A losing record is a big deal when it happens to a revenue sport at the University of Texas.
During Shaka Smart’s second season as head coach of the Longhorns, he led the team to an 11-22 record. It was and still is a disappointing mark considering he had a lottery pick on his team in Jarrett Allen, but the offseason has helped to mitigate much of the disappointment 2016-17 was.
When you’re star guard returns for his sophomore year, you add two above average shooters, a tight end playing basketball joins your team, your transfer power forward becomes eligible, your sophomore slumpers emerge as junior leadership, and a consensus Top 5 NBA Draft projection makes his way as one of the last pieces of the puzzle, it’s easy to remember the good times and forget about the bad.
Smart’s goal this season is not only to make fans forget about the bad, but also to prove that his two-plus years of culture building will have major payoffs in the victory column.
“Our emphasis this week is all about creating cultural and basketball carryover in the game,” Smart said on Monday. “It’s been a long time since we’ve played a real game. We have that opportunity on Friday against Northwestern State. The carryover component is absolutely critical because it doesn’t matter what you practice, what you talk about, what you work on, if you’re not able to do it in the game then it doesn’t really amount to much. That’s a huge emphasis with our guys.”
Smart’s team had several opportunities in the preseason to see just how they measured up. The Longhorns split four games during a tour of Australia, scrimmaged a stout SMU team, played and defeated rival Texas A&M in a charity matchup, and completed their preseason with a scrimmage against LSU.
The games start counting for real now. Smart was asked if the team was already in a groove, but the season opener is still a huge milestone for much of his team. It will be the first time they don a Texas basketball uniform.
“It still feels like the start of the regular season,” Smart said. “To our guys, I think it felt like a longer preseason than in the past. Certainly it’s given us more data and information. They’re definitely ready to get going in a game that counts. I could sense that in our last couple of scrimmages.”
Smart has gone over who he anticipates starting in previous press conferences. The likely starting lineup includes junior guard Kerwin Roach, junior post Dylan Osetkowski, sophomore guard Andrew Jones, freshman point guard Matt Coleman, and freshman center Mohamed Bamba.
The biggest name in that lineup is obviously Bamba, or Mo as his coaches and teammates call him, who has made it very clear he only intends to be in Austin for one season. Smart has a player who can block shots with his 7-foot-9 wingspan and his 7-foot height. He has a player who can score from both inside and outside. It’s just about bringing that to the Erwin Center court.
“To be honest, our focus is on Mo being the best version of Mo,” Smart said. “Certainly, as we get in the games, we’ll have conversation about how he’s doing and how he’s feeling. That’s very, very important with him and with any player, just what’s going on in there. Do you feel overwhelmed? Are you happy? Are you excited? When Mo’s in a good place, he wears it, you can see it, and it affects other people around him.”
A lot may be asked of Bamba, but from what Smart said on Monday, that should be no issue. “I don’t think anyone’s expectations for him exceed his own,” he said.
Bamba’s partner in the post will be ready to help the big man from the Big Apple score. Osetkowski has been waiting to play for Texas since he first transferred from Tulane prior to last season.
While a guy who transferred may fly under the radar, Texas knows how important he is in the offense. Other teams should as well.
“Even though the casual fan may not know much about Dylan O, every team we play is going to know who he is and what he does,” Smart said. “Hopefully he can even surprise them.”
While Bamba and Osetkowski may make most of the plays, the ball has to get to them somehow. Both big men have above average ball-handling abilities for their size, but they should not be depended on to get the ball up and down the floor, especially against strong Big 12 defenses.
Enter Coleman, the freshman from the powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, who Smart expects a lot from in his first year.
“Finally starting to see some of the swagger that he had and has as a person carry over on the court,” Smart said. “I’m sure he’ll continue to have some ups and downs as a freshman point guard, but my emphasis to him has been to focus on the guys around him and not on himself. He’s done a really good job of that. Any team needs more of that, we need more of that, and he’s done a good job of that so far.”
Coleman steps in after Roach, Jones, and junior Eric Davis were asked to run point last year. While those three are capable ball-handlers, they are not the facilitator that Coleman should be in this offense. Coleman should be ready early to make plays and show why his commitment was such an important one for the future of Smart’s program.
Rounding out the lineup are Roach and Jones, who will play on the wings. The presence of clearly defined roles on offense should help those two guards, but clearer defined roles among the coaching staff could make a difference as well.
Smart mentioned Monday that he and assistant coach Jai Lucas placed more of the offensive coaching responsibilities on themselves, while letting assistants Mike Morrell and Darrin Horn focus on the defense. They also put much of what they do on offense into writing to make it easier for the players to apply it to the court.
These changes are just part of the evolution that Smart has gone through in his couple of seasons in Austin. At this point, the biggest question is if this team is ready to contend for a conference championship.
“Right now, I would answer that question with a yes,” Smart said. “I think it is a team that can do those things. We’ve got a lot of new guys on our team. We’ve got four freshman in our top eight players. How do they respond when the lights come on?
“Contending for the championship in this league is no small feat. It’s a big deal. It’s an area where if we want to do that, we’ll have to get a lot better.”
Those four freshman include the previously mentioned Bamba and Coleman, the above average shooters in Royce Hamm and Jase Febres, and the tight end playing basketball in Jericho Sims.
“All five are really important,” Smart said. “They all played roles for us on Saturday in our last scrimmage. They’re making progress.”
At this rate, the Longhorns simply want to show that last year was not what this program intends to be, and for Smart, that his system works.
Smart can talk about basketball specifics all he wants, but for him, what he harps on most is what his culture holds incredibly important, excellence in roles for the betterment of the team.
“On the defensive end, it’s a team stop,” Smart said. “On the offensive end, it’s a team score. To do that, it’s really important to have a clarity of purpose, a clarity of mind, understanding that to make our team win, I’ve got to have one thing I’m focused on in my mind, and that is our mission.
“Those are some of the things that we’ll spend a lot of time talking on and working on this week. Our guys are excited about playing a real game. We’ve played a bunch of scrimmages and exhibition games. Those have been good, but it’s time to get started.”
Of all the players, it’s easy to argue that the player looking forward to the season most is junior Dylan Osetkowski. Last season, he played in the Orange and White Tip-Off game, and that was it, sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules.
“I’ve been anxious to play since a year ago,” Osetkowski said. “Last year is last year. Although we want to learn from it, we kind of want to put it behind us in a sense. I think returning guys are eager to get back out there, but with a fresh start, some new guys, and a different mindset from last year, guys are just eager to get on the floor and prove what we have this year and what we want to do.”
With his first opportunity to play for Texas in games that matter coming up on Friday, Osetkowski was asked to reflect on the differences he’s seen from last season. He saw everything that went on at home from the bench, and had to watch everything on the road on TV. The biggest difference, he said, was how willing everyone is to right last year’s wrongs.
“I think the biggest thing is we’re a different team than last year,” Osetkowski said. “A lot of maturity, a lot of growth in a lot of different areas from last year, and just a lot of excitement around us that people are bringing, but also from us. We’re excited to get out there and show everybody what we’ve been up to this offseason and preseason. “
Smart had mentioned in previous media availabilities that he had to keep Osetkowski and Bamba on different teams in practice or else their squad would dominate. That competition against such a highly touted prospect helped Osetkowski this preseason.
“Whether I’m going against him or with him, every day we’re just making each other better, feeding off each other,” Osetkowski said. “Come Friday, it will be great to finally get out there and play against someone else rather than going at each other, going at our own bigs.”
During this year’s Texas Tip-Off, Osetkowski played with a brace on his right hand. Smart said the brace was precautionary during the preseason so that his hand could not get damaged any further before the real games began.
The brace may have helped him with his left-handed game, but Osetkowski claimed he has been “ambidextrous since I could remember.” What it will end is some of the ribbing from his teammates. “People were joking ‘you’re better with your left now than with your right,’” Osetkowski said.
Though he’s looked to for leadership, this is still Osetkowski’s first opportunity to play for Texas. Luckily, the people who sold him on Texas had great leadership qualities and helped lock him up on his visit.
“I came in, guys like Connor Lammert, Javan Felix, Prince Ibeh, Cam (Ridley), just the way they talked about coach Smart and how he pushed certain guys, how he coached certain guys,” Osetkowski said. “He would get on them but at the same time he was a guy that really cared about his players and expected the most out of them. He truly cared about them at the same time.”
The long wait since his decision to transfer from Tulane is finally over, and Osetkowski could not be more ready to play.
“I’m eager to get out there and do what I wanted to do last year.”
ROACH AND DAVIS
Joining Osetkowski as eligible to play juniors are Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis. Smart has spoken multiple times throughout the preseason about the slump both guards had last year explaining that the duo likely thought they wouldn’t even be playing a second year at Texas.
But now they are back for their third, and they seem to have different mindsets than when they struggled last year.
Part of that might be due to Coleman’s presence, but Roach has put lofty goals on his bulletin board to help on the other end of the floor.
“I’m trying to win defensive player of the year,” Roach said. “I’m going to go ahead and put that out there. Big 12 and national defensive player of the year. That’s my goal. It’s just something I wanted to do, it’s something I feel like will help me be really successful and will help the team win.”
That may sound difficult, but the North Shore product has the physical ability to do it. He also plans to use that physical ability to run, as he said his conditioning has improved since last season.
Combine all of that, and one more secret weapon, and a top defense just might be possible.
“When a person with a 7’9” wingspan is back behind you, you feel like you can do anything to be honest,” Roach said. “That’s one of the reasons, but another reason I feel like last year we were top 25 defensively and I feel like we could take it up a notch. I challenged my team and myself to just be in that defensive stopper mindset.”
Both Roach and Davis had disappointing sophomore seasons, but both are ready to put that behind them.
“We’ve got a lot to prove coming off of last year,” Davis said. “Like I said, a statement, as far as just like where we are. A new team, new faces, and just go out there and win. That’s our main focus; a statement of ‘we’re winning.’ This is all that matters right now. This is our main focus; winning.”
Defensive intensity is a huge part of winning in Smart’s system, and Roach plans for Texas to bring defensive intensity every night on the court.
“With the conditioning we’ve been doing, with the Versaclimbers, we’re ready,” Roach said. “We’re definitely ready for that. It’s one of the challenges that coach has given to us, and we’ve just got to accept and embrace it.”
Many questions surrounding Roach and Davis have to do with the mental side of the game. Their physical skills are evident, but at times last season, they would shrink during some of the biggest moments of a game.
On Friday against NSU, Roach wants to show that is all a thing of the past.
“I just want to show that we can win,” Roach said. “We’re a whole different team. It’s a whole different thing from last year. I know last year we let our fans down a lot of times later on in the games. This year, we want to show them we’re a completely different new team and we’ve got something brewing this year.”
RECRUITING: CUNNINGHAM and LIDDELL
In addition to the season beginning, this week also was big for future Longhorn seasons.
On Wednesday, Smart signed four players in the 2018 class. Kamaka Hepa and Jaxson Hayes fit the roles of Smart’s versatile post players, and both hail from out of state.
The Texas contingent of the class, Cibolo Steele’s Gerald Liddell and Westlake’s Brock Cunningham, fit more of a wing profile with their versatility and height.
For Cunningham, how he would be used in the offense helped sell him on the Longhorns.
“Talking with coach Smart, he had a good plan for me to play the hybrid three, a little bit of four, a little bit of two,” Cunningham said Wednesday. “Something that made Texas really desirable for me is that it’s a really well rounded school. It’s got the right mix of academics and competition on the court, which is really what I was looking for in my school.”
Cunningham’s father, Ed, was an All-American offensive lineman for Texas in the late 1980s. Texas has always been the program close to home for Cunningham, but his dad’s college choice had little effect on his. “It was mostly me always wanting to go there,” Cunningham said.
Not only did Smart recruit for Cunningham’s skillset, but also his personality.
“He wanted a gritty player,” Cunningham said. “I’m not afraid to jump on the floor, run through a couple of people. He just wanted someone that was a little mean on the court. I think I can fill that role.”
Liddell had similar things to say and was all smiles when signing his NLI in front of his classmates at Steele.
“It’s been a great experience,” Liddell said. “Everybody showing all this love is crazy. I just can’t wait to get up there in that orange and actually play for Texas basketball.”
Culture stuck out to Liddell as well, as Smart’s off the court treatment of his players was one of his biggest reasons for choosing Texas.
On the court, and in a similar vein to Cunningham, the variety within Liddell’s game was what drew Smart to the Steele product. For Liddell, it’s also part of what he wants to do at Texas.
“Whatever he wants me to do, play on the wing and play defense,” Liddell said. “I’m just going to do it on both ends, and whatever he wants me to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Though four players signed on Wednesday, there might be room for more to join during the second signing period in the spring.
“We’re trying to get more players as well,” Liddell said. “We’re working on that, too.”
Cunningham agreed. “I think coach Smart has a couple of guys he has his eye on.”