Smart ready to keep building with young talent

Claire Cruz

The Longhorns are set for a full-on youth movement in 2016.

With six members of last season’s roster no longer on the 40 Acres, Texas’ success will sit on the shoulders of five returners — three of which are sophomores — and incoming freshmen. But second-year head coach Shaka Smart doesn’t see the team’s youth as a weakness.

“It’s exciting for me, the opportunity that we have,” Smart said on July 27. “Last year at this time, we had 12 scholarship guys. The five returners of those 12 have a chance to take a real jump. We’re going to have some growing pains, but I think we have a chance to really make some progress.”

The team has a long way to go to replicate last season’s 20–13 campaign. Still, there’s plenty of talent on the roster.

Sophomore guards Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis Jr. played in all 33 games last season and are expected to take on big roles in 2016. Roach averaged 7.5 points per game and showed off his athleticism with a number of high-flying dunks, while Davis averaged 7.4 points behind his smooth jump shot.

The team also brings back sophomore forward Tevin Mack, along with senior forwards Shaquille Cleare and Kendal Yancy. Mack and Cleare also played in every game in 2015–2016 season and will be considered for the starting power forward job vacated by Connor Lammert.  

“It’s such a different dynamic on our team,” Smart said. “The returning guys even are in different roles. Now the question is how much are they willing to understand and own their part, and so far they’ve been really good.”

A solid four-man recruiting class headlined by five-star forward Jarrett Allen — the No. 17 overall prospect, according to 247sports — solidifies a variety of Texas’ needs. Allen and four-star center James Banks are expected to fill the voids left by graduated centers Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh. Smart worked with both young players this summer as head coach of Team USA’s under-18 team. And four-star guard Andrew Jones should take over some of the ball-handling duties left over from Isaiah Taylor.

But with so many new players in the locker room, the Longhorns must work on team chemistry and maturity before they open the season in November.

“We have a young group that’s going to need to continue getting better and better during the offseason,” Smart said. “Those guys are going to really need to grow in the areas of poise, ball handling and decision making, and they understand that they need to make some major progress.”

Even though there’s severe roster turnover from last year, Smart doesn’t consider the upcoming campaign a rebuild.

His first season at the helm came with some big moments, including six wins over ranked teams. And the team’s returners all gained crucial experience last year and should be well adjusted to Smart’s style of play.

“Last year, we were starting over with everyone, and we didn’t know anything about Texas,” Smart said. “This year, we have a year under our belt as a coaching staff, and we have guys that have been here and have a decent understanding of things that we want. We’re going to have big goals.”

Smart is setting high expectations, regardless of the team’s youth and inexperience. He feels a strong foundation has already been established.

All that’s left to do is build on it.