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The Shaka Smart Era Begins

Texas has a fresh set of eyes
Texas has a fresh set of eyes
Chris Covatta/Getty Images

For the first time since Will Smith was welcoming aliens to Earth, the Texas basketball program has a new head coach. I wrote a primer on Shaka Smart when he was hired so I won't bore you with a rehash of every bullet point; this piece is less a look back & more of a look forward, focusing on Shaka's first Texas Longhorns squad. (If you want a preview of the rest of the conference, Haley's BON piece is a good read.)

The Freshmen

Shaka's first recruiting class is only half his own, as the timing of his hire limited how much impact he could have on this class. He had to spend as much energy retaining Rick Barnes' commits - and Isaiah Taylor - as looking for new blood. Fortunately for Shaka, Rick Barnes' 2 main commitments for this year - Kerwin Roach & Eric Davis - are both guards that project well into his system. Shaka killed two birds with one stone by convincing Tevin Mack to follow him to Texas, adding youth to a squad that's heavy on juniors & seniors. All three of these players bring value to the team and project as likely starters in the coming years with at least two of them (and maybe all three) showing the potential to earn a paycheck playing basketball when their time in Austin is done. This class is relatively small, but high in quality and will be counted upon to help with the transition to a vastly different team next year(we'll get into this at a later date).

Kerwin Roach



My rational brain knows that this is the basketball equivalent of football's 'workout warrior' & that it doesn't really mean much when you're playing against quality D1 defenses. My irrational brain says AHAHAHAHAAA WHEEEEEEE LOOKIT. This tweet went viral, which is great for getting Kerwin some Internet love but may also push expectations too high too soon for him. His ceiling is...well, it's higher than his vert, but he's still fairly raw and Texas fans need to be patient. Chances are good he'll make some highlight reels against an overmatched foe or three, but he's more athlete than refined basketball player at this point. In the short-term, I expect him to be a quality addition to Shaka's defensive system with a high-beta offensive game. Fran Fraschilla says Kerwin has NBA potential & I'd tend to agree, but that may be 2 or 3 (or 4) years away.

Tevin Mack

A month ago, Tevin would've been the lead in this section, but then that Kerwin tweet happened and there's no way I could keep myself from posting that tweet at the top. (The only thing that kept me from making Kerwin's leap the new BC logo is Scipio & Sailor's prudent use of restricted FTP permissions.) For those who haven't paid a lot of attention to VCU the last few years, Tevin Mack is pretty close to Shaka's ideal guard. 6'3", check. Quality athleticism, check. A willingness to defend, check. Decent stroke, check. His ball-handling seems decent in that high-school-defenders-never-make-you-use-your-off-hand sort of way, so he's yet another guy who could help move the ball up the court if Taylor/Holland/Yancy are on the bench or Shaka wants those guys off the ball. He's listed as a small forward, but at 6'7" he's athletic enough he could play anywhere between 2-4 depending on the opponent. Tevin is a Swiss army knife & will get minutes as long as he's interested in them. He's the most 'D1-ready' of the freshmen.

Eric Davis

It's ironic that Rick Barnes finally recruited a legit shooting guard & never got to deploy him. Eric Davis was the Mr. Basketball runner-up in Michigan & averaged 26 points/game his senior year, if he can play defense even close to as well as he shoots, he'll be a contributor on this team early. There should be a lot of transition 3 opportunities for him when he's on the floor.  I haven't seen enough film of Davis to really project how far I think his basketball career will go - I might have seen more if I hadn't watched Kerwin's leap 480 times - but I'm optimistic about the Texas portion of his tenure.

How Returning Players Fit into Shaka's System

Rather than re-hash every player you're already familiar with - and to keep this thing under 3000 words - I'm going to touch on a handful of players who could see a significantly different role/impact level to the team than previously seen. I'm not going to talk about Kendal Yancy, Demarcus Holland, or Javan Felix, not because they're unimportant - all three will be vital to this team's success in their own way - but because in all likelihood they're more or less going to be some version of what you saw last year. (In an ideal world, all three include a willingness to take & ability to make a consistent 3, but I digress.)

  • Isaiah Taylor garners the lion's share of interest from fans (for good reason) but I think the player who could make the biggest leap this year is Prince Ibeh. You may not have noticed, but Prince isn't a wispy freshman any more, he's been putting on good weight for years and it's improved not only his defense but his ability to make room in the paint for rebounds & put-backs. Shaka Smart's defensive system plays to Prince's strengths - especially his ability to follow a smaller player in pick & roll situations - and if Texas can get out in transition more this year, Prince could shine as a poor man's Tristan Thompson. Tjarks is pretty high on Prince's potential this year as well.
  • Isaiah Taylor is essentially playing for a NBA contract this year despite him being a junior, and the only realistic way he gets drafted is if he shows a respectable 3-point shot. He hasn't shown it much in games to this point, but that has as much to do with Barnes' use of point guards as anything. I expect he'll get his chances in half-court sets running through screens and on transition opportunities where he's not handling the ball and/or on the court the same time as Javan(who will likely start the season as the primary option on transition 3s), and I hope he capitalizes. Even if he doesn't, he's still going to be a cornerstone of what Shaka deploys this year. High floor, higher ceiling.
  • Likewise, Connor Lammert is going to be a vital piece of the puzzle. His willingness & ability to sit at the top of the key with the ball and find the open man(or shoot/drive it if he's the open man) is a big aspect of what Texas will do this year. Hell, half of the LHN clips from Wednesday's practice were of various big men practicing precisely that. The top of the key is...uh, the key to Texas' half-court offense.
  • While we're talking about the big guys, I see a lot of people doubting the role of Shaquille Cleare & Cameron Ridley in this system as if they're zombies in The Walking Dead, incapable of running down the court. If only there were some form of video evidence of Cameron Ridley running alongside the Texas guards in transition...alas. Shaq has dropped some weight & will be able to run with the guards in spurts, which is enough considering the depth Texas has in the front court.
  • Jordan Barnett has the physical attributes to be a quality player for Texas, but last year he was a step slow & generally looked lost. His lack of playing time was well-earned. He made the decision to stay on the 40 Acres when Shaka was hired, and I'm hopeful it's working out for him. If the game has slowed down for him in the last 12 months, his role will be significantly expanded. I'd like to see a Barnett who reacts instead of thinks as one of the interceptors in Shaka Smart's Patented HAVOC Generically Named Press system.

What to Watch This Season

  • Shaka has said if the season started today, he'd play 10-12 players in every game and we have every reason to believe him. His press system is a high-energy system, and it takes a deep bench to be reach its full potential. This team has depth everywhere, so you're likely to see 36+ minutes of pressing from Shaka's first Texas squad in every game.
  • Shaka has also said he won't be trapping as much this year, which is an important distinction and somewhat limits the correlation to last year's West Virginia squad. There are two major types of press for Shaka: FIST and DOUBLE FIST. The FIST is a non-trapping press; essentially it means the ball-handler will have a man on him from the moment he gets the ball and/or crosses the half-court line, but it's one-on-one man defense rather than multiple guys flying at the ball in an aggressive full-court zone. The DOUBLE FIST is essentially the trapping version of the FIST, and is the one most people think of when they think of HAVOC Generically Named Press. Don't expect a lot of trapping, at least early in the season.
  • As I mentioned in the Shaka primer, a press system distorts the game and creates a wider range of outcomes than Texas fans are going to be used to seeing. When you pair this with a shorter shot clock - reminder: it's going from 35 seconds to 30 seconds this season - a well-executed press can cause havoc chaos for opponents. The shorter shot clock couldn't have come at a better time for Texas, IMO.
  • The gamble with a press(particularly of the trapping variety) is that your team will create more good outcomes than bad and distort the game in your favor, but this means as a Texas fan you're going to need to increase your tolerance for bad outcomes as well. Barnes' system gambled less than Shaka's, so the results were in a narrower range. There are going to be games where Texas gets torched defensively, and sometimes it will be infuriating. You need to accept this now, because it's inevitable. Even the best trapping teams get their ass thoroughly handed to them from time to time, especially in a conference full of incredible guards like the Big 12. The goal here is consistency in execution and the expectation is Shaka will see these bad runs unfolding and adjust accordingly, but it won't always happen. He's a hell of a coach, but he's still human and he's still running a system that gambles more than you're used to seeing from a guy in a burnt orange tie.

Texas was picked 4th in the coaches' preseason poll, which seems reasonable given just how good Kansas, Oklahoma, and Iowa State should be this year. Anywhere from third to seventh is likely in play, with a NCAA Tournament berth being a reasonable desire for this team. Texas has the talent to flirt with the top 25 this year, but I'm not ready to say they deserve it until we see them play together. Hope springs eternal, but a rational look says the team needs to prove itself. Personally, I'm incredibly excited for this season. The last time a Texas basketball season was this full of unknown variables, I was buying vinyl imports at Alien Records and Scipio Tex was at the apex of his Yaga t-shirt collecting days. Embrace the crazy, folks; it's going to be fun.