Texas is a Smart choice

Nov 19, 2020 8:00 PM

Shaka shocked Austin in July.

Texas Longhorns hoops coach Shaka Smart had long been known for his trademark bald pate, a noggin he kept baby’s-bottom smooth with gel and a sharp razor.

So when his players began returning to campus, each sustained triple-take whiplash upon seeing their mentor with a heap of hair, a tonsorial transformation to rival any Chia Pet.

It’s sort of a receded-hedge look, à la ESPN megaphone Stephen A. Smith. If Smart appears more youthful, even rejuvenated, owe it to his charges taking complete program ownership.

When it mattered most, at the end of last season, they blended and won, making a host of observers — including this one — look like chumps.

Just when it appeared Smart’s run in Austin would expire after five uneventful seasons, when he was about to be direct-deposited a $10 million-plus parting fee, his guys hustled.

They won five of their final six games. The coronavirus cancellation of the NCAA Tournament most disappointed select programs whose March looked so promising, and Texas was one of them.

Through Feb. 15, the Horns were 14-11. They’d lost four in a row, seven of their previous nine. The unemployment line beckoned Smart. But Texas awoke, played hound-dog defense, and received consistent production from guards Courtney Ramey, Andrew Jones and Matt Coleman III.

The Horns won their next five tilts. Four came as underdogs, and one of them was as a big dog, when Texas won at 11.5-point favorite Texas Tech, 68-58. Those five foes shot only 21.4% (18 of 84) from beyond the 3-point line.

In what would be its season finale, however, 3.5-point favorite Texas lost, 81-59, at home to Oklahoma State on March 7. The Cowboys ambushed the Longhorns in a 43-21 first half.

Everybody returns, including forward Jericho Sims, whose junior season was cut short by a stress fracture in his back. His 65.8% shooting was eighth in the nation last season.

Greg Brown III, a 6-foot-9, 210-pound rookie considered the eighth-best national recruit by one service, is projected to crack the starting lineup.

In his elaborate roster-strength metric, veteran handicapper Conner Streeter (his professional alias) rates Texas at 13.3, tops in the country, followed by Kansas (10), Michigan State (9.63), Duke (9.5) and Villanova (9.38).

For a complete review of his ratings, insights, conference previews and features, go to BiffsSportsAlmanac.com. For the first time, Streeter offers his wealth of information in a public domain, free of charge.

KenPom has Texas ninth in its preseason ratings. It plays deliberately, just outside the top-10-percentile in adjusted tempo with 70 possessions per 40 minutes. Its projected adjusted defensive efficiency of 84.7 is third in the country, behind only Virginia (83.3) and Wisconsin (84.6).

Smart’s Havoc defense, pressing and trapping that had made him such a commodity at Virginia Commonwealth, might not have been such a common sight in Austin.

In each of the past four seasons, however, the Longhorns have been no worse than 26th in adjusted defensive efficiency. In Smart’s first three seasons, the Horns yielded about 68.7 points a game. They improved in each of the past two campaigns, and foes’ average of 63.3 in 2019-20 was 25th-lowest in the country.

These Horns could be dynamic, royal burnt-orange pains at both ends of the court. I got them at 80-1 odds at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook last week to win it all. My sole goal is to profit on that ticket, via hedging or PropSwap.

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I have additional positions on Iowa (20-1), Michigan State (25-1), West Virginia (30-1), Saint Louis and Western Kentucky (both at 100-1), and Little Rock (1,000-1). KenPom ranks West Virginia 8th, Iowa 12th, Michigan State 15th.

The Hawkeyes, whose 6-11 senior forward Luka Garza is a player-of-the-year favorite, return all five starters and garner “A” ratings in backcourt, frontcourt, bench/depth and intangibles in the Blue Ribbon annual. Western Kentucky and Little Rock are the only other programs that return all five starters with Blue Ribbon’s 4-A stature.

But my big ticket is Texas, which has intriguing games scheduled at home against Villanova, on Dec. 6, and at Kentucky on Jan. 30.

Smart, 43, knows nothing is won on paper in the offseason.

“When you have hard-won wisdom as a basketball player who’s been through the twists and turns in the Big 12, it’s incumbent upon you and your teammates, and the coaching staff, to take advantage of that,” Smart told HookEm.com. “It’s one thing to have experience. It’s another thing to go out there and utilize it.”