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Golden: Will Texas’ depth equate to tourney success in Shaka’s sixth year?

  • Texas beat UT Rio Grande Valley 91-55 to open the season Wednesdsay.
  • Coach Shaka Smart has his deepest team. He played 10 players.

Shaka Smart has coached in the Final Four, but that 2011 Virginia Commonwealth team wasn’t as deep as the one he’s coaching present day.

The Texas Longhorns are stacked.

They’re running 10 deep, and for the first time in Smart’s tenure at Texas, the onus isn’t on two or three players to do the heavy lifting. Opening night wasn’t a runaway success, but Wednesday’s 91-55 win over UT-Rio Grande Valley gave us a glimpse of what Texas can be moving forward.

With guards Jase Febres (still recovering from knee surgery) and Andrew Jones (a late scratch for precautionary reasons after developing a cough earlier in the day) out for the first game, the Horns played uneven ball in the early going against an overmatched opponent before stepping on the gas to win going away.

Smart used the word “chaotic” in describing how the Horns want to play, which is basically code speak for Havoc, the high-pressure, ball-deflecting style that made his name at VCU.

High-flying freshman Greg Brown debuted with 11 points and 10 rebounds and paid ode to Vince Carter by committing assault on an unsuspecting rim early in the second half. Big man Kai Jones put on a show on both ends of the court with a variety of dunks and put-backs. And guards Matt Coleman and Courtney Ramey capably kept things on course, showing the type of leadership that will be needed if this group is to get back into the NCAAs and make some real noise.

It will come down to whether Smart can maximize the potential on a roster of eight upperclassmen and Brown, who has the best chance of anyone on the team to play in the NBA. It’s not an embarrassment of riches, but the experience at Smart’s disposal gives him many more options than he has had in past years.

“The big key is going to be just the lineups together,” Smart said. “Who’s playing well together and who can mesh together and figuring out who can really understand their role? Who can come in the game, and really lift our energy up? Who can come in the game and rebound, which we didn’t do well enough tonight.”

He isn’t talking about it, but Smart knows this season has a make-or-break feel to it after producing a 40-50 conference record over his first five years and no NCAA Tourney wins in two appearances.

He may not be at the controls of a Ferrari, but the Horns look like a nice SUV that should be able to get their coach from Point A to Point BD, the latter standing for Big Dance. And once they get there, it’s past time for Texas to not only become a fixture in the national rankings but also become a viable threat to win the Big 12, something that hasn’t happened since Rick Barnes’ 2008 team that took out Stanford’s Lopez twins in the Sweet 16 only to lose to the Derrick Rose-led Memphis Tigers in the Elite Eight.

If the Horns don’t make a huge step forward this season, it won’t be because of a lack of talent.

In past years, Smart may have been hesitant to sit a player who was struggling, but with this group, he can actually play the meritocracy card knowing there won’t be as much dropoff.

“They say the bench is the best motivator,” said Smart, who has to be frothing at the mouth at the rotations he can play depending on the matchup.

Then later, “With really all of our guys, sometimes it’s going to be a matter of who are the five toughest guys to go into the game and kind of grit out possessions. So that’s something we’re working through and figuring out.”

He left Brown in the game despite a couple of mistakes that can easily be attributed to an excited freshman playing in his first game. And he left Jericho Sims in there to work his way through the struggle bus; the senior’s stat line showed four points, 10 rebounds and four fouls in 19 minutes.

Much bigger challenges will come and having great on-court leadership will pay dividends, that is, if the Horns are better than their predicted No. 4 spot in the Big 12 preseason media poll, a low rank given the experience on this team and the potential Brown possesses.

“We’re an older team,” Ramey said. “So we’ve been through the wars with each other for the past couple years, and adding Greg, who’s a super athlete, like you saw tonight, so we just want to get him accustomed to how we play each and every game. So it’s gonna make us better in the long run.”

The talent is there, but that mean getting the desired results?

That’s on Shaka.