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NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-Texas Tech v Texas Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

My erstwhile co-author Jeff Haley wrote a great piece in early 2017 that laid out a case for how a pair of recruiting classes in 2013 and 2014 can have ripple effects far longer than most people realize. The gist of the article is that the disproportionate number of transfers and unexpected roster attrition combined with growing fan discontent led Rick Barnes to a cycle of unending patchwork fixes rather than deal with a one or two year downturn in team performance as he rectified the roster imbalances. These decisions played a primary role in his eventual exit from the 40 Acres and the entry of Shaka Smart.

Unfortunately for Smart, Barnes’ decisions left Shaka with a ticking time bomb. Smart had one year to deal with the loss of six players (Isaiah Taylor, Cameron Ridley, Connor Lammert, Javan Felix, Prince Ibeh, and Demarcus Holland) to either graduation or professional aspirations and Barnes had only landed two players (Kerwin Roach II & Eric Davis Jr.) in the incoming class. Smart brought Tevin Mack with him from VCU, but otherwise that recruiting class was a wash. From that point, Smart was working from behind. I talked a bit about some of the benefits and drawbacks of their recruiting decisions that first season, but to recap Shaka Smart’s recruiting problems that first off-season were a combination of difficult circumstances and questionable in-state recruiting tactics. His staff was slow to get rolling on the recruiting trail in the first recruiting period, and by the time they started to hit their stride in Texas the 2016 class was already getting snatched up. Smart landed some great pieces in Andrew Jones and Jarrett Allen, both players pretty much any program would take if given the opportunity. The other recruits (Jacob Young and James Banks) didn’t work out though, and in hindsight might have been...I don’t want to say reaches as that does a disservice to the players because both were four-star recruits with offers from notable programs. Perhaps it’s better to say they weren’t fits for where Shaka Smart wanted to take Texas.

Not every commit works out, but the combination of them not working out - they weren’t gone from the roster, but the minutes they were getting in meaningful games their sophomore season told the story before they transferred - Tevin Mack doing bonehead things, and Jarrett Allen being a one-year rental meant that 12 months after Smart took the job he was left with significant holes to fill all over the depth chart. Smart filled it with an even bigger class than before, this time bringing in five players (Mohamed Bamba, Matt Coleman, Jericho Sims, Jase Febres, and Royce Hamm, Jr.) for 2017-2018. There was some additional unexpected attrition (goodbye, Wildcard!) but for the most part the most recent season went according to plan. Kinda. Bamba was gone after a year because of course he was, and Andrew Jones was gone for entirely different reasons.

Are you confused yet? You should be. I wrote this section in an attempt to tie multiple threads into a Gordian Knot of recruiting and program building, because it’s all related and nearly impossible to tease out one thread without involving others. The coaching staffs at every high-major program go through some form of unrelenting spreadsheet hell, trying to sort out how to field a deep team on a consistent basis. They’re trying to manage the current roster, project who will leave when, and recruit players to fill the expected voids anywhere from 12 to 36 months out. Oh, and the recruits are doing this weird thing called puberty, so the player you saw two years ago might be six inches (or zero inches) taller than when you started. It’s barely-ordered chaos without a cookie-cutter way of creating the ideal roster, and it’s why almost every program has talent ebbs and flows over a multi-year period. I could never do this for a living, identifying a good stretch-four recruit when he’s 15 and still 6-2 is some form of mysticism in which I have no background. I would get fired as a scout within a week, right after I’ve told them to take the five tallest players and/or I have exclusive information that the guy Coach K just offered is probably worth a look.

I spoke earlier about how Shaka has been recruiting from behind, patching holes in the lineup and playing catch-up with the numbers. Alright it wasn’t that much earlier, it’s not like I’m referencing an earlier chapter of a novel about Texas basketball. A book about Texas basketball, what a terrible fucking idea. Who would would waste untold hours writing such a thing anyway? Probably a self-important asshole; the type of person who would have their royalty check cashed in nickels so he could scatter it on his floor and roll around in it only to have his loving but stupid dog run in and try to eat a couple of the coins. He probably spent the night at the vet getting his dog’s stomach pumped, which cost 10x more than what he made from the royalties. YOU’RE GOING BACK TO THE FOSTER GROUP, ACE i’m so sorry ace i didn’t mean it i love you buddy we’re keeping you forever now who wants a belly rub. What the hell was I talking about?

I spoke earlier about how Shaka has been recruiting from behind, patching holes in the lineup and playing catch-up with the numbers. There were signs he was starting to make some progress in the 2017 class; while Bamba deservedly got the bulk of the headlines, the other players started to hint at a more cohesive idea of who Shaka Smart wants to bring to Texas. The rest of the class was no real threat to join the one and done club, instead it was a series of players who would be around and contributing meaningful minutes for at least two years, and a couple could make all four years. It sounds cynical, but any player who is giving 15+ minutes of winning basketball for at least two years injects a level of stability relative to the lottery pick recruits. Four of the five commitments are still on campus in their second year, two of them (Coleman & Sims) are potential all-conference starters, and one of the others (Febres) could play a significant role off the bench as a perimeter threat. It’s a start towards roster stability, but only if it can be built upon with another class of similar potential. To me, the 2018 class is a further refinement of this plan; out of the six commits (five commits and one transfer in Eli Long who I’m including here since this is the first year he’s eligible to play) there are zero clear-cut one and dones in this class, and several seem like they’re built in the mold of multi-year starters.

Here’s another sign the recruiting may be starting to find favorable winds: next year’s class should probably be...three players, maaaaaybe four, but most importantly not because there will be six seniors on the team. This team has two seniors, and next year’s squad will (theoretically) have a plethora of sophomores and juniors. It’s an incremental yet refreshing change from the last two years when the Texas squad was one of the 10 youngest out of a 351-member D-I crowd. The team won’t be claiming its AARP card any time soon, but it should at least exhibit some experience it lacked at many positions on the court.

To put some of this talk about roster construction in perspective, consider the likely starting lineup the first game: Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey, Kerwin Roach II, Dylan Osetkowski, Jericho Sims. Alternatively, look at it this way:

Player Progression

Year PG SG SF PF C
Year PG SG SF PF C
2016 Freshman Sophomore Sophomore Sophomore Freshman
2017 Freshman Junior Freshman Junior Freshman
2018 Sophomore Freshman Senior Senior Sophomore

Conditional formatting be damned - and I spent more time in Excel working on a pretty way to show this before realizing the Chorus SBNation system disregards it all than I’d care to admit - the starting lineup is slowly increasing in age & experience, which is a good thing when you look at the talent Texas is bringing into Austin. This season Texas can field a quality lineup that is free of freshmen, and that can mean stability and poise in road games where it might otherwise lack. Further, freshmen that play significant minutes are likely in there because they earned it rather than out of necessity. Texas might even bring out an ancient concept only mentioned in papyrus scrolls called ‘redshirting’, where a player doesn’t play in any games in exchange for a year of eligibility down the road. Maybe it’s ‘redshitting’; it’s hard to tell, the writing is pretty faded. They might not redshit anybody, but the mere idea of having the kind of depth where that’s a concept worth considering speaks to the possible talent pool of this team. Let’s all hope the season goes well enough somebody can get their shit redded for a year.

How the minutes get divided among this team is more wide open than any time in recent memory; this roster has a diversity of skill sets that allows for a significant amount of flexibility and tinkering. The last three years has featured a heavy rotation of players who do one thing well, but not a lot of players who can play more than one or two positions for a significant amount of time. I’m thinking of Shaquille Cleare, Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh, Javan Felix...you get the idea. There are more players on this particular squad who can play two to three positions that is opens up all sorts of options. Maybe they press more this year, maybe they run more this year, maybe they deploy some four-guard lineups around Sims or Osetkowski. I feel like four of the starting spots are set in stone, namely Coleman, Roach, Osetkowski, and Sims. Even with those set in stone, there are still a number of ways to plan with them (or around them, depending on opponent). Texas now has at least four guards who can handle the ball in Coleman, Roach, Long, and Ramey; they have two forwards who can shoot from distance in Osetkowski and Hepa, and they have multiple ultra-athletic bigs in Sims and Hayes. They could throw a number of combinations just from that group, and that doesn’t even count guys like Febres and Liddell.

Then there’s the biggest X-factor of all: Andrew Jones. I’ve tried to quantify what I think Jones will do this year, and there’s a wide variance in possibilities due to his extended absence from basketball. He could be anything from a minor role player working his way back into form, he could take command of the final starting spot picking up where he left off last year, or anywhere in between. It’s not often a team gets an extra year from a NBA-level shooter; if Jones isn’t quite back to his pre-cancer explosiveness, he can still provide a lot of value as a perimeter threat, like AJ Abrams on steroids. For now I’m hedging on his minutes and contribution, because as much as his story of recovery is something to be celebrated, coming back from all of that, a recent fractured toe, and a year away from the game is a big unknown. When you see his minutes in the chart, consider it a guess at the fat part of the bell curve or an average for the whole season.

If you’ve noticed a distinctly more positive vibe from my writing this off-season, this roster is a big reason why. The last three years has been an exercise in patience, watching the new regime remake the program in their image and wondering if the influx and outflux of talented but not entirely synchronized parts would ever coalesce into something resembling an ascendant, versatile roster. This group feels like the closest thing to what I want to see thus far, and it has a chance to be the best of the Shaka Smart tenure. The biggest question I have left for the staff is if they can optimize the talent on hand to create the best outcome possible. We’ll get that answer soon enough.

Minutes Breakdown

Player Minutes
Player Minutes
Matt Coleman 30
Kerwin Roach II 30
Dylan Osetkowski 28
Jericho Sims 27
Courtney Ramey 21
Andrew Jones 19
Kamaka Hepa 13
Jaxson Hayes 8
Jase Febres 8
Eli Long 8
Brock Cunningham 4
Gerald Liddell 3
Royce Hamm Jr 1
Total 200