Texas head coach Shaka Smart calls in a play against Iowa State on March 2, 2019 in Austin. [Rodolfo Gonzalez for American-Statesman]

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Texas’ Shaka Smart is confident with familiar faces, better shooting

Posted September 23rd, 2019

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Story highlights
  • Texas may not make it back next season in a critical fifth year for the embattled Smart after a 77-66 record either unless it can find a way to make shots and yet again develop a reliable big man in the frontcourt.
  • “Believe it or not," head coach Shaka Smart said, "we made more threes than anybody else in the Big 12.” And he’s right.
  • Swingman Jase Febres can be hot or cold from the corner, but Smart said, “We think he’s as good a shooter as there is in the league.” He and guard Courtney Ramey were Texas’ top long-range bombers, connecting on a 37.2 and 38.6 percent clip. That will work.

Jarrett Allen popped into Denton Cooley the other day, and his former coach was so impressed with his maturity and growth that he couldn’t have been happier to see him.

Well, maybe Shaka Smart could have been a little happier.

Like if Allen was sticking around the Texas basketball program a bit longer.

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“Ninety percent of me felt overwhelmingly happy,” Smart said Monday, the day before fall practice begins. “But 10 percent of me was thinking if this were the ‘80s, he’d be a senior now. And those other guys would still be in the program, too.”

They’re not. None of them.

Texas freshman Jarrett Allen talks with coach Shaka Smart during their game against Oklahoma at the Frank Erwin Center in January 2017. [DEBORAH CANNON/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
Allen just stops by for an occasional visit now and then from his day job with the Brooklyn Nets. Same for Mo Bamba, who’s in Orlando now. And also Jaxson Hayes, who arrived as a big-man project a year ago and works for the New Orleans Pelicans these days. All became big scoring weapons as freshmen, but were here today, gone tomorrow.

All three of them made pit stops at the Erwin Center before moving on to the NBA after single solitary seasons. Three freshmen bigs. Three NBA lottery picks. Three seasons of what-ifs. Four, if you count Smart’s first season when he rode Cam Ridley and Prince Ibeh to the NCAA Tournament.

Smart’s only been back to the NCAAs one time since. Twice in four seasons, Smart’s Longhorns qualified as one of the best 68 teams in the nation. He’s yet to win a single NCAA Tournament game here.

Texas may not make it back this coming season in a critical fifth year for the embattled Smart, who has fashioned a 77-66 record here, unless it can find a way to make shots and yet again develop a reliable big man in the frontcourt.

Those are always critical areas for the Longhorns, but who’s going to make shots is always my first question for Smart every fall.

Who can fill it up?

That’s proven to be the Longhorns’ undoing time and again although Smart was quick to point out that “believe it or not, we made more threes than anybody else in the Big 12.” And he’s right.

But those 325 triples came in part because they took a trillion of them. Their 934 attempts from long range ranked as the 18th most nationally among 351 teams.

Texas made a whole bunch of them, but teams like Final Four qualifiers Virginia and Texas Tech took much fewer and made a higher percentage.

Texas guard Matt Coleman III (2) and guard Courtney Ramey (3) celebrate during the first half of a final college basketball game in the National Invitational Tournament against the Lipscomb, Thursday, April 4, 2019, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The defensive-minded Cavaliers ranked just 92nd in threes made but cut down the nets. The balanced Red Raiders ranked 108th and were an overtime away from their first national title. Texas’ prolific three-point attempts went in at only at a 34.8 percent clip, about the national average. But they didn’t translate into a season any more productive than a troubling 16-16 at regular season’s end, an encouraging NIT championship notwithstanding.

Smart’s confident this will be a better season. Not sure a growing apathetic Longhorn Nation can say the same because it too often gets its collective hopes up only to have them dashed by fades in February and March.

Smart thinks that could all change because he’s got less of a revolving door in the lineup. “I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re old yet, but we’re older and more experienced.”

Better yet, he said he thinks this is the best shooting team he’s had at Texas.

He should be right.

Swingman Jase Febres can be hot or cold from the corner, but Smart said, “We think he’s as good a shooter as there is in the league.” He and guard Courtney Ramey were Texas’ top long-range bombers, connecting on a 37.2 and 38.6 percent clip. That will work.

Texas, Matt Coleman III, (2), gets the fouled by Oklahoma State, Yor Anei, (14), as he drives to the basket during the first half of NCAA college basketball game, Saturday Feb. 16, 2019, in Austin, Texas. [Rodolfo Gonzalez for AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
Like Ramey, point guard Matt Coleman is a capable perimeter shooter. He improved his shooting percentage by 4 percent, and Smart hopes he duplicates that upgrade as a junior. Both of these have been effective in getting to the basket and working pick-and-rolls. Unfortunately Hayes, who was so adept at that, is gone, and that’s never been the strong suit for center replacement Jericho Sims, an athletic big who can be explosive but needs to be so much more assertive than he was a year ago. Look for freshmen Will Baker and Kai Jones to contribute big-time inside, the same as Royce Hamm.

New freshman guard Donovan Williams had better be the real deal from outside. Kam Hepa has his moments. But the real key could be the return of Andrew Jones, the gifted shooter who has tragically dealt with leukemia but is on the rebound, “full steam ahead,” and figures to add scoring punch. He’s probably the team’s best shooter.

Smart looks for his team to play as it did in sweeping five games to win the NIT. That means playing “aggressive and confident and loose,” qualities that haven’t been evident in Smart’s tenure. Was that because it finally clicked with Smart’s team or was there no pressure in that B tournament?

New defensive-minded assistant Luke Yaklich, someone who Smart says “goes to sleep thinking about defense and wakes up thinking about it,” should strengthen that part of the game. But don’t interpret that as a return to the Havoc style that Smart created at VCU to fuel his offense. When Texas pressed last season, it was very effective.

“Conventional wisdom is you do it more,” Smart said. “But after we do press and get a steal or make ‘em miss, going in and scoring on our next possession, that’s important psychology. If you can get a turnover but if you don’t turn it into points, that can be demoralizing.”

And Texas fans know demoralizing. They, like Smart, are ready for something more uplifting.

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