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Conference Play is Coming & All I Can Contemplate is Cam

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Around 8am this morning as I was pondering ways to avoid checking work email thinking of ways to stir interest in Texas Longhorns basketball, the idea of writing a conference season preview began to germinate in my brain. I was ready to make jokes about Buddy Hield's incredible Mister Ed impersonation, Travis Ford's ability to start dumpster fires with his mind like a Kentucky Ricky Bobby, and Photoshop Perry Ellis' AARP card like a poor man's basketball Texas Pregamer. Then this happened:

I am now a half-empty helium balloon, floating 4 feet off the ground through a grimy alley, my cheap nylon string dragging past a pair of homeless dogs fighting over a grackle carcass, destined only to descend closer to the pee-stained concrete as the hours pass and my helium reserves dissipate. This sucks; not just for the reasons it affects the Texas team - we'll get into that - but because Cameron Ridley was having pretty easily his best season on campus and deserves to go out on a more positive note than this. The Big Cheese was showcasing the abilities that made programs like Kansas & North Carolina come calling, and with a complete season of that kind of effort & production he might have worked his way into a second-round pick. Now he's almost assuredly going to have to work his way into the pros through the free agency process, assuming his foot heals up 100%. As I'm writing this, there is no official timetable for Cam's return, but the friendliest estimate I've seen is mid-February. There's a solid chance Cam misses the rest of the regular season depending on the extent of the injury and how well he heals. Big men historically take longer to get back to 100% when it comes to foot problems, so there's a non-zero chance Texas has seen the last minute of Cameron Ridley in burnt orange. (According to Mike Finger, there's no realistic shot of a medical redshirt.) Maybe Cam is back the last 4-5 games of the regular season, but until we hear the post-surgery results it's best to assume Cam is out for at least 15 games and probably more.

How Does Texas Adjust to a World Without Cam?

You mean a world without this guy?

Other than handing Jeff Gillooly the keys to Perrin's jet and a map of every Big 12 basketball arena, there are two realistic options I see:

  1. Shaka attempts to run similar lineups with Prince Ibeh & Shaquille Cleare soaking up most of Cam's minutes. Neither of them has the offensive skill set of Cam so we're likely to see a transition from a priority on post feeds to more pick & roll situations to get Prince/Shaq rolling towards the basket where they can ostensibly at least get some offensive rebounds and put-back buckets. (It would be fan-fucking-tastic to see Junior Year Ibeh make an appearance starting, oh, yesterday.) This option seems more likely if Shaka thinks Cam is coming back soon, less likely if they think Cam is gone for good.
  2. Texas moves to a significantly smaller lineup with Connor Lammert at the 5 and 4 guards/wings raining down 3s in a 4-out motion offense. (Prince/Shaq could play at the 5 as well, but for this offense to work best it needs a big that has to be guarded beyond 10 feet.) Shaka has experimented with a smallish lineup from time to time this year, but the results have been sketchy at best. This offense would add another level to the significant delta between Texas' best & worst games as it would be even more reliant on effective perimeter shooting than the Longhorns already are. If Shaka wants to invoke the "Hold Onto Your Butts" option and pair this with his full-court diamond press, we might be in for one hell of a roller coaster ride where one game we go full Death Blossom and the next we look like Plaxico Burress' jeans at 4am. I can't decide if this option excites or terrifies me...probably both. It texcites me. I am texcited.

In either situation, the team's post-season hopes now rest on these 4 people stepping up: Prince Ibeh, Shaquille Cleare, Tevin Mack, and Kendal Yancy. We already have a reasonably good handle on what guys like Javan Felix, Connor Lammert, Eric Davis, and Isaiah Taylor will do this season; the delta between "didn't skip a beat" and "book your NIT tickets now" largely rests on how well (or poorly) Prince, Shaq, Tevin, and Kendal fill the gaps in any Shaka Smart adjustments. A squad with Tevin Mack hitting shots at a D1 level becomes much more dangerous in a 4-out system. A squad with Junior Year Prince and/or Maryland-level Shaq has the defensive interior presence to continue limiting opposing offenses. A squad with Kendal Yancy returning to his 2014 form gets another guy able to help across the stat sheet. A squad with all of these things is still dangerous to anybody in the Big 12. A squad with none of these things is battling to stay ahead of Texas Tech in the conference standings. The truth will likely fall somewhere in the middle, and the fat part of the bell curve has the terms "Texas" and "bubble team" sitting together closer than Scipio Tex and T.J. Ford at a late-night Palo Alto malt shop. (This might be the second time in three years Texas' season peaked at a December game against the North Carolina Tar Heels. Sigh.)

Whatever happens, we will get our first glimpse of the new Texas attack Tuesday night against the Connecticut Huskies at 8pm CT on ESPN2.

BWG's writing tunes provided by Darin Epsilon & Soulwerk (SFW).