Men's Basketball

Texas opens season with a leaner, wiser Shaq Cleare in the middle

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Story highlights
  • Has Banks faced anyone with Cleare's upper body strength? "Outside of grown men at the park, none."
  • Jarrett Allen: “First collegiate came. Coming in a freshman, I’m gonna be nervous.”
  • Longhorns have an all-time record of 90-20 in men's basketball season openers.

Posted November 10th, 2016

One night in September, around 9 p.m., a tall, slender figure emerged from the shadows jogging the wrong way north on San Jacinto Blvd.

Shaq Cleare stopped momentarily at the corner of San Jacinto and 15th Street, waited for cars to pass. Then, Texas’ 6-8 senior kept moving, hustling all the way back to campus.

Jogging and eating right has become Cleare’s new obsession. From the UT dorms, he figures he can reach Sixth Street in seven to eight minutes. On good days, he’ll keep going down to Cesar Chavez St. “I’m going to get in the best shape possible,” he said. “I’m going to make this the best year possible.”

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UT White's Kendal Yancy, left, and UT Orange's Shaquille Cleare go for a rebaound in the first half at the Texas Tip-Off at Gregory Gym on Thursday October 20, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas senior Shaquille Cleare (32) goes for a rebound in the first half at the Texas Tip-Off at Gregory Gym on Thursday October 20, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Going into his final season, Cleare, 23, is in the best shape of his adult life. He’s lost about 40 pounds and now checks in at 275. The fifth-year senior has two goals this season: Enjoy the best year of his collegiate career and show freshmen Jarrett Allen and James Banks how to be successful themselves.

The long journey to March begins Friday when No. 21 Texas opens the season against Incarnate Word. For Cleare and “his bigs,” as he calls them, class is in session.

RELATED COVERAGE: Incarnate Word vs. No. 21 Texas

Asked if he’d ever faced anyone with more upper-body strength than Cleare, Banks said, “None. Outside of grown men at the park, none. It’s that simple. If I had before here, there’d be a problem.”

Banks said Cleare has been coaching him literally every day. Banks (6-10) and Allen (6-11) played together this summer for the Team USA Under-18 team. But this is whole new level. Starting Friday, they are two players who must contribute for a Texas squad moving on without big men Cam Ridley and Prince Ibeh inside.

“Shaq gives me advice play-by-play,” Banks said. “OK, James, you’re doing it right. You’ve got to get on the top side, you’ve got to curl protect, stay attached, get through like this, don’t put your arm like that. Don’t give up space. That’s Shaq being a senior.”

Even with his long frame and smooth stroke, Allen knows there will be some real interior battles ahead. “May have some butterflies,” he said. “First collegiate game. Coming in a freshman, I’m gonna be nervous.”

That’s OK, Cleare said.

“You’re not going to come in and be the superstar like you were in high school,” said Cleare, who struggled through two seasons at Maryland before transferring to Texas. He sat out, as required by NCAA transfer rules, and then averaged 3.6 points last season for the Horns.

“The thing about my teammates, I try to lead them with a positive attitude,” Cleare said. “I don’t try to yell at them or grab them unless I have to. We haven’t gotten there yet. But guys respond to you if you treat them with a certain respect.”

Freshmen always tend to play well in exhibitions and then struggle in openers, coach Shaka Smart said. This was after his four talented freshmen all had impressive moments in an exhibition win over Angelo State.

Texas center Shaq Cleare and Baylor's Rico Gathers have clashed twice this season. They'll meet again at 11:30 a.m. Thursday in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
Texas center Shaq Cleare and former Baylor center Rico Gathers clashed three times last season. Cleare will give pointers to freshmen Jarrett Allen and James Banks. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)

Last season, Kerwin Roach, Eric Davis Jr. and Tevin Mack all struggled in their debuts against Washington. Don’t blame the long flight to China, either. They went 4 for 32 combined against the Huskies.

“I think I let my nerves get the best of me,” Mack said. “But I feel like this year, I know what to expect.”

Banks believes he’s ready. “I’m as ready as I’ll be today. And I’ll be more ready tomorrow,” he said.

It probably helps that Incarnate Word was picked 10th in the preseason Southland coaches poll. The Cardinals will be competitive, but the Longhorns should pocket their 14th win in their last 15 season openers. If not, Smart has far deeper issues than anyone imagines.

Maybe Cleare, with his thick accent from his native Bahamas, will break it down afterward doing his impression of the head coach.

“Off camera, I’ll do that,” Cleare said with a huge, roaring laugh. “He says, ‘Shaq is the oldest guy in the program — literally older than all of us.’ C’mon, coach, I’m not that old. But he really wants me to lead these guys.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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