The freshman wall is real.
First-year players run headfirst into it and most take a little while to regain their senses in the rigors of a college basketball season.
For Texas to make some real noise in the postseason, at least one of Shaka Smart’s toddlers will have to come of age over the last half of Big 12 play. The Horns are 20 games in, and the grind of a college basketball season — from leg-draining trips to China and the Bahamas followed by the current Big 12 slate — can really weigh heavily on a set of young shoulders.
That means getting past the wall by any means necessary: Over it, around it, or through it.
Like most freshmen, Eric Davis, Kerwin Roach and Tevin Mack have ridden the roller-coaster this season, and Smart has smartly used minutes as the ultimate carrot for each, with performance acting as the main determinant. Davis and Roach have shown the most promise through the first half of the season though Mack has shown an ability to score in bunches on a couple of occasions.
We’re still waiting for that moment when all three are playing at an optimum level at the same time, but that probably won’t come until they’re sophomores. For now, Smart will happily take one out of three on a nightly basis as long as it adds up to wins. A .333 average works in baseball, but sooner rather than later, Texas’ babies are going to have to step up on more of a group basis.
“I say all the time, when the season gets done, those guys will take a little time off. But when they step back into the practice gym, they just have a different look about them,” Smart said. “The cloud has cleared and they have a clarity about them. Until then, that freshman year … there’s so much more physically, mentally, emotionally that’s demanded of you than there was the year before.”
Smart may be the best babysitter in the Big 12, and I say that in the most positive way possible. He understands that his youngsters are capable of lessening the load of leading scorer Isaiah Taylor and the more experienced players, so he has allowed them to play through their collective struggles. It’s obvious that he believes on-the-job training ranks ahead of just watching from the bench.
Prince Ibeh stole the show with a career performance against TCU on Tuesday, but Roach wasn’t far behind with a career-high 22 points. After a tough day at Kansas where he missed some easy looks in the second half of a close game, Roach was at his slashing best against the Horned Frogs. He now has four double-digit performances.
Roach is a high-flyer with the biggest upside among the three because of his freakish athleticism and the potential to add more muscle on his lithe 6-4, 170-pound frame.
“Coach always preaches process, process,” Roach said. “I’ve just been following and staying focused, having an open mind and not getting down on myself. That’s the only thing that I do well and try to keep my head clear.”
While Roach has struggled at times offensively, Davis — with eight double-digit games — hasn’t had any problems putting the ball in the hole. Problem is, despite the 8.1 scoring average that leads the freshmen, he has been instant offense on both ends at times. Smart played him only seven minutes at Kansas and didn’t make it a secret that he was benching the talented youngster because of his defensive struggles.
Davis knows his minutes will go up when his defensive intensity does the same. It’s a different world than his days as the BMOC at Hill High School in Saginaw, Michigan.
“I’ve had to change a lot of things,” Davis said. “It’s not as much about hitting a wall as about staying focused and changing things like how I eat and balance my time.”
It’s been hard to lay off his favorite double-meat cheeseburgers at McDonald’s, but that’s been a necessary sacrifice in Davis’ quest to help this team make the NCAAs. Smart would prefer he eat up opposing guards on defense.
“I’ve been on his behind,” Smart said. “I’m harder on him because I know he can be really, really good. He needs to get better on that end. He’s trying. I don’t want him playing out of any level of frustration.”
With 10 conference games remaining, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Shaka shorten his rotation as the postseason beckons. That means that minutes will be at a premium.
Now is the time for his freshmen to impress their coach by upping their production. That means conquering the opposition: The guys in the opposing uniforms as well as the wall.