Big 12 Preview: Texas’ Burning Question

Posted by Chris Stone on October 26th, 2015

This team preview is part of the RTC Big 12 microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Can Shaka Smart turn Texas into a basketball school?

College basketball feels like it’s engaged in a constant search for the next big thing. The one-and-done rule has turned college hoops into a temporary pit stop for the next great NBA player, and in a similar fashion, athletic departments at power conference schools are often looking to find the next mid-major head coach who can transform a struggling program into an overnight success. While many highly touted coaches including Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall have resisted the calls from power five schools, Shaka Smart has finally taken the plunge, and the Big 12 is better for it.

Shaka Smart is poised to lead Texas' turnaround. (Daulton Venglar/The Daily Texas)

Shaka Smart is poised to lead Texas’ turnaround. (Daulton Venglar/The Daily Texas)

After an impressive six-year tenure at VCU, Smart signed a six year, $22 million deal with Texas in April. The Longhorns’ athletics program has been in a bit of a rut lately. Although it made the NCAA Tournament in all but one year under former head coach Rick Barnes, Texas hasn’t played in the event’s second weekend since D.J. Augustin led the Longhorns to the Elite Eight in 2008. The school’s football program has experienced a similarly disappointing slide since losing to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game in 2010. Charlie Strong was brought in to inject life into the program, but in two years has been largely unsuccessful as rumors swirl regarding the team’s overall lack of talent. The cherry on top was the recent dismissal of athletic director Steve Patterson in September. Patterson lasted less than two years in Austin, during which time he alienated boosters and long-term employees alike.

With an athletics program on the mend, Smart has a special window of opportunity for basketball at Texas. The fact that he took the job even with the bumbling Patterson at the helm is just one sign that the Longhorns have something unique to offer. According to Business Insider, Texas ranks second in revenue among all college athletics departments. Only Oregon, powered by donations from Nike CEO and founder Phil Knight, tops the Longhorns. That type of cash flow provides plenty of money to upgrade facilities, and there are already talks of building a new on-campus arena in the near future. Texas also has in-state access to a plethora of highly touted recruits. According to Rivals, 10 of the top 100 recruits in the Class of 2016 are from the Lone Star State. Two of those — Jacob Young and James Banks — have already committed to the Longhorns. Both prospects cited Smart’s uptempo style and personality as key factors in their decisions. With Texas fans looking around campus for a winner, Smart has a chance to quickly make basketball relevant at a traditional football school.

Florida under Billy Donovan provides Smart perhaps the most instructive historical example. While Texas clearly has a deeper basketball pedigree than the Gators did when a 30-year old Donovan took over in Gainesville nearly two decades ago, Smart will face many similar challenges. He’ll need to inspire a fan base that has traditionally been more interested in the rhythms of the football calendar and convince his players that they can compete with the very best. If the Longhorns’ recent scrimmage is any guide, he’s already made progress on the former. The latter, however, represents an interesting challenge.

Smart inherits a relatively talented roster that finished just 8-10 in the Big 12 last year. That team lost Jonathan Holmes to graduation and Myles Turner to the NBA Draft, but junior Isaiah Taylor returns to lead the Longhorns this season. Taylor led the team in scoring and will be featured prominently in Smart’s offense, which calls for point guards to create multiple scoring opportunities. He will be joined in the backcourt by talented seniors Demarcus Holland and Javan Felix along with promising newcomers Kerwin Roach and Tevin Mack. In the frontcourt, big man Cameron Ridley may take some time to fit into Smart’s system, but expect senior Prince Ibeh to see his role expand — his motor and rim protection should be a nice fit. Given this roster, Smart may not be ready to turn the Longhorns into an immediate basketball powerhouse, but the seeds are in place for him to cultivate it to grow into the next big thing in the Big 12 and nationally.

Chris Stone (136 Posts)

Chris Stone is a contributor to the Big 12 microsite. You can find him on Twitter @cstonehoops.

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