Compared to some of Texas’ great teams of the past, this year’s squad has left much to be desired.
It’s hard to remember that Texas was once a Final Four team with, at the minimum, expectations of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. Even after a 70-56 win over TCU Wednesday night, Texas’ hopes of clawing back into tournament contention all but rest on winning the Big 12 Tournament.
But there are pieces of the 2003 Final Four team sticking around the Frank Erwin Center. One, to be exact.
James Thomas, one of the stars from Texas’ 2003 Final Four squad, is back at UT taking classes. Monday morning, two days before Texas’ matchup with TCU, Thomas dropped by Texas head coach Shaka Smart’s office to chat. Aware of Texas’ mounting injuries and dire frontcourt situation, he recalled some of the injuries that threw him into a playing role early in his career.
Smart said Thomas told him that he grabbed hold of the opportunity and never looked back.
“Sometimes guys are ready to do that, and sometimes they’re not,” Smart said. “It’s one thing to have a conversation, but then, when the opportunity presents itself, either you grab hold of it or you don’t.”
Smart defended his frontcourt rotation of junior forward Royce Hamm Jr., sophomore forward Kamaka Hepa and freshman center Will Baker after Saturday’s jaw-dropping 81-52 loss to a sub-.500 Iowa State team.
“The last thing you want to do is judge anyone from one game,” Smart said, adding that his coaching staff would try to simplify the game plan for a frontcourt with just 11 combined starts between them.
Following a career performance from Baker on Wednesday night, it’s starting to look like he is ready to grab hold of the opportunity Thomas alluded to.
“We knew that a game like tonight was coming at some point, (but) we didn’t know when,” Smart said. “With the guys that we had out, we told Will, ‘Be aggressive and let it fly.’ And he did a great job.”
Baker’s foot was the perfect fit for the glass slipper of injured junior center Jericho Sims. After going 1-for-25 from beyond the arc in his first 17 games, the former five-star recruit connected on three 3-pointers in the first half and nearly doubled his career point total. He finished the night with 20 points in a career-high 20 minutes.
But when he was asked about how he would grade himself, Baker responded, “A b-minus. There’s a lot of room to improve. I know I’m not done yet.”
So where does Baker improve after a career night?
“Continuing to make progress with self determination,” Smart said. “He’s made progress and that’s why he played well tonight, because it was him making the choices to do the things that we needed him to do for our team.”