"The ending is nearer than you think, and it is already written. All that we have left to choose is the correct moment to begin." - Alan Moore
Texas Longhorns basketball tips off the Shaka Smart era tomorrow. General receptivity to Smart's hire was positive, but some reservations have already arisen, and the impending narrative feels eerily similar to the glass case of emotional roller coaster known as the Charlie Strong years.
Fingers crossed that Texas basketball lights the world on fire out of the gate, becoming both an immediate and sustained success story. But in case the next couple of hoops iterations stumble as much as succeed, Smart already has a blueprint of how chaos entertains an orderly facade.
Changing a culture
"I wouldn’t say it was a bad vibe or culture, but there wasn’t a lot of confidence floating around the gym. [...] Since Shaka and this coaching staff have gotten here, that’s something he’s instilled in us — that positive vibe, that self-motivation to believe in ourselves." - Isaiah Taylor [s]
Strong inherited a locker room rife with complacency and entitlement. Smart walks into an entirely different situation in need of similar change. Texas basketball returnees are well-disciplined but also Pavlov-conditioned to avoid mistakes rather than create opportunities to succeed. The end result in both cases was massive underachievement.
Strong shooed off his hoople heads who refused to buy-in and has steadily worked to instill his five core values, but entitlement still runs deep. It's been a year-and-a-half, and players still have a "we should beat Iowa State" attitude rather than a "we're doing everything we g'dang can to beat Iowa State" work ethic.
On the flip side, Smart may need to change a "gosh, I hope we don't lose to Iowa State" attitude to that same "we're doing everything we g'dang can to beat Iowa State" mindset. Jury's still out if Taylor's quote rings true or remains pomp and fluff.
Inheriting a talented, but underachieving, roster
"We've got a lot of older guys on the team, been through a lot, underachieved a lot. We're ready to reach some goals that we haven't reached before." - Demarcus Holland [s]
Sound familiar? It's kind of incredible that Texas' roster is comprised of 9 Top 100 recruits, inclusive of 5 returnees (and 3 freshmen, 1 transfer) who have combined to win 1 NCAA Tournament game. Yet for all this accumulated talent, Texas has but one marginal NBA prospect in Taylor (who, it should be noted, was the lowest-rated recruit of Texas' scholarship players).
For Smart, this means that there's talent on the roster. Hopefully, Smart coaxes a Malcom Brown/Jordan Hicks type season out of Taylor, maximizing his potential. Maybe, Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh post a Mykkele Thompson breakout senior season. Perhaps Texas' freshmen recruits are underrated and come in Connor Williams ready.
On the flip side, there's concern that maybe these guys weren't that talented to begin with. Without singling out the culprits, the narrative states neither the NBA nor NFL is buying much stock in Austin right now. What kind of magic can Shaka conjure up to change that worldview?
Opting for familiarity in his coaching staff
"We’re in a situation where we want to make sure our guys know exactly what we want them to do. We might not have as much in as we would have if our staff was here for several years but that’s OK. I think it’s about doing the things you want to do well more so than having everything in." - Shaka Smart [s]
I won't rehash Scipio's opuses about the Shawn Watson era, but in retrospect it's clear that Strong opted for comfort and familiarity in his coaching staff. Simply put, he made some wrong decisions that put him at a significant disadvantage not only on the recruiting trail, but also with the on-field product. Texas fielded an initially strong defense but was (is?) a comedy of errors on offense and special teams. Likewise, Longhorns fans expect Smart's "havoc" coaching style to continue paying Barnesian dividends on D, but are hedging bets on whether Texas' O will discontinue stagnation.
Who's Shaka working with? Smart opted to retain two assistants from his VCU staff, Mike Morrell and David Cason, while bringing in a seasoned ex-head coach in Darrin Horn. None splash hires. Cason, who has experience coaching at Tulsa and TCU, is ostensibly Smart's pipeline to the state of Texas. Texas had two appealing "keep" candidates from Rick Barnes' staff: S&C coach Todd Wright and basketball ops staffer Jai Lucas. Smart retained Lucas but not Smart, presumably to retain a Texas pipeline connection.
Speaking of recruiting...
"I don’t want my list to be too large. I don’t want it to overwhelm me. I want to have fun my senior year. I won’t have so many coaches calling me." - De'Aaron Fox [s]
At Texas, Smart recruits in big boy waters. Tevin Mack, Smart's first official Longhorn recruit, was ranked 58th in the composite rankings. Had he committed to Smart at VCU, he would have been VCU's second-highest rated recruit in the Smart era (Terry Larrier, who subsequently transferred to UCONN). At Texas, Mack is the third highest rated recruit just in his incoming class.
While Smart looks like a home run hire from a casual, fan-friendly perspective, he also did not bring NBA cache, in both talent development and professional experience. That's not a recruiting death knell, but it is slightly problematic that Smart has not taken more proactive steps to realize recruiting gains as a new hire or make inroads in Texas, let alone nationally. By comparison, new Alabama head coach Avery Johnson hired Scott Pospichal (former AAU coach of Julius Randle) and utilized his DFW connections to land Terrance Ferguson (Dallas Prime Prep) and involve himself with Marques Bolden (DeSoto).
Meanwhile, Texas was quickly written off by Ferguson and Bolden. Smart's best bet at a splash recruit, De'Aaron Fox (Cypress Lakes), curiously left Texas off his semi-finalist list of 7 (!) schools. Maybe Fox was picking Kentucky anyway, but getting a blown tire halfway through the race stings. Smart has one last shot at a difference-maker in the 2016 class in hometown product Jarrett Allen (Austin St. Stephen's), but right now the crystal ball is trending to Kentucky and Houston (!!).
Losing recruits to Kentucky is one thing. Losing them to Alabama and Houston is another. Getting top-rated recruits doesn't ensure success (re: Brown, Mack; Barnes, Rick), but it sure does correlate well.
It could get worse before it gets better
"All ‘guys’ and no ‘dudes.’ Texas barely shows up on our master list of prospects to scout this year. Vince Lombardi couldn’t do anything with the guys they have on offense." - Anonymous NFL Exec [s]
Preseason expectations showcase Texas hoops as a team with Top 25 potential but an "others receiving votes" ranking. In other words, pundits are asking Smart and company to prove it. Maybe Texas surprises and finishes top 4 in the Big 12 with a high NCAA Tournament seed. But it's also very possible, like the 2014 football team, that this year's basketball team just isn't very good and will have trouble just staying competitive in conference play.
The worse news is that, after this season, it's likely to get worse before it gets better. Texas graduates 3 bigs (Ridley, Ibeh, Lammert) and 2 guards (Felix, Holland). All are key cogs in Texas' rotation. Taylor already had one foot out the door last summer and may go pro this summer anyway, regardless of his NBA Draft status. And compounding the problem (a la Mack), Barnes curiously did little to backfill his impending big man losses, never mind his utter disregard for finding playable small forwards or stretch 4's.
If Taylor does leave, Smart is counting on large gains from a promising freshman class. His 2016 early period signing class features two promising supplemental players (top 75 big James Banks and top 100 guard Jacob Young) but no immediate difference makers, with only Allen still on the board that might count towards that category. Maybe Smart hits the transfer market hard, but that's not a basket you want to put all your eggs in. In short, Texas' 2016 hoops season could reflect this year's football season. It's something I want you to prepare for.
Ending with sunshine pumping (Or, Texas will win a National Championship under Shaka Smart)
"Artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself." - Alan Moore
I'm not an artist, but I hope I'm lying. My gut says that, like Charlie Strong, Shaka Smart is the right man for the job. But in the meantime, there might be these myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense.