Mohamed Bamba could be the player who changes everything for Shaka Smart at Texas.
The No. 3 player in the ESPN 100, Bamba would've been a nice piece at Kentucky, a defensive anchor for the rest of the Wildcats' talented freshmen. At Duke, he would've been a quality contrast to Wendell Carter and Marques Bolden.
But at Texas, he's at the very least a season-changer and a narrative-changer. He has the potential to be a tenure-changer for Smart.
Two months ago, things were going the wrong way in Austin. Texas had just finished an 11-22 campaign, losing its final seven regular-season games. Smart had to suspend leading scorer Tevin Mack multiple times, eventually leading to Mack's asking for his release to transfer in late February. One of the few bright spots of the season, Jarrett Allen, announced he was leaving for the NBA draft and signing with an agent. Freshman Andrew Jones, a former McDonald's All-American, also announced he was testing the waters.
The questions started. What would next season look like for Smart? Was Smart's "Havoc" style from VCU sustainable in the Big 12? After all, when Texas won 20 games in Smart's first season at the helm, it was a much slower, more methodical system than what Smart used with the Rams. Could Smart build a program in a power conference?
Bamba's announcement Thursday morning, though, sends a message. The top uncommitted player in the country heading into the spring, Bamba is one of the best defensive players to come through high school basketball in several years. He can guard multiple positions, play at the top of a zone or press, and block shots at the rim.
He's still somewhat raw offensively, but he can score around the rim and has some touch facing the basket.
Make no mistake, though, Bamba is an elite prospect and a potential top pick in the NBA draft. For Texas to beat out two of college basketball's bluebloods, Kentucky and Duke, it gives it a huge boost on the recruiting trail. Smart already had inroads with northern Virginia due to his time at VCU, but Bamba -- a New York native who played his high school ball in Pennsylvania -- could open up the Northeast.
In the past two recruiting classes -- Smart's first two full cycles at Texas -- the Longhorns have landed seven ESPN 100 prospects, including two five-star talents and three McDonald's All-Americans.
Texas might not consistently have top-five recruiting classes like the powerhouses of the sport, but Smart is still proving himself as a high-level recruiter. He held off Duke for Matt Coleman and now beat Kentucky for Bamba. That's no easy task.
Bamba has been a sought-after prospect for a few years, but Smart never backed off even when Duke and Kentucky made their pushes. He solidified his relationship with Bamba on the USA Basketball U18 team last summer, and continued to make trips to Westtown School (Pennsylvania) the past several months to visit Bamba. Landing ESPN 100 point guard Coleman in January helped, as it showed Bamba he would have a pure point guard at Texas. Ironically, the departure of Allen also helped, as it might've been difficult to play Allen and Bamba together. As Kentucky continued to add players to its frontcourt, things started to trend in the Longhorns' direction. So Thursday's decision didn't come as a huge surprise, but it changes the landscape of the college basketball season.
Suddenly, Texas can sport one of the better rosters in the Big 12: Bamba and Tulane transfer Dylan Osetkowski in the frontcourt, Coleman and Jones -- who appears to be leaning toward returning to Austin -- in the backcourt and rising juniors Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis as complementary pieces.
Smart finally has his type of team in place. He has depth, experience, four ESPN 100 players entering the fold, versatility, a true point guard -- and now a centerpiece in Bamba.
It's now fair to judge Smart at Texas. His first season, it was leftovers from the Rick Barnes era. His second season was a transition period despite the influx of talent. It's now his third season, he has his players and he has guys who fit his preferred style. And he has Bamba, the No. 3 player entering college basketball next season.
The 2017-18 season is a huge campaign for Smart, especially coming off a down season. But with Bamba in tow, he now has the horses to handle that pressure.