This very well could be Shaka Smart's golden year at Texas. This could be the Texas team that goes further than the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Heading into the Nov. 25 season opener against UTRGV, the Texas men's basketball team looks stronger than ever under Smart.
Forget about talent. There's plenty of that, with heralded recruit Greg Brown, the lone newcomer on the team, Matt Coleman, a preseason All-Big 12 selection, and Jericho Sims, a dominant force in the post.
It is the level of experience that separates this year's Texas team from the rest. No Texas team under Smart has returned the level of experience that this year's team will. Few other power schools in the country return their entire 2019-20 starting five, along with the majority of last year's bench. Only Drayton Whiteside, a seldom-used walk-on guard, graduated after last season.
"We're excited about, number one, having the experience coming back from last year," Smart said. "We talk a lot as a team about when you have hard-won wisdom, as a basketball player that's been twists and turns in the Big 12, now its coming on you, your teammates and the coaching staff to take advantage of that. It's one thing to have experience — it's another to utilize it."
Smart spoke Tuesday of the unique positives and challenges of having so many talented players, but only being able to use five of them at a time.
"That's the biggest challenge right now for our coaching staff," Smart said. "The coaching staff is figuring out exactly what the best rotation is for Texas basketball, because certainly there's a lot of different ways to go. All of our returning guys helped our team at certain points last year, some more consistently than others. But some of those guys are not the exact same player that they were, so you don't want to base everything on last year."
There is one player who Smart can not possibly evaluate based off his performance last year. Brown posted ridiculous numbers at Vandegrift High school last season, averaging 26.4 points, 13.2 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game. Smart said he does not expect Brown to put up those kinds of numbers in what will likely be his only season at the college level, but does consider Brown a starter, although he has not yet played one minute of college competition. However, unlike most college coaches who give the impression that their one-and-done freshmen are the best in the college game from day one, Smart was quick to note that there are multiple things Brown needs do to become the next great player to come out of Texas and reach his full potential.
"He immediately makes our team more athletic, more dynamic on the glass and in transition," Smart said of Brown. "Like all freshmen, he's got quite a few things to learn, quite a few areas to continue to improve in, but that's the exciting thing for him: his potential is limitless. What I've learned from coaching Jarrett Allen and Mo Bamba and Jackson Hayes is that things go the way they should as a player in game 15 versus game one. I'm excited about that progression for Greg. He's worked really hard, he's been a good teammate, I'm really happy to have him here."
Brown might be the focus of this year's team, and certainly a foundational piece, but the team's three guards, Coleman, Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey, have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, using their senior leadership skills and showing the kind of clarity Smart looks for in key contributors.
"Those three guards stand out more than anyone," Smart said. "Those guys just have a maturity about them in terms of their games."
With Brown and the three starting guards providing senior leadership, the foundation is set for this year's team, which likely will have Sims as its fifth starter. But in recent years, injuries have plagued Texas, and having the right amount of depth on the bench is crucial to maintaining success in the season ahead. Smart said that multiple players expected to be in the rotation have stood out over the first month of practice, but Kai Jones has stood apart from the rest.
"Kai Jones has probably taken the biggest jump from last year in terms of his confidence and the way he's moving around the floor," Smart said.
Texas finally has the depth, the experience and the talent to compete with the best in the Big 12, even the country. Ultimately, Smart said he hopes that what he instilled over the course of the quarantine through Zoom meetings and now in practice will pay off for this year's team.
"In general, the word that our guys have heard this offseason and continuing into practice this month, has been the word 'violence,'" said Smart. "I want to be clear: I'm not talking about off the court. I'm talking about on the court. I'm talking about going after the ball with a level aggressiveness and physicality, plays around the rim. Basketball, certainly at the Big 12 level, is a contact sport. We felt that, as coaches and as players last year, we didn't play with enough violence. It's one thing to say it, it's another thing to do. The way we plan to play this year, we want to play more aggressively, play to our strengths."