Defense wins championships, but the eyes of Texas will be on Shaka Smart’s offense this season.
Attention, Matt Coleman. This means you.
Smart said his team played 15 minutes of good basketball in Tuesday’s season-opening 71-59 win over Eastern Illinois and that sounds about right since his newcomers showed some nerves at times while one veteran, forward Jericho Sims, didn’t play to the level his coach expected.
While senior guard Snoop Roach — who missed Tuesday’s game with a suspension but will make his debut in Friday’s Armed Forces Classic against Arkansas in El Paso — remains the unquestioned alpha dog on this offense. But the maturity of Coleman, the sophomore point guard, will go a long way in determining whether this newly-constructed roster will gel in time to end this program’s struggles in the postseason. The Horns are looking to finish north of an 18-14 finish and a tie for sixth place in the Big 12, a tall order given the conference and the schedule.
Smart will lean on his 6-2 sophomore to take another step forward in the leadership department and replace some of that sweet demeanor with more of an edge, both on the court and in the locker room. Coleman is a cool guy, but the coach’s point is it’s fine to get in a teammate’s face if he’s not getting it done.
Smart said his floor leader is simply too nice at times on the court.
“He’s really kind of stubborn in his niceness,” Smart said. “It’s a barrier we need to continue to attack and break down. One of our character standards on our team is to be intolerant of giveaways. So if our team gives the ball away or we give a basket away, Matt has to be intolerant of that. That can’t be OK. He still has a ways to go with that because he’s such a man of the people, but he’s moving in the right direction.”
When told of Smart’s man-of-the-people comment, Coleman gave me an I’ve-heard-that-one-before look.
“It’s just holding guys accountable at a high level,” Coleman said. “It’s easy to just say one or two things. We like to call it what our juice level is. We went to be at a level five. I’m holding them accountable to the bar I want them to be at.”
Coleman opened the season with 13 points, seven assists and only two turnovers, plus he knocked down two three-pointers in five attempts, showing that he put in the work in the offseason. The small amount of turnovers was the most important number; Coleman will have to be much better than his 1.88 assist-to-turnover ratio from his freshman season.
Though some ill-timed miscues landed him in his coach’s doghouse a time or two last season, Coleman is the type who can take harsh criticism without shutting down, and his play will rise with a season under his belt. It also helps to have a pair of talented new guards in junior transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long and freshman Courtney Ramey. And with the popular Andrew Jones still making his way back from his battle with leukemia, the newcomers will ease the pressure on Coleman at times and hopefully be good enough to keep him from wearing down from too many minutes.
Those two, and Roach, of course, give Smart some nice options in the backcourt. Up front, Sims should be a shot-blocking, rebound presence while senior swingman Dylan Osetkowski can’t come back from the holidays looking sluggish and slow like he did last season. High-flying 6-11 freshman Jaxson Hayes will make some highlight plays at the rim, but Smart’s hope is he will become the junkman underneath that this team sorely needs.
As usual, shooting will be Smart’s biggest concern. The Longhorns made 8 of 25 three-pointers and shot a stellar 50 percent from the field on Tuesday, albeit against a team that it just physically overwhelmed at times in the second half with its size. Arkansas is a bigger challenge.
We’ll see if the Horns and their point guard can be not-so-nice and move to 2-0.