Like any new coach coming into a new job, Shaka Smart is basically rewiring his players to think the way he thinks.
“Our guys are playing with a completely new operating system,” Smart said, “and that operating system is just different.”
Cam Ridley must love his upgraded software. The 6-foot, 10-inch center had 10 rebounds in the season opener against Washington and pulled down 14 more on Saturday against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
Ridley also turned in 14 points for what became his 14th career double-double in Texas’ 67-56 win, Smart’s first with the Longhorns. The victory washed away the lingering aftertaste of the Washington loss as UT is now 1-1 heading to the Bahamas next week for three games in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. First up on Wednesday, an old friend you may know: Texas A&M (4-0).
“My teammates definitely looked for me and the rest of the big men,” Ridley said on a night when Smart promised his center would get more offensive opportunities. “I appreciate all the guards looking for us.”
To which guard Javan Felix quipped, “You’re welcome.”
Former coach Rick Barnes never could unlock the potential believed to be trapped inside the high school McDonald’s All-American. He averaged six rebounds per game the three previous seasons. But Smart is going to poke and prod in hopes for more, much more, as Ridley enters his final go-round.
Ridley made arguably the best individual play of the game when he raced down court, caught a difficult pass from Kerwin Roach and laid it in, giving Texas a 16-10 lead. The Ridley who played here the last three years probably loses that ball out of bounds.
Then in the second half, Ridley showed his raw power when he took a pass from Eric Davis and flushed an incredible two-handed dunk. He was 6 for 8 shooting from the floor in 23 minutes.
“First of all, he’s very conscientious young man and he’s starting to see what he can do,” Smart said. “But it’s not easy.”
If Smart can get Ridley and his other bigs Prince Ibeh and Shaq Cleare to become dynamic offensive players, that should open things up for what he really likes to do — shoot 3-pointers.
Smart loves 3-pointers. Or, put another way, he has no problem when players shoot ‘em. Miss one, keep shooting. Miss another, so what? Smart’s Virginia Commonwealth teams finished among the national leaders in 3-point attempts each of the last six years, ranking ninth nationally last season.
“I know we’re going to shot the ball when we’re open,” Felix said. “That’s something we’re definitely going to do. When we’re open, we’re going to let ‘em fly.”
Felix and Connor Lammert broke the game open with a barrage of long-distance shots in the second half. Felix went 4 for 4 from 3-point range and finished with 12 points. At one point, Lammert scored nine straight points, hitting a 3-pointer from the left wing and another from the right corner to make it an 11-point game.
The Islanders (1-1) didn’t make things easy for themselves. The visitors shot 25 percent and went 8 for 28 from 3-point range. Bryce Douvier (14 points) and Rashawn Thomas (11 points) were the only two that finished in double figures.
A&M-Corpus Christi coach Willis Wilson acknowledged the Texas-A&M matchup in the Bahamas is intriguing. The long-time rivals haven’t met on the basketball court since the Aggies took off for the SEC after the 2011-12 season.
“I grew up watching Texas,” Lammert said. “I think we know what has come before us, and the mentality they’ve had going against this other team.”
The only player who might not be lounging on the beach will be guard Kendal Yancy. He landed awkwardly and whacked his head with 10:33 remaining in the first half. Yancy was helped up and then left for the locker room. UT officials announced he suffered a concussion.
Smart said Yancy will be evaluated again over the weekend before any decision are made about his availability.