Texas Longhorns fans have been through an understandable amount of frustration as they watched Shaka Smart & Co. follow a 20-win, NCAA Tournament appearance season with one of the worst basketball seasons since Bob Weltlich was tossed out of Frank Erwin Center in the late 1980s. The reasons for these struggles are manifest, and there are a few recurring themes in comments sections across the burnt orange landscape. Some of these answers seem simple, and their appeal lies in their theoretical simplicity. But as often happens in life, simple answers tend to get increasingly complicated the further you dig into them. I think it might be helpful to re-frame the answers less in an “insert Tab A into Slot B” presto change-o solution and more into the consequences of each move, as I think it will help illuminate why Texas is where it is and why the coaching staff made some of the decisions that led Texas onto the path they’re on. One point I feel really needs hammering home:
When you consider the choices the coaching staff made, it is vital to look at it not as a matter of solving a problem, rather as a cost/benefit analysis with pros and cons inherent in each choice. Some of these pros and cons will not manifest immediately and are better understood on a multi-year timeline.
I am compelled to point out that I’m not attempting to refute or endorse these ideas so much as providing context on why these decisions were made; this is less about whether the decisions were the correct ones than it is an attempt to look at the decisions from the coaching staff’s point of view. With that in mind, let’s begin.
Shaka should have recruited a point guard this year
This is the big one that should probably be pinned to the top of every basketball thread, because it’s what nearly everybody harps on as Shaka’s biggest failure to date. To vet this statement, I’m flipping the calendar back to April 2015 when Shaka Smart was hired. Smart has to not only keep the current Texas class (which consisted of Eric Davis Jr and Kerwin Roach Jr) together, but persuade the current starting PG Isaiah Taylor to return to Texas for another season when he has one foot in the NBA Draft. If Smart was still at VCU, all his current energy would be spent on future recruiting classes; instead, at Texas he is having to focus on retaining the current class as well as the engine of the current roster. The here and now is not stabilized, much less future classes. Hold onto that thought while I weave another thread, we’re coming back to it.
Shaka Smart has been recruiting Matt Coleman since eighth grade; Shaka has been watching this kid play and talking to Coleman about coming to play for him since Perry Ellis’ freshman year at Kansas. Think back to all of the Perry Ellis jokes you’ve heard on Twitter, all the references to Ellis’ hairline and the sepia tone Instagram filters applied to his photographs; during that whole time, Shaka Smart and his staff have been in Coleman’s ear about playing for VCU/Texas. There have been thousands of texts, hundreds of phone calls, dozens of visits to gyms to watch him play and pat him on the back; it was a five-year process recruiting Matt Coleman. And he’s just one player. Recruiting elite basketball players is a long, arduous process, and if you don’t get in early & often, you’re likely to miss out on landing those recruits.
Consider the man-hours devoted to Matt Coleman as an example of the time investment necessary to land a high-level recruit. Now consider the situation Shaka Smart walked into that I described above, and consider that when Smart was introduced as the Texas head coach, he was ~7 months away from the 2016 early signing deadline when many of the elite recruits committed to their schools. How realistic is it for Texas to land an impact freshman PG in that time frame? Smart made a run at De’Aaron Fox, but when you come in late on a guy that Kentucky wants you’re really just playing the role of safety net if Kentucky decides to go elsewhere. They didn’t.
Let us suppose that the next logical move after missing out on the moonshot of De’Aaron Fox is to find a transfer PG. There were a few on the market, as there always are. This also has its drawbacks. For one, straight transfers have to sit out a year, and if you want the transfer available for the Fall 2016 semester then you have to have them on the team in Fall 2015. This implies you’re giving up on Fox, as the transfer needs to be on campus months before Fox declares his intentions and Fox is unlikely to come to a team where there’s an established upperclassmen PG on the roster. Also complicating things is the small bomb Tim Preston dropped on our Pretend We’re Football podcast last week when he mentioned that bringing a PG in for the 2016 season (via an impact freshman, 2015 transfer, or 2016 graduate transfer) would have sunk Texas’ chances with Andrew Jones. That’s, uh, kind of a big deal.
The staff is sitting in their offices in 2015 looking at the following scenarios:
- They operate under the unlikely belief they can convince Isaiah Taylor to stay his senior season, while simultaneously recruiting Coleman to be Taylor’s heir apparent. Pros: If successful, PG is solved for at least 2 years, possibly for the foreseeable future. Cons: Unlikely to work as Taylor’s almost sure to go pro, leaving a crater in the depth chart for a season that Texas is unable to fill due to relying on a decision from Taylor that will happen months after the 2016 early signing day.
- They assume Taylor is going pro after his junior year, begin hastily recruiting Fox as a “no we really don’t mind being your sloppy seconds” choice under the assumption he’s definitely a one & done. Pros: It would fill the aforementioned crater nicely, help smooth out the scholarship number crunch Barnes left them with. Cons: Exceedingly unlikely to happen, also will likely lose Andrew Jones to another school in the process. Chances are high by shooting for the moon they create a crater in the roster the size of California.
- They assume Taylor is going pro after his junior year, try to land Fox, Jones, and Coleman in addition to keeping Roach, Mack, and Davis in the fold. Pros: Become Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds, see your enemies crushed before you. Cons: Less likely to happen than Scarlett Johansson giving me her private Snapchat account.
- They assume Taylor is going pro after his junior year, make some overtures to Fox to see if he bites, but focus on Andrew Jones and bring aboard a lower-ceiling PG recruit that won’t threaten the Jones commitment (hello, Jacob Young). They continue working on Coleman, and spend the 2016 season cobbling together reasonable PG play from the young combo guards on the roster. Pros: If Roach and/or Jones take to the PG position, the team could play reasonably well and vie for a NCAA Tournament berth. Cons: Have you watched this season?
This is really only one layer of the onion, as the Texas coaching staff was having similar discussions about other positions as well. Every player over 6-8” was graduating in the off-season, so Smart’s staff was having to rebuild the depth chart near the basket in addition to the point. A normal recruiting class in basketball is 3-4 players; Texas had effectively 7 scholarships come off the books when UNI’s half-court heave went through the basket if you include Jordan Barnett’s half-season — hold up, how many people remember Jordan Barnett in the first place — transfer in the equation. In a world where the NCAA places a finite limit on contact between coaches and recruits, every effort spent on one recruit takes away from the time spent on another. How many hours can the staff afford to spend chasing after Fox instead of say, Jarrett Allen?
Running a basketball program can be viewed in a variety of ways, but I find the best way to understand the off-court decision-making of a coaching staff is in terms of opportunity costs, particularly when you consider the multi-year arcs of the rosters. Is having De’Aaron Fox for one year worth having Andrew Jones (and possibly Matt Coleman) for zero years? Sitting in the office in June 2015, how likely do you think it is Isaiah Taylor stays for two more years and who could’ve had that scholarship in 2016 instead? How does that impact the pressure you apply to Taylor to stay or go? How many scholarships do you want to use in the 2016 & 2017 classes to smooth out the attrition hammering the team after last season ended? Being a coach in high-major basketball is like being Russell Crowe in ‘A Beautiful Mind’, except without the perks of electroshock therapy.
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