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College hoops is back! I didn’t think I’d be quite this pumped but the start of the season Tuesday is a well-timed distractor from the perennial blue balls that is Texas football.
The ‘Horns returned to the Big Dance last season after a one-year hiatus, but the campaign was still disappointing. 19-15 overall and third-to-last in the Big 12 is unacceptable considering the team was anchored by a 7’9”-winged flytrap who led the conference in blocks and banged threes at the other end. Losing Mo Bamba hurts (in addition to the song there’s also a basketball player with that name!) and may explain why there’s so little love for this year’s squad. Still, quietly, the ‘Horns have the talent and depth to compete in the Big 12 and return to the NCAA Tournament.
While his on-court coaching last year was catastrophic, Shaka gets a pass for his admirable leadership in the wake of the Andrew Jones news. As you probably know, Jones was diagnosed with leukemia in the middle of the season. Amazingly, it only took AJ 6 months to beat the disease and return to dunking a basketball. Jones is unsure of whether he’ll play this year but hasn’t ruled out a late-season comeback.
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Basketball is secondary, but a Jones return would alter the entire outlook of the season. The dude is a beast. After flirting with the NBA the previous summer, the off-guard returned to school as a sophomore and proceeded to ball out. Per 40 minutes, AJ1 raised his scoring average from 16.4 to 23.9; his field goal percentage from 42.5% to 52.2%; and his 3-point accuracy from 32.8% to 46.3% (on massive volume). The sample was small but he was the Longhorns’ best offensive player, and it wasn’t close. Despite the best efforts of Kerwin Roach, the offense predictably fell apart when Jones was lost.
I’ve got a pretty good feel for how players recover from bodily injuries. What I can’t do is guess how a player performs after returning from cancer. James Connor is tearing it up for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but one success story does not make a sample size. If AJ1 can return to his early-2017 level of play, Texas becomes one of the most complete teams in the Big 12. Even if on a minutes restriction, his outside shooting and playmaking would inject life into a UT offense that was the conference’s most inept last year. His stroke would be particularly valuable–the ‘Horns ranked dead last in three ball accuracy by almost two full percentage points.
There are no questions about the rest of the (ideal) starting five. Sophomore point guard Matt Coleman is a returning starter and breakout candidate. Roach, who returned to school after threatening to bolt for the NBA, is one of the best defenders in the nation and has been state certified to body-bag. Senior Dylan Osetkowski (aka Robert Swift) sucks, but is really good at the same time. Jericho Sims is a 6’9” pogo stick who could make it three straight years that a Longhorn center is drafted in the first round. His theoretical backup, freshman Jaxson Hayes, also has ridiculous bounce and is already generating preseason buzz.
Regarding Sims, the growth of Jericho’s basketball smarts is the X-factor for Texas’ defense in 2018. He’s not Bamba, but Sims has the physical abilities of an elite defensive big man who could anchor the paint and switch onto smaller guards in the pick-and-roll. The game was way too fast for him last year–he was a fouling machine who wasn’t nearly as disruptive as he could’ve been. He was raw out of high school so this shouldn’t be shocking, but Texas’ defense depends on him. The Bamba-led defense was top three in the conference by every metric. It’ll regress for sure–Sims determines by how much.
What’s different about this year is depth. Last year Shaka was forced to go to a six-man rotation, which had predictable results. Osetkowski, a lumbering 6’9” oaf, played entire games without coming out. 2018 is a different story–the bench is full of promising players who could crack the rotation. Either Royce Hamm or incoming recruit Kamaka Hepa will emerge–both are 6’9”, stretchy forwards who bring size and versatility. Gerald Liddell, who headlined the incoming class, is very raw but packs a guard’s game into an athletic 6’8” frame–if you squint hard enough at the highlights you’ll talk yourself into a poor man’s Kevin Knox comp. 6’6” Jase Febres was thrust into the lineup before he was ready (after Jones’ diagnosis), but he’s a sturdy defender and good shooter whose game takes off once he starts feeling himself. His development is crucial, as he’ll likely start with Jones still sidelined. The ‘Horns aren’t loaded with centers, but the collective length of the reserve forwards helps quell defensive concerns, and in theory, they could all play together.
The backcourt is where it gets interesting. Elijah Mitrou-Long is a transfer from Mount St. Mary’s who sat out a year due to the NCAA’s transfer rules but poured in 15 points a game on 38% shooting from deep as a sophomore. He’s a buckethead–he’s small and slow but came out of the womb getting buckets. He’ll upgrade the Jacob Young (transferred to Houston) spot off the bench as an instant offense spark plug. Incoming freshman point guard Courtney Ramey is a wild card–the no. 59 overall recruit looks like LeBron in his high school mixtape against Montana’s weak competition. Still, he’s obviously high-upside and should expect to see run. These two are question marks but bring needed offense. Worries arise defensively–Long’s physical tools suggest he’ll probably suck on that end, and Ramey is going from guarding white dudes in Montana to 5-stars in the nation’s toughest conference. This is another reason why Jase Febres is vital as a switchy defender who can guard positions two through four.
Unlike previous years, Texas can confidently throw 8 or 9 dudes out there who can play competent minutes. You can’t roll a six-man rotation out and expect your final five to perform late in games–not in this conference, at least. Having a bench that can hold its own in spot minutes is a pre-req for being a contender, and UT finally has it. The starting five becomes one of the conference’s best if Jones comes back anything like his former self. UT’s unit is talented and experienced, with a head coach who’s paid more than Tony Bennett, Jay Wright and Gregg Marshall and thus, shouldn’t stink. Don’t let the loss of Mo cloud the outlook–Texas is a stealth contender in the Big 12 with talent, depth and experience, and is a team you won’t want to face in the NCAA Tournament.
Senior Economics major at the University of Texas. Sports constitutes 95% of my personality; the other 5% is some combination of sleeping, making a fool of myself publicly and binge watching once-hot shows that are at least 4 years old. Always willing to contribute to other sites and am seeking additional writing opportunities.