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The 2018 Texas Backcourt

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YOU get a point guard, YOU get a point guard, EVERYBODY gets a point guard

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-Texas vs Iowa State Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

What a difference a year makes. Well, a year, and a legitimate point guard. The offense wasn’t spectacular but it was significantly more efficient than the year before. You may have missed the efficiency gains on account of Texas playing offensive basketball at a pace that resembled the plot of ‘Speed’ if Keanu Reeves had gotten to the bus before it activated the bomb. It’s a special kind of slow when a team plays noticeably slower than Kansas State; during games Bruce Weber could be seen locking eyes with Shaka Smart and repeatedly gesturing to his Apple watch, which I assume had an alert for an appointment to visit a museum dedicated to drying paint because that seems like the kind of boring-ass hobby Bruce Weber would love. Texas played basketball like Kirk Ferentz fucks, slow to engage and statistically likely to miss the hole. BUT THEY WERE EFFICIENT AT IT.

If I can break this down in a very “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play” way, Texas did improve in a number of areas year-over-year. The primary improvement was in turnovers; Texas went from the bottom third of D-I in turnover rate in 2017 (19.6% of possessions ended in a turnover, 251st in the country) to top 20% (17%, 73rd in the country) largely due to Matt Coleman handling the ball instead of Andrew Jones and Kerwin Roach II playing The Ball Is Lava, The Floor Is Lava, and My Hands Are Lava. The three-point shooting also improved, which is a sentence I definitely just said in that sort of ever-increasing pitch you hear from your high school junior when they unconvincingly suggest that yes, the bushes in front of the house are destroyed, but at least the car isn’t totaled so isn’t that really a good thing in the larger scope of things and also don’t you have insurance so can I go play Fortnite now? The offense did improve thanks to the backcourt; shots were blocked less often, the ball was stolen less often, they made free throws at a slightly - and I mean slightly in that way you celebrate losing a pound by stepping on the scale immediately after a bout of bad curry sort of way - higher rate. There was foundational improvement, but it only matters if they build on that foundation. Let’s talk about the guards who might help start framing the first story this year.

Matt Coleman (6-1, Sophomore)

Tim Preston’s adopted son showed a lot to like last season; his ability to come in from game one of his freshman year and run the offense at an improved level illustrates why Shaka Smart was recruiting Coleman for five years. I imagine Shaka sees a little of himself in Coleman; Shaka is still the all-time assists leader at Kenyon College and he prizes point guards who facilitate. Matt Coleman is definitely a distributor first; his 139 assists to 74 turnovers (1.87:1 ATO) is a significant upgrade from the nearly 1:1 ATO Kerwin Roach II and Andrew Jones managed their freshman seasons. Even if he doesn’t improve upon this ratio (and I’m betting he will) he still represents at the very least a steadying force on the offensive end, and if he does improve upon this ratio (and again, I’m betting he will) he could start to assert himself as an upper-tier Big 12 point guard. This may not sound like high praise, but in a conference with the likes of Lindell Wigginton, Quentin Grimes, Jaylen Fisher, and Cartier Diarra, that’s putting yourself into the upper echelon of the nation. There are two things to discuss with Coleman that will decide his ultimate ceiling: free throws and threes. His rate of making threes was pedestrian last season, though he seemed to drain every single 18-foot shot he took which is one of the least valuable skills in modern basketball. It’s like being the best lane-drawer on an interstate; great, Steve, I’m glad you found a skill, but we have machines for that now. If there’s a way to hypnotize Coleman into thinking every three he takes is with one foot inside the line, Texas is going to be vastly improved offensively. The free throws are important for a couple of reasons: 1) point guards tend to get fouled a lot and 2) Coleman makes most of his free throws. We all recall Coleman missing three straight free throws against Texas Tech, but it’s worth noting that on the season he made nearly 79% of his free throws and post-Tech he made 87.2% (34/39) of his free throws. Having a starting guard who can attack the basket and score when fouled helps a lot, but that level of free throw production also hints that his three-point shooting has room to improve. There aren’t a lot of modern-day guards who make 85%+ of their free throws who don’t turn out to be at least solid three-point shooters. As much as Coleman’s freshman year lifted the team, his sophomore year is tantalizing in its potential.

Andrew Jones (6-4, Junior)

It’s pretty much impossible to do justice to the roller coaster ride Andrew Jones has been through in the last year, and the fact that he’s wearing a uniform instead of a hospital gown is its own victory. I don’t think there’s a college basketball fan alive who is rooting against Jones’ return to the court, though I imagine most Big 12 fans hope he has two bad games a year against their team. Having him back around and able to contribute at a meaningful level is an enormous boost to this team’s chances in the conference and beyond; as much as many people (including myself) were hoping for grad transfer Joe Cremo to come to Texas, this is at least as good a development. Jones may not be 100% what we saw early last season, as far as he’s come there’s still a big difference between playing pick-up games in Houston and being in high-major D-I basketball shape. Then again, he was playing pick-up games with D-I and fringe NBA guys the last couple of months, so maybe it’s not quite the gap I’m imagining.

It’s tempting to hope for a best-case scenario where Jones returns and is a 46% three-point shooting NBA draft hopeful with elite athleticism, but given his extended absence from the team it’s probably best to tap the brakes until he proves he’s entirely back. Yes, he posted a video of him dunking recently, but he wasn’t nearly the bouncy guard we saw early last season. He barely dunked that ball - I realize that ‘barely’ dunking is still an order of magnitude better than my middle-aged ass can manage without Ninja Warrior-style trampoline assistance, which would still probably end up looking like a scrawnier Amy Schumer ‘Trainwreck’ dunk attempt - and if he doesn’t have those kind of hops (or confidence to unleash said hops) then his value is somewhat diminished. His recent fractured toe only complicates the projection. Still, even if Jones is only a sixth-man who comes off the bench to hit threes and push the pace, that’s a skill set that can be of great use to this team. What would last year’s squad have done with a guy who played 12 minutes a game and hit 46% from three? Probably won a couple more games and snagged a 6-seed.

Kerwin Roach II (6-4, Senior)

Which Snoop will we see this year? That’s the question of the moment, and by moment I mean this section because I’ve got sooo many other questions. Questions like “why do plants die in my flower beds” or “can I text Lance Armstrong for his leftover EPO” or “does Tom Herman invoke the quadratic equation in his defense of Tim Beck still drawing a salary”. Many questions, few real answers. (But seriously, if you know Lance, I could use the help.) The Roach of conference play would be a great sight, and the way he went about his performance upgrades seems sustainable. His assist rate jumped from 21.7 to 24.9 (6th in the conference), his three-point shooting improved from 35.3% to 37.1% (22nd in the conference), his fouls drawn rate increased AND his free throw make rate went from 60.8% to 68.3%. His two-point shooting percentage dropped in conference play considerably, which is concerning for a player who showed an ability at times to finish in traffic. Fortunately, the addition of even more ball-handlers in Eli Long and Courtney Ramey means there’s a decent chance Roach gets to do what he did really well: spot-up shooting with his feet set. Roach ranked in the top 17% nationally in guarded catch & shoot situations per Synergy, so he’s like a really athletic Eric Davis Jr. if you removed Davis’ instinct to play the basketball equivalent of jazz flute in the middle of a possession. Roach can handle the ball, he can catch & shoot well, and with the influx of depth he could play just enough fewer minutes per game that he has the energy for a high level of defensive intensity throughout the season. While Roach locked up a lot of really good guards in non-conference play (he still has a timeshare inside Collin Sexton’s brain that’s comped through 2021) as the season wore on Roach’s defense started to suffer somewhat. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t fighting through screens quite as well and his off-ball defense went from lock-down to pretty good. It’s a relatively minor thing, but after a season with eight overtime contests, minor things feel worth mentioning.

Courtney Ramey (6-4, Freshman)

It’s sort of amazing that Texas went from no point guard in 2016 to Matt Coleman in 2017 to Matt Coleman and Courtney Ramey in 2018. Courtney Ramey feels very much like Matt Coleman 2.0 to me, which is something that I don’t say lightly given that I’ve compared Matt Coleman to Monte Morris more than once. Texas potentially has two legitimately good college point guards; more to the point, they potentially have two legitimately good multi-year college point guards. There’s a narrow window of point guard who can excel in D-I but not have one or more skills that make them an immediate risk of leaving for the NBA; Monte Morris is the prototype of the guard I want to see at a program. He took tremendous care of the ball, hit his teammates in full stride, finished at the rim reasonably well, and over the course of his four-year NCAA career he improved every facet of his game. You can win a lot of games with a Monte Morris type, and I think Matt Coleman is very much in the same mold as Morris. Ramey could eventually be as well; he’s fast, but not lightning quick, he’s smart with the ball and - as you might expect from the son of a coach - he understands how to run an offense. He’s got good size so he can play a couple of positions and his shooting ability is solid but still improving from distance. Texas coaches are privately raving about him; I would not be surprised to see him in the starting lineup when the season begins. Ramey is going to get minutes this season, likely far more than any of the other freshmen. What will limit his minutes is either his ability (or lack thereof) to hit threes and his defensive prowess.

Jase Febres (6-5, Sophomore)

When Jase Febres committed to Texas, he was viewed as a shooter who could fill a valuable role in an offense lacking proven outside threats. At times he did this well, like when he put up 18 points on 11 shots in Waco or when he went 4-8 from three against Mississippi State. Unfortunately those 8 threes constituted nearly 30% of his made threes on the season as Febres’ productivity went up and down over the course of the year. Some of this should be expected from a 4-star freshman, more often than not the 4-star players produce uneven contributions their first year on campus. In fact, Febres’ offensive numbers look pretty normal for a first-year player who isn’t already eyeing the NBA. It took on an outsized importance with the loss of Andrew Jones, as Febres was one of the few players left on the team anyone could slap the ‘shooter’ label on without keeling over laughing. Febres played solid on-ball defense and was at least able to pitch in on man defense, where consistent effort is 70% of the battle for someone of his size and ability. It’s promising to see his Synergy numbers in PnR defense are solid even against the guards and wings of the Big 12. Febres had issues with the types of defenses most freshmen tend to, namely zone and various off-ball situations. Some people question Febres’ lateral agility, but I tend to think that is more about Febres not being able to consistently anticipate offensive actions. Febres seems cerebral enough that he’ll be spotting tendencies and passes a half-step quicker in the coming years, which will mitigate some of the athletic deficiencies people project onto him. Febres may not be the sixth or even seventh man in the rotation; his ability to hit shots will likely determine his minutes this season. If Febres is playing more than 15 minutes a game this year, it’s likely because he’s taken a leap in productivity to earn those minutes.

Elijah Long (6-0, Redshirt Junior)

Eli Long was recruited as a contingency plan, and I don’t mean that as a slight to Long. When you think back to ~16 months ago, Texas was looking at a 2018 season where Andrew Jones was in the NBA, Courtney Ramey was headed to Louisville, and Shaka Smart’s staff was looking at a roster with Matt Coleman, Kerwin Roach II, and not a lot else in terms of guards capable of running the point...and honestly, after the 2016 season how much faith did they have Roach could run the point? Eli Long was one of the best guards available on the transfer market, having played two really good years at Mount St. Mary’s. Bringing him on board was a no-brainer, and he still can be a good backup point guard for this Texas team. He can shoot the ball, he’s comfortable running an offense, and he knows how to dish out the assists. There’s a lot to like about his game; it’s just that the math has changed through no fault of his own and some of his minutes are going to others on account of leukemia and the FBI. I don’t think there’s a Hallmark card for that. Still, by all accounts he’s invested in helping the team, and with two years of eligibility remaining his commitment can pay unforeseen dividends down the road. You can never have too many ball-handling guards.

Blake Nevins (6-3, Sophomore)

Blake got tired of whipping the football team’s ass as a preferred walk-on QB, so he decided to try something less difficult than handling Shackleford snaps. He’s now on the basketball team, presumably for his ability to dance in a confined space and pantomime eye goggles when other guys hit threes. Pray you see him often in non-conference play, because that means Texas is beating another team worse than Shackleford’s snaps beat up quarterback shins.

I’ll get into how the minutes are distributed across the team in an upcoming piece.