Longhorns looking for big year from their backcourt
Texas fans’ sentiment toward coach Shaka Smart probably mirrors Smart’s three-year record in Austin: 50–50.
There have been two Round of 64 exits from the NCAA Tournament, including last season (after going 11–22 in 2016-17 and finishing last in the Big 12).
If the Longhorns are going to improve from middle-of-the-pack status in the Big 12 and get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008, they’re going to do it with a team led by its backcourt and not a freshman, one-and-done big man like the last two seasons (Jarrett Allen, Mo Bamba).
“It’s been a while since Texas has had a backcourt considered elite in the Big 12,” Smart says. “If we all do our jobs, that’s what we’re striving for.”
After miserable offensive numbers the past two years, Smart placed a huge offseason emphasis on free throw shooting and 3-point shooting.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Shaka Smart
2017-18 RECORD (BIG 12): 19-15 (8-10)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Nevada 87-83 in the first round
F Mohamed Bamba (12.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg)
G Eric Davis Jr. (8.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg)
G Jacob Young (6.2 ppg)
Gone is the 7'9" wingspan of Bamba, who led the Big 12 in rebounding (10.5 rpg) and set Texas’ single-season blocks record (111) before becoming the No. 6 pick in the draft by the Orlando Magic.
Expected to step up in Bamba’s absence is 6'9" sophomore forward Jericho Sims. In a critical four-game stretch in which Bamba was sidelined with an injury late last season, Sims averaged 12.0 points and 9.5 rebounds. That included 17 points and eight boards in a home season-finale win over West Virginia that likely sealed an NCAA Tournament bid for Texas. “Jericho proved in that West Virginia game he could step forward and help us win in a pressure-packed environment,” Smart says.
The veteran presence in the frontcourt is a slimmed-down 6'9" Dylan Osetkowski, who averaged 13.4 points and 7.2 rebounds last season while also shooting more 3s (146) than anyone on the team, hitting just 28.8 percent from beyond the arc.
Depth in the frontcourt will come from sophomore Royce Hamm as well as a trio of incoming freshman power forwards: Kamaka Hepa, Jaxson Hayes and Brock Cunningham.
Smart considers senior Kerwin Roach and sophomore Matt Coleman, who can both handle the point, the strength of this year’s team. The backcourt also got a nice boost when Texas landed four-star point guard Courtney Ramey, a former Louisville commitment, in the spring.
Sophomore guard Andrew Jones was the team’s leading scorer (13.5 ppg) and best 3-point shooter (.463) through 10 games last season when he was diagnosed with leukemia and left the team. Jones is taking online classes while continuing his cancer treatment and is determined to play again. But basketball won’t be discussed until his treatment concludes.
Coaches are hoping for a big year from sophomore wing Jase Febres, who was hailed as a sharpshooter by Smart but hit only 30.1 percent from 3 as a freshman. If Febres doesn’t pick it up, freshman wing Gerald Liddell — a top-50 national recruit — is drawing strong early reviews from coaches.
Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte, who was hired halfway through the Longhorns’ 19–15 basketball season last year, has voiced support for Smart, who has five years and $15 million remaining on his contract. Del Conte has pointed to the devastation of Jones’ cancer diagnosis and Smart’s recent success in recruiting, including a No. 8 national ranking for Texas’ 2018 class, according to the 247Sports Composite. But with Texas a couple years away from breaking ground on a new, on-campus basketball arena, Del Conte, who hired Jamie Dixon at TCU and experienced a quick turnaround (NIT championship in 2017), will undoubtedly be paying close attention this season.
Postseason Prediction: One & Done
Big 12 Prediction: 6th