Looking ahead: Texas Longhorns

It’s never too early to start looking ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: the Texas Longhorns.

We all saw it coming.

Shaka Smart, a coach on the rise for the past five years, eventually would leave Virginia Commonwealth University to take on a more grandiose task at a larger, high-major university, most assumed. So many programs had called in recent years, and Smart always had rejected their overtures.

Until April, when the University of Texas invited him to the fill the vacancy created after Rick Barnes got fired. (More on that later.)

Smart said he couldn’t resist the offer from Texas, a program with vast resources, its own TV network, a rich history, a strong regional recruiting pool and a slot in the Big 12, the pound-for-pound king of college basketball conferences in recent seasons.

Smart has taken over a program with the potential to make noise again in the Big 12 race and break into the national rankings.

Barnes led Texas to the Final Four in 2003 and two Elite Eight appearances (2006, 2008) after that. He coached gems like Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge. He brought in talented prospects in recent years, but he couldn’t get everyone on the same page. Texas experienced mass exoduses and exiles in Barnes’ final years as the Longhorns failed to reach the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in six post-2008 appearances.

Last season, the program had a lottery pick in Myles Turner and a team that defended inside the arc more effectively than any in America. But the Longhorns never jelled. Not the way they should have.

Will Smart rebuild the program and reconfigure a culture that sprouts eventual and perhaps immediate success? No reason to doubt him. But it won’t be easy.

The Longhorns need his coaching, his recruiting pitches and his energy. But first, they’ll need his leadership.

What the immediate future holds: Smart’s team will be led by Isaiah Taylor, an NBA prospect who just needs the update to a Google Maps app that too often points him toward potholed paths in the paint that ruin his squad’s mojo. He’s better than that. Smart must show him how good he can be if he just settles down.

Taylor’s decision to return cannot be overvalued. A coach who wants to convert a plodding Texas squad that tried to play through the post last season into an up-and-down, pressing assembly that harasses opponents faces a difficult task. But it would have been an impossible goal without Taylor’s talent. Smart also will have Javan Felix, Kendal Yancy, Demarcus Holland and four-star prospects Kerwin Roach Jr. and Eric Davis, whom Barnes recruited.

He has a variety of speedy guards who should adapt to his style.

What will he do with Connor Lammert, Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh and Maryland transfer Shaquille Cleare? That’s a good question. Smart didn’t boast many big bodies at VCU. And the frontcourt players he’ll have next season don’t appear to fit well into his scheme. They’re all talented, though. And he’ll have rim protectors that he lacked at VCU.

Smart will figure that part out. The Big 12 will be a beast again. Good teams will finish beneath the top four slots in that league. Texas might not grab one of those spots with Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Baylor all strong.

But a return to the NCAA tournament and tangible proof of growth would be a positive development and reasonable expectation for Smart in his first season at Texas. Barnes left the young coach something to work with. Taylor will be a Big 12 Player of the Year candidate. And the big men who helped Texas fortify the paint on defense last season return.

This can work. Smart’s recent success suggests that ultimately, it will. But he doesn’t have to hit a home run in his first season. The vision is bigger than that.

Right now, he just has to work on the foundation of what his Texas basketball program will be.