The college basketball season isn’t far off. It’s time to start looking at the important questions that will shape the 2016-17 season.
He arrived in Austin as a hero. Shaka Smart came to the Texas Longhorns last season to salvage a program that had stalled on the court and the recruiting circuit in the final years of the Rick Barnes era. In Smart’s first season, he battled significant injuries, youth and a tough schedule — but still led the Longhorns to the NCAA tournament.
Now, he enters his second season.
And as 2016-17 approaches, what’s a reasonable expectation for Texas in the second year of Smart’s tenure? The answer requires a trip back to the summer prior to Smart’s first season.
With a passionate pitch to a wavering Eric Davis Jr. and a commitment from former VCU recruit Tevin Mack, Smart secured the No. 15 class in 2015, per ESPN.com. That duo, along with sophomore Kerwin Roach Jr., will anchor a Texas team that lost six key players from last season, including the top three scorers (Isaiah Taylor, Cam Ridley and Javan Felix).
The program’s most talented recruit since Myles Turner will help, too. Jarrett Allen, an Austin native, did not sign with Texas until June. He was worth the wait for Smart, who will build his team around the 6-foot-10 potential lottery pick; Allen is ranked 15th in the 2016 class, per ESPN.com. Andrew Jones, a four-star guard and top-30 prospect, could pair with Roach to form one of the nation’s most athletic and explosive backcourts. James Banks, a four-star center from Atlanta, gives Smart another big body — a critical addition for a team that lost Ridley and Prince Ibeh.
Both Allen and Banks played on the U18 U.S. national team (coached by Smart) that won the gold medal in the 2016 world championships in Chile with a win over Canada in the championship game. Allen recorded 10 points and eight rebounds in that title matchup.
In Allen, Smart adds a star.
Two years ago, Texas failed to put Turner in the best position to succeed. He’s one of the top young players in the NBA now. Allen could join him at the next level a year from now. So it’s up to Smart to develop the freshman and unleash his gifts.
Without last year’s freshmen and the incoming class, any discussions about expectations at Texas would cease. Only talk of a rebuilding project would make sense.
But that is not the case. Not in the one-and-done era. Not in a Big 12 that lost Buddy Hield, Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden Jr., Georges Niang, Devin Williams and Taurean Prince. Not in a league that will introduce new coaches at three schools (TCU, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State). Not in a collegiate landscape that’s pegged a multitude of young teams — Duke, Arizona, Kentucky — as national title contenders.
So Texas should earn another trip to the NCAA tournament and compete for a top-four slot in the Big 12. That’s a legitimate expectation.
Yes, the Longhorns lost plenty from last year’s crew. But we know the returning players can score. Davis dropped 16 in UT’s nonconference win over North Carolina. Roach (13 points, six rebounds) proved to be one of the few Longhorns who got off the plane to face Baylor in a first-round loss in the Big 12 tournament. Mack, with more minutes, will help, too.
But Jones and Allen could lift the program. The 6-4 guard and the 6-10 big man will allow Smart to push the pace on both ends of the floor.
He’ll also have veterans in the mix. Shaquille Cleare gives Smart a veteran big body he can go to if Allen and Banks struggle early. Kendal Yancy connected on 41 percent of his 3-pointers last season. Mareik Isom, a 6-9 forward from Austin who made 40 percent of his 3-pointers at Arkansas-Little Rock last season, has the experience and range to contribute. As a graduate transfer, Isom is eligible to play right away this season.
This is, however, a young team. Smart’s success in his second season is tied to talented underclassmen. And that crew can guide Texas back to the NCAA tournament and a respectable finish in the Big 12.
All of this comprises the best-case-scenario, though.
But what could go wrong for Smart’s team? So much.
The Longhorns lost Taylor, the team’s catalyst and an all-Big 12 first-teamer. Smart will need a freshman or sophomore to replace his production and role. Ibeh won the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award in 2015-16. Smart’s team finished 45th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings last season. He finished in the top 25 during his last two years at VCU. He’d finished No. 1 in defensive turnover percentage in three of four years prior to his stint at Texas. Last season, the Longhorns ranked 152nd. Will the new faces boost UT’s defense?
Beyond that …
What if they can’t shoot? Again. Texas finished outside the top 200 in 3-point shooting last year. Mack made 27 percent of his 2-pointers and Davis made a subpar 36 percent of his 2-pointers. There are pertinent questions about a squad that could ride another offensive unit built on penetration and post play with few weapons on the perimeter.
Yet Smart has better athletes and more talent than he had last season. And that team beat North Carolina in nonconference play and reached the NCAA tournament. With Allen and Jones on board, Smart’s 2016-17 squad has a higher ceiling.
That’s why another trip to the NCAA tournament seems reasonable for Smart in his second year in Austin.