Any school’s basketball fortunes can turn around with two or three good players, but without a point guard, none of it matters. The special ones launch the coach, the team and fan base into another stratosphere.
Mateen Cleaves lifted Michigan State and Tom Izzo into the upper echelon. Marquette’s Dwyane Wade made Tom Crean a household name. There is no question Rick Barnes doesn’t reach the 2003 Final Four without T.J. Ford leading Texas.
The cat’s out of the bag about Shaka Smart’s Longhorns. Texas lacks a true, ankle-breaking, no-look-passing, game-changing, coach-defining point guard.
That deficiency will be on display again Wednesday when Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans (19.8 points, 5.2 assists) hits the Erwin Center. And probably again on Saturday when Texas tangles with Iowa State’s Monte Morris in Ames.
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How did Texas (6-7, 0-1 Big 12) get in this situation? It’s a confluence of events, really. Smart, whose mantra is to go 1-0 in everything, isn’t big on rehashing why. He’s focused on the future. Or, more specifically, he’s focused on who could affect UT’s future.
Smart has the entire coaching staff’s gaze affixed to Matt Coleman, a 6-2 guard from Oak Hill Academy located in Mouth of Wilson, Va. He could be Smart’s Ford if Texas can win a critical recruiting battle against Duke for Coleman’s services.
Coleman’s averaged 11.1 points and 6.1 assists in 14 games this season while shooting 48 percent from 3-point range. He’s considered the eighth-best point guard recruit in the nation, according to 247Sports. Landing Jarrett Allen was big for Texas; Coleman would be bigger.
Manna from heaven? Well, four-star sustenance from Virginia, anyway.
Last summer, Smart got to coach Coleman with the Team USA U-18 squad that won the goal medal in Chile. Asked about ball distribution, Coleman said, “You’re playing with 11 high-level guys. They can heat up just as quick as you can.
“Then, being a point guard, you’ve got to make sure the others around you are happy and you’ve got to get your shots off,” Coleman told the American-Statesman. “You’ve got to make sure everybody is willing to play with you.”
The series of events that led Texas to Coleman’s doorstep started when Smart arrived in Austin.
When Smart took over the Texas job in April 2015, he inherited a veteran team that lost an NBA lottery pick (Myles Turner) and nearly sophomore guard Isaiah Taylor, who was weighing whether to go pro.
“We had one scholarship remaining,” Smart said. “There were a couple of guys we were really, really interested in that we just didn’t get. That late recruiting, when you first get a job, it’s different. It’s kind of a microwave deal.”
Fortunately for Smart, Taylor returned for his junior season, giving the Horns two solid point guard options in Taylor and Javan Felix. Kerwin Roach Jr., then a freshman, started the year playing some point guard. But Smart eventually moved Roach to shooting guard, which helped his overall play.
Meanwhile, the coaching staff was on the recruiting trail looking for more guards.
Texas landed Houston Yates’ Jacob Young, listed as the nation’s 23rd-best point guard recruit by 247Sports. Irving MacArthur’s Andrew Jones told coaches he wanted to be recruited as a point guard. He was the state’s fifth-best overall prospect — one spot behind Allen — but was listed as a combo guard by most recruiting services.
Other top guards told Texas coaches they weren’t interested or had already committed elsewhere. Recruiting nowadays is a multi-year process, and Smart doesn’t want to use junior college players as stop-gap measures. He’s not just guessing on Coleman’s interest, either. Smart has followed him since the eighth grade. Coleman is also close with Briante Weber, one of Smart’s best players at Virginia Commonwealth. On Twitter, Weber has referred to Coleman as “my little brother.”
What’s ironic is that had Texas signed a top-shelf point guard last season, the Horns probably aren’t in the running for Coleman. “It’s tricky because everyone affects everyone else in recruiting,” Smart said.
Had Taylor stayed for his senior season, the Horns would be set. Instead, Taylor went undrafted and is now playing for the Houston Rockets’ NBA D-league team in Rio Grande Valley.
The Texas coaching staff faces some difficult choices about who to play. Roach (three assists, 2.1 turnovers per game) is a shooting guard forced to handle the ball probably more than he should. Young (.255 shooting from 3-point range) and Jones (32 assists, 31 turnovers) are learning how difficult college basketball truly is.
A fourth option would have been sophomore Eric Davis Jr. But like Roach, he’s not a true point guard, either. Davis has struggled all season with his shot, averaging 6.7 points when the staff was banking on double digits.
If Texas added a dynamite point guard, no matter who that might be, everyone can go back to their true position and things might turnaround.
So the Longhorns must plow ahead, making the best of a difficult situation at arguably the most important position on the floor. As for Coleman, they’re leaving a burnt orange light on for him.
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email [email protected].