Shaka Smart said in his introductory press conference at Texas that he believed there were two kinds of people — “energy givers or energy takers.”
Ask any Texas basketball fans, and they’ll put Smart firmly in the category of energy giver.
From his full-court, up-tempo playing style to his ability to connect immediately with fans as well as current and former players, Smart has the Texas fan base excited about the 2015-16 season.
“He called me minutes after taking the job, and you could feel his energy and excitement,” says former Texas point guard T.J. Ford, who led the Longhorns to the Final Four in 2003. “Then he called (former Texas players) Royal Ivey, Kevin (Durant) and LaMarcus (Aldridge). We’ve welcomed him in, but the most important thing is the current players love him. That’s what really matters.”
Texas plans to build a new basketball arena estimated to cost $450 million as the current arena will be demolished in three to five years to make room for a new medical school. Based on Smart’s ability to connect with the fan base and donors on a personal level already, athletic director Steve Patterson appears to have the right guy to help him raise some money as well.
Now, Smart just has to win, and he may have a team to do it.
All Big 12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Despite losing NBA Lottery pick Myles Turner, the team’s leading shot blocker, after just one season, Texas will still have one of the biggest and most experienced frontcourts in all of college basketball. That’s thanks to returning seniors Cameron Ridley (6'9", 285) and Prince Ibeh (6'10", 260).
And while the Longhorns lost lone senior Jonathan Holmes, a versatile 6'8", 240-pound, power forward, Texas adds 6'8", 290-pound space-eater Shaq Cleare, who sat out last season after transferring from Maryland. Cleare provides brute force down low and adds to the rim protection provided by Ridley and Ibeh that helped Texas lead the nation in blocked shots (7.8 bpg) last season.
Coaches like the pick-and-pop potential with senior forward Connor Lammert as well as the athleticism of sophomore forward Jordan Barnett. Barnett showed in high school he could score inside and outside, but he played very limited minutes as a freshman.
Texas Longhorns Facts & Figures
Last season: 20–14, 8–10 Big 12
Postseason: First round
Consecutive NCAAs: 2
Big 12 Projection: 5
Postseason Projection: First Round
Perhaps the best recruiting job by Smart in 2015 had nothing to do with his three incoming freshmen. According to teammates, junior point guard Isaiah Taylor, who led the team in scoring (13.1 ppg) and assists (4.6 pg) last season, was at least 50-50 to enter the NBA Draft after UT’s disappointing Round of 64 NCAA Tournament loss to Butler last March.
But Smart told Taylor he didn’t think there was anyone better in the country at playing fast with the ball in his hands than Taylor — and that Texas was about to start playing fast under Smart.
Smart told Taylor he’d never work harder than he would under Smart, but he’d also never have more fun.
“We’re demanding, but positive,” Smart says. “This is a game players love, and they need to have fun playing it.”
Taylor anchors a deep backcourt loaded with veteran experience but no appearances beyond the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. Seniors Javan Felix and Demarcus Holland as well as junior Kendal Yancy all have experience playing the point and off the ball.
Freshman shooting guards Eric Davis and Kerwin Roach will be expected to bring much-needed outside scoring punch to a team that ranked eighth in the Big 12 in scoring offense (67.4 ppg) last season.
Incoming freshman Tevin Mack is a versatile swingman whose specialty is defense and getting to the rim.
Key Losses: F Jonathan Holmes, F Myles Turner
Top Players: G Isaiah Taylor, G Demarcus Holland, F Connor Lammert, F Shaq Cleare, C Cameron Ridley
Swingman Tevin Mack brings an athletic, attack-mode mentality. Guard Kerwin Roach can create his own shot and has the ability to score from outside and the mid-range. Guard Eric Davis brings an aggressive scoring mindset that should be welcomed on a team that struggled to score last season. Forward Shaq Cleare averaged 3.0 points and 2.5 rebounds two years ago at Maryland.
Smart inherits a talented team that may have just added the biggest missing piece — togetherness. Players have said they have a much closer player-coach relationship with Smart than they did with Rick Barnes, whose tough-minded approach kept players at arm’s length on purpose.
Smart isn’t used to playing with guys as big down low as Ridley, Ibeh and Cleare; he’ll have to be smart about when to run and how much. But players say they are excited to play in the up-tempo, full-court Havoc style Smart is bringing to Austin. They say the energy in and around the program since Smart’s hire will be even more evident on the court thanks to their energy-giving new coach.