AUSTIN — Texas head coach Shaka Smart has a lot going for him so far in 2017.
He had a chance to see his team play against high quality competition in August during a tour of Australia. He has a consensus lottery pick at his disposal with a mix of young and veteran guards to help move the offense. He has his best group of post players yet in Austin. He has a lot going for him, and he’ll need it to improve on last season’s 11-22 record.
The first steps to adding more wins in his third season came in August when Texas split four games played against four different Australian teams. The next steps are happening now, as Smart’s team recently began preseason practices. The Longhorns will participate in the Texas Tip-Off on Wednesday in Gregory Gym, the third straight year Smart has given fans a sneak peek through an intrasquad scrimmage.
“We’ve been practicing, we’ve been working in the weight room and doing all the things that the guys do on their own,” Smart said on Monday. “This is the first time for them together to say here’s our team. This is Texas’ team for the 2017-18 year.”
Last year’s record has stuck with Smart to an extent. Smart told reporters he keeps a journal during the season and has looked back on his notes from the previous disappointing season.
One of the things he decided to do was give his players a concrete representation of the culture he wants to instill called a “culture doc.” It lists tenets, core values, and principles of those core values. Culture is a big part of Smart’s blueprint for building a program, and so far members of his program have absorbed what the document is trying to instill.
“We’ve spent a lot of time, starting when the offseason began in the spring, then in the summer, and continuing this fall, talking as a team and communicating about the contents of that document,” Smart said. “It’s so dense that you can only do a small amount at once, but the guys have done a pretty good job taking it in, learning it, and communicating about it. Now, it’s all about being able to carry it over when all of that other stuff is going on in the game and the bright lights are on.”
Culturally, Texas is on its way. On the court, Smart is glad it is still the preseason. He explained how he has a color-coded chart to record levels of mastery of certain on-court subjects. Subjects colored red are items that haven’t been talked about at all, while subjects that are blue denote mastery. “There’s not too much that’s blue at this time of year,” Smart said.
Some of those red colored subjects come from issues Smart saw in that four game Australia tour. On offense, Smart noted one major deficiency was not running the offense through Texas’ big men, junior Dylan Osetkowski and freshman Mohamed Bamba.
“The best job that we did in terms of sharing the ball was when Dylan got the ball and created plays and found other guys,” Smart said. “I think when we did that well in Australia we played well. When we didn’t, we didn’t play as well.”
On defense, some of the issues had to do with competition. Texas faced several professional teams that were able to move the ball and create match-up issues for a young team. As a result, Texas caught itself in foul trouble several times while down under.
“We’ve got to guard without fouling,” Smart said. “The refs were Australian, too. Every game, we got off to really good starts, 7-0, 9-2, 12-3, and then it was like boom, boom, boom fouls and they were in the bonus. We’ve got to be more disciplined and defend without fouling, particularly guys that are keys guys that you need in the game. I think (Bamba) only played 19 minutes a game over there because in a couple of the games he was over there sitting by us.”
Wednesday’s event will be an intrasquad scrimmage, so it might be difficult to get a grasp on the starting lineup. However, Smart utilized the same five starters for all four games in Australia. The guards were freshman Matt Coleman, sophomore Andrew Jones, and junior Kerwin Roach. The post players were Osetkowski and Bamba.
Coleman will be asked to do a lot on offense running the point. It’s a lot to ask for a young player, and Smart even described the freshman as a “work in progress.” Smart mentioned he has struggled some with the physicality and size of players at the college level, but he has done well so far in camp.
“Just from the standpoint of sharing the basketball, getting us in the offense, getting guys the ball where they need it, he’s definitely been what we wanted,” Smart said. “Is he a finished version of what we know he will be? No, but he’s definitely made some great strides.”
Smart made sure to mention there was still competition ongoing for the other two guard spots, with Roach, Jones, and Eric Davis all receiving mention. When put on the spot about who had made the biggest strides in the summer, Smart’s answer came quickly.
“Kerwin Roach had a really, really good summer,” Smart said. “He was terrific all summer long. He really demonstrated a level of maturity that was I think the result of some humility that he gained from last season. I tell the guys all the time the combination of humility and confidence is a really good thing when you have that. He’s had that for the majority of the offseason.”
Roach, along with Davis, was a player Smart said might have expected last season to be their final one in Austin. However, they both went through “humbling sophomore years,” and are back in Austin for year three.
Each will have a more defined role. Roach and Davis will both be looked to for on-court leadership, with Davis possibly being an option for a spark off the bench. According to Smart, Davis is leading the team in scoring through the first two weeks of practice.
Smart made sure to motivate Davis this offseason, challenging his mental fortitude and his physical stamina.
“Four times around Erwin Center is a little over a mile, so we call that the Erwin Mile,” Smart said. “I told him in the spring that you can’t practice, you cannot start practice in September until you run a 5:20.”
Since the spring, Davis ran up, down, and around the ramps surrounding the Erwin Center, approaching but never eclipsing the 5:20 goal.
“About a week before practice started, he ran it in 5:18” Smart said. “It’s a little thing, but it’s just an indication of him having a willingness to get outside of his comfort zone and do what we’ve asked.”
While there is some competition in the back court, the frontcourt duo of Dylan Osetkowski and Mo Bamba seems assured to start. Smart knows what he is working with, remarking “this is as good a group of bigs as I’ve ever had a chance to work with.”
Osetkowski, a junior transfer from Tulane, was forced to sit out last season due to NCAA regulations. For Osetkowski (pronounced with the K), that was a challenge.
“Last year was tough on him,” Smart said. “It was hard. It’s hard for any transfer when you have to sit out and reality hits. You can’t travel with the team. Home games you’re there on the bench but you can’t get out there and help those guys in the game. Now he gets to play. We’re super excited about him, and he’s been a lot of fun to coach.”
Smart mentioned the offense ran well through Osetkowski, and it will continue to run through him. His performance in last season’s Tip-Off turned heads, but he is only just now getting to prove how good a player he is. As a result, the Texas staff is making sure to keep him motivated in his debut year for the Longhorns. Smart has asked Osetkowski to repeat a mantra ten times per day, encouraging him to “feel like he’s as good as or better than anyone on the court.”
“We always send them things for motivation because not a lot of people know about him right now outside of here,” Smart said. “I saw some list of top transfers, and he was way, way down the list. We sent it to him and it’s pretty exciting to know that there’s a lot of people that don’t know much about you and you can go put your mark on the game.”
Last but certainly not least is Bamba, the star freshman. Most of the questions to Smart about Bamba were not so much about on-court play, which most know Bamba excels at, but about what it’s like to be with and coach the big New Yorker.
“He seems to be having a really good time,” Smart said. “That’s part of the reason he chose Texas. He wanted to have a good college experience for the short time that he’s in college. He enjoys going to those football games and being one of the students that’s cheering for the team, and going to the volleyball games. He and I went to a soccer game a couple of weeks ago. He just enjoys being a part of it, and I think being one of the student athletes here, there’s a sense of comradery that he enjoys being a part of.”
Bamba was seen at the most recent home football game against Kansas State wearing a large black cowboy hat. He was on Longhorn Network’s pregame show talking about his decision and background. He’s shown up on a lot of marketing material for the team.
Fans likely will attend a lot of games in the Erwin Center for an opportunity to see Bamba in what is almost assuredly his only year in Austin. For Smart, that actually makes things a little bit easier.
“It is nice with a guy like Mo to know that if things go well and he continues to progress, he’s going to be taking that next step after this year,” Smart said. “That was something we discussed in the recruiting process. I will say relative to maybe last year, the process we went through with Jarrett (Allen), we probably spent way too much time as a coaching staff thinking about what’s going to happen. Is he going to go?”
“At the end of the day, that’s not your decision. That’s up to the young man. There is a lot of people that want to prognosticate about what might happen, so yes, in answer to your question, it is nice to know with Mo that’s the plan.”
With the personnel covered, now all that is left is to play the scrimmage. It’s an odd situation, as Texas can have a great play and an awful play at the same time in these settings. Either way, Smart is just looking for his team to continue to make strides like he says they have during the offseason.
“We had a scrimmage last week, and I’m watching the tape and aw man, that defensive rotation isn’t where it needed to be, but you’ve got a guy from Texas scoring on him,” Smart said. “Any time you see something good, there’s probably something not so good on the other side and vice versa.
“Again, our guy’s spirit has been really, really good. I’m excited and interested to see once we get out there in front of fans how everything evolves and then after Wednesday, we’ve got a couple closed scrimmages against good teams. We’re looking forward to testing ourselves.”