Every school has expectations, but the ones in Austin remain as high as the Texas sky.
Just ask Rick Barnes.
Longhorns men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart will find out exactly how tough it is to coach on the hot seat this season after Texas won the NIT a year ago to salvage a topsy-turvy 2018-19 campaign. There’s only one acceptable tournament to be invited to this time around — the Big Dance in March.
Smart himself acknowledged that fact last March, and UT athletic director Chris Del Conte echoed the sentiment even after the Longhorns won the NIT, saying “we’re not where we want to be, but we’re making progress.”
Texas pulled in another solid crop of recruits this year after snagging three of the top 75 prospects in the nation — shooting guard Donovan Williams, center Kai Jones and homegrown product Will Baker, who played center for Westlake while rising up the ranks to become the No. 35 overall recruit in the country.
Baker is expected to start at center this season, while Williams and Jones have opportunities to work their way into valuable roles.
The Longhorns’ starting lineup for 2019-20 is also projected to include guards Matt Coleman and Courtney Rainey, who averaged 9.8 and 8.1 points per game last year, respectively. Coleman, who was the only Texas player to start all 37 games a season ago, added 3.4 assists per outing and was the lone Longhorn to earn preseason acclaim from the Big 12 after taking home honorable mention.
Rainey returns after shooting a team-best 38.6% from beyond the 3-point arc and proving to be another capable scorer. The same can be said for wing player Jase Febres, who knocked down 37.2% of his 3s while putting in 8.9 points per contest.
Jericho Sims is expected to lock down the starting power forward spot and has shown plenty of athleticism during his time on the 40 Acres. Sims has even drawn comparisons to current NBA players Mo Bamba and Jaxson Hayes, but he still has to show that he can turn potential into reality.
The biggest fan favorite on the team will undoubtedly be guard Andrew Jones, who touched the hearts of many Longhorn fans as he took time off to battle Leukemia last season. Jones was cleared to return to basketball activities in early August, and his comeback story will be one of the best in all of college hoops.
Meanwhile, wing player Gerald Liddell and big man Kamaka Hepa will likely fight for minutes as reserves.
Texas was picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 during the preseason coaches’ poll behind Kansas — no surprise there — Baylor and Texas Tech. Bringing up the rear were West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Kansas State and TCU.
But before the Longhorns begin conference play on Jan. 4. 2020, Texas will look to navigate an early portion of the schedule that includes games against Purdue, Georgetown and Providence. The Longhorns and Aggies will even reprise their old rivalry on the hardwood during a Dec. 8 meeting in Fort Worth for the Lone Star Showdown.
Smart should be able to get away with a loss to a rival here or there, though. After all, this isn’t football. But it’s still Texas, and another season without March Madness will be viewed as a colossal failure.
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