles Turner, but virtually everyone else returns next season. Texas only had an 8-10 record in the Big 12 last year, but considering the depth and talent in the conference and the fact that the team still made the NCAA Tournament, there should be a lot of depth and experience returning from a good, but not great team. These returns are highlighted by Demarcus Holland and Isaiah Taylor, who both had productive seasons last year.

On top of the significant returns, the Longhorns also add three really solid incoming recruits in a class that is rated No. 14 nationally and second in the Big 12 by 247Sports. Both Eric Davis and Kerwin Roach should be valuable additions in the backcourt, and Tevin Mack could be a boost on the wing. All three prospects are rated as 4-star recruits and should add to an already deep Texas lineup.

Still, with so much talent, how is Smart going to shake things up? After all, he was brought in not to continue the recent success of Barnes, but to exceed it. There’s no guarantee that Smart will have success in Austin, but one thing that is certain is that Smart will turn Texas on its head by changing the style and dynamic of the program.

Style is often overrated in college basketball. Many believe that playing a certain way or developing a roster in a certain manner leads to success, but it’s more about executing a given game plan. A coach can have the best X’s and O’s knowledge out there, but if he can’t recruit or develop the players to fulfill that game plan, it makes no difference. It’s about a proper balance, not a style, but Smart certainly does have one of the more unique styles in the country.

Smart’s “havoc” style of game play has become well known across the country due to its up and down style of play and ability to pressure opponents. Despite some theories, this will not be a revolution of pace of play as both teams were relatively close in pace of play since Smart took over at VCU.

Barnes v. Smart In Adjusted Pace Since 2010:

Rather, there should be a new look defense for the Longhorns. Though nobody can be quite sure how much of VCU’s defense will make the trip to Austin, one has to assume that at least the core principles will translate with Smart at the helm. If so, Texas could see a huge jump in opponent turnovers and steal rate in the coming season and going forward thanks to Smart’s addition. Just see how Barnes and Smart’s teams compared in those two stats since Smart took over at VCU.

Barnes v. Smart In Turnover Rate Since 2010:

Barnes v. Smart In Steal Rate Since 2010:

The Longhorns weren’t anywhere near a bad defense last year. In fact, they were rated #21 nationally in defense efficiency according to KenPom, but if they can perform close to how they did in half court settings last year and also add what Smart brings to the table for a defense’s ability to pressure the ball, this could very well become an elite defense next season if things go right.

The other wildcard is that with the talent level that Texas has traditionally brought to the court, it could make up for some of the deficiencies that Smart’s defenses have shown during his time at VCU. One of the consistent criticisms has been that if an opponent has an experienced backcourt and particularly, a talented point guard, the impact of VCU’s pressure decreases significantly. With a good ball-handler, a team can avoid the turnovers that VCU feasted upon to fuel their offense and transitional game.

However, with elite-level guards, they should not only be able to apply pressure anyway, but they should also hold up better in half court scenarios and make the defense even better. Smart has plenty of talent on the roster with players like Holland and Taylor and is also adding great prospects in Eric Davis and Tevin Mack that may be able to help in this area down the line.  Not only could this add a dynamic element to Smart’s traditional style of game play, but really could allow Texas to reach the next level.

There’s no guarantee that the Longhorns will be better down the line for hiring Shaka Smart, but with his unique style of play and the talent he should have on this year’s Texas roster and beyond, fans could be amazed at how the team looks on the floor. This wild experiment may or may not work, but it will flip what Longhorn fans have seen on its head in the coming seasons.

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