Column: Freshman class will have impact long after Bamba’s departure

Dalton Phillips

Texas has fallen flat in two seasons now, propelled by freshman big men. After eight months with the burnt orange, the time has already come for the most recent of the two, freshman Mo Bamba, to move on.

The Longhorn star declared for the draft Tuesday to the surprise of nobody, officially bringing an end to his brief stop on the 40 Acres.

But life marches on for Texas.

With or without Bamba, the team that collapsed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament looks ahead to its next campaign with careful optimism. In retrospect, this season will be seen as a wasted opportunity — a promising rebuild, derailed by injury, illness, scandals and inconsistency.

Texas was one of many teams this year that failed to gain any real traction with a one-and-done prospect. Like Arizona and conference rival Oklahoma — teams built around NBA-ready talent — the Longhorns lost out to a veteran team with postseason experience.

Back in November’s preseason, Texas came close to taking down two of those 16 remaining teams. Duke and Gonzaga both needed
overtime to defeat Longhorns, and excitement then was at an all-time high.

Texas fans hadn’t tasted real playoff success in nearly a decade, and here their team was, going toe-to-toe with the then-No. 1 and No. 17 ranked programs. The Longhorns were ready to arrive.

But Texas’ game wasn’t sustainable. Junior forward Dylan Osetkowski got stockier, slower; worse on both ends of the floor. Sophomore guard Jacob Young, even freshman guard Matt Coleman and junior guard Kerwin Roach II, were up and down all season — wildly inconsistent and unable to build any kind of rhythm.

The good news for Texas fans is that the Longhorns are well-equipped for life after Bamba. His fellow classmates take the reins as the future of Texas basketball, as the team heads away from its model of the past two seasons.

The team of today boasts a deep set of freshman to build around moving forward. Jarrett Allen and Bamba are gone. All that remain are guys ready to play out their entire career under head coach Shaka Smart.

Coleman is going to be for Texas what Jevon Carter has been for West Virginia — a four-year cornerstone to build the team around. Coleman registered in the top ten in the Big 12 in assists, steals and assist to turnover ratio, all in his freshman season.

Freshman forward Jericho Sims will never be the defensive stopper Bamba was, but he’s as athletic as any forward in the nation and more than capable of matching and eventually out-producing Bamba on offense. After a long offseason, which Sims insists will be spent honing his outside shot, the forward will be primed for a breakout year.

Sophomore guard Andrew Jones is on the road to recovery and Roach is all but guaranteed to return for his senior season. All of this combined as valuable, long-term pieces continue to be added by Shaka.

Texas boasts a top-15 recruiting class nationally, behind only Kansas in the Big 12. The team has replaced Bamba with a pair of four-star forwards, and added a long athletic wing — something the team has desperately lacked the past few seasons.

Gerald Liddell will become a household name among Texas fans. The 6-foot-6-inch small forward from Steele High School could earn a starting nod his freshman season, providing perimeter defense and shooting essential to Smart’s style of play.

In short, the future is bright.

Broadly, there are two ways to earn a national title: Load up on five-star recruits and hope to outplay your opponents, or cultivate a program of juniors and seniors who have the mental toughness and experience to go on a deep run.

Now is the time for Smart to flip the script and invest for the long haul.