Almost nothing went according to plan in Year 1 of the Shaka Smart era at Texas, from opening last season in China without the athletic director who scheduled the game (and who hired Smart) — Steve Patterson — because he’d been fired in September, right down to an upset loss to Northern Iowa on a buzzer-beating half-court heave in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Combine all that with the loss of six key players from last year — five seniors and junior point guard Isaiah Taylor — and Smart is almost starting over in Year 2.
Thanks to the arrival of two five-star freshmen — big man Jarrett Allen and point guard Andrew Jones — Smart and the Longhorns have some talented new pieces on the roster.
All Big 12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Shaka Smart
2015-16 RECORD (BIG 12): 20–13 (11–7)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Northern Iowa 75–72 in the first round
2016-17 PREDICTION: Third in Big 12
G Javan Felix (10.7 ppg, 2.2 apg)
G Demarcus Holland (3.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg)
C Prince Ibeh (4.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg)
F Connor Lammert (7.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
C Cameron Ridley (11.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg)
G Isaiah Taylor (15.0 ppg, 5.0 apg)
To execute Smart’s frenetic, chaotic style of play, he needs athletic big men who can run. He has found that in a pair of highly recruited 6'10" freshmen.
Texas had to wait through the spring signing period and into June before Allen finally signed scholarship papers and enrolled in school.
After losing senior big men Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert, Smart was desperate to sign Allen, a recruit Texas felt good about landing until Houston and Kansas made late pushes. During the spring signing period, when Allen’s recruitment was in doubt, Smart elevated former Longhorns guard Jai Lucas from director of operations to full-time assistant because of Lucas’ ties to Houston, where Allen played AAU ball. Jai’s father — former NBA player and coach John Lucas — is a central figure in Houston’s AAU basketball community. It didn’t hurt Jai’s cause that TCU’s Jamie Dixon tried to hire him as well.
Allen is joined in the frontcourt by fellow 6'10" freshman James Banks, a four-star recruit who lives to rebound and block shots but needs to improve a limited offensive game. Allen and Banks did some additional bonding this summer in South America while playing on the USA U-18 National Team that was coached by Smart.
Senior Shaq Cleare lacks the athleticism of Allen and Banks, but he adds a physical toughness in the paint at 6'8", 285 pounds that Texas sorely needs.
At small forward, Tevin Mack and Mareik Isom, a graduate transfer from Little Rock, can both shoot the 3 and should be excellent in pick-and-pop situations. Mack averaged only 5.1 points as a freshman but showed his potential with 20 points in a loss to UConn and 18 in a loss to Iowa State. Isom averaged 5.9 points while playing 19.0 minutes per game for the Trojans last season.
Neither Mack nor Isom is a strong defender, so coaches might be inclined to play one or the other in a rotation, rather than both at the same time.
Although unproven at point guard, Jones and high-flying sophomore Kerwin Roach Jr. could form one of the more dynamic duos in the Big 12. Both can handle the point, and both can play off the ball, so they can be on the floor together — and probably will be.
Roach, whose vertical allows him to touch the top of the backboard, was one of the team’s best players at the end of last season. He showed he could get to the rim seemingly whenever he wanted.
Sophomore Eric Davis is a streaky 3-point shooter who needs to become more consistent and a tougher defender. He closed the season with 13 points in the NCAA Tournament loss to Northern Iowa. Freshman point guard Jacob Young, a Houston native, is raw but talented.
Senior guard Kendal Yancy, who has started 43 games in three seasons, was the only Longhorn last season to shoot better than 40 percent from 3-point range with at least 25 attempts.
At 6'4", Andrew Jones gives Texas the kind of size at point guard that the Longhorns have rarely had. Shaka Smart needs big man Jarrett Allen to live up to all the recruiting hype — immediately. Center James Banks brings an intense work ethic and defensive presence in the paint. Small forward Mareik Isom is a liability on defense but a threat from 3 as a pick-and-pop guy. Guard Jacob Young has some work to do.
The Longhorns need a lot of new parts to come together quickly. But if Jones and Roach play well together in the backcourt, and if Davis, Mack and/or Isom become 3-point shooting threats, and if Allen and Banks can do all that’s asked of them down low, Texas could become a team no one wants to face in March.
If any or all of those things don’t come together, Texas could be a bubble team — or NIT-bound in Year 2 under Smart.