Texas, ranked No. 19 in the preseason, will have plenty to build on but can’t afford to blink when it opens its season against defensive-minded UT Rio Grande Valley on Wednesday in Austin, Texas.
The Longhorns, who won five of their final six games of 2919-20 before the campaign was shut down because of the coronavirus, have the most experienced roster in the Big 12 Conference and return every scholarship player from last year.
Texas also added forward Greg Brown, a five-star freshman ranked among the top 10 prospects nationally, to give sixth-year coach Shaka Smart his deepest and most talented team since he’s been in Austin.
“At times in my coaching career, I’ve tried too much to maybe play too many guys or focus on where the ninth, 10th or 11th man is mentally,” Smart said. “But the reality is we’ve got to do the right thing for Texas.”
The Longhorns, who were 19-12 last season after losing four starters with injuries over the final half of the campaign, will go as far as their guard play can take them.
Matt Coleman returns for his senior season after leading the Longhorns in scoring (12.7), assists (3.4), and 3-point shooting (39.5 percent) as a junior. He will likely start alongside junior combo guard Courtney Ramey and senior long-range specialist Jase Febres. Ramey and Febres have had their moments but have lacked consistency.
Senior center Jericho Sims will anchor the interior after nearly averaging a double-double as a junior. Brown is penciled in to start at power forward and could play his way into the NBA with a great first year in Austin.
Junior guard Andrew Jones might be the Longhorns’ most dynamic offensive weapon. He averaged 11.5 points last year and scored 20 points or more in six games. He will likely serve as Texas’ instant-offense sixth man.
Despite all their talent, the Longhorns were picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 in the league’s preseason poll, behind Baylor, Kansas and West Virginia.
“When you have hard-won wisdom as a basketball player that’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 said. “It’s one thing to have experience. It’s another thing to go out there and utilize it.”
A year ago, UT Rio Grande Valley went 14-16 but won eight of its final 10 games to claim the second seed in the Western Athletic Conference tournament.
The Vaqueros return most of that team and will be anything but a push-over for Texas.
RGV boasts one of the nation’s most dynamic point guards in senior Javon Levi, a two-time Defensive All-American and WAC Defensive Player of the Year. Levi is coming off of a season in which he led the WAC in assists per game (7.96), steals per game (2.4), assist-to-turnover ratio (2.93), total assists (199), and total steals (60). Levi’s 7.96 assists per game were second-highest in the NCAA last year, and he also posted double-figures in scoring 15 times, including two games of at least 20 points.
Between Levi, Stony Brook transfer center Jeff Otchere and wing Marek Nelson, the Vaqueros may feature one of the best defenses in the NCAA.
“We’re going to make it hard for other teams to score,” RGV coach Lew Hill said. “They’re going to have to shoot tough, contested shots. No layups. They’ll get one shot at it, then we’ll rebound the ball and get out and run. We’re going to plug it up as much as we can.”
–Field Level Media