Incarnate Word-Texas Preview
The second year of the Shaka Smart tenure at Texas begins in earnest on Friday when the 21st-ranked Longhorns open their regular season as they host the University of the Incarnate Word at the Erwin Center in Austin.
It's half the planet away from where Texas began the 2015-16 campaign, when it played its opener in Shanghai against Washington. It's also a whole different world from where the Longhorns were as a team at this time last year.
Texas carries a roster that has just two seniors that logged significant playing time after sending an upperclassmen-heavy squad to the court last season. The Longhorns finished a 20-13 campaign that ended in a loss to Northern Iowa in the Round of 64 of the NCAA tournament.
Texas doesn't return a player that averaged in double-figure scoring last year. Two sophomore guards, Eric Davis, Jr. (7.4 points per game) and Kerwin Roach (7.5 ppg) are the Longhorns' top returning scorers; Davis will start Friday while Roach (and fellow sophomore guard/forward Tevin Mack) will miss the game because of a suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules during the offseason.
Friday's contest marks the collegiate regular-season debut for a talented freshman quartet – forward Jarrett Allen, center James Banks and guards Andrew Jones and James Young – that was ranked as a Top 5 national recruiting class.
Those four players combined to register 62 of the team's 95 points and 29 of the team's 50 rebounds in a combined 113 minutes during the Longhorns' exhibition win against Angelo State last week. All four freshmen reached double digits in scoring (Young 21, Jones 17, Allen 14, Banks 10).
As talented as Texas is expected to be in the season's early going, it will be only better as the season progresses, Smart said.
“It's not really a basketball Xs and Os thing as much as these guys figuring out how much as a team they need each other,” Smart said. “Especially these freshman guys who were the center of everything in their high school world and the sophomores who are now in a different role.”
Incarnate Word was 17-12 last season, finishing third in the Southland Conference. But the Cardinals can't be taken lightly after they upset St. John's last season.
Incarnate Word coach Ken Burmeister has posted 10 consecutive winning seasons with the Cardinals, including two conference titles, a pair of appearances in the NCAA Division II South Central Region Tournament.
He has led Incarnate Word through a smooth transition into NCAA Division I play as the team has won 56 games over its first three years in the Southland Conference. That includes an 18-11 mark in 2014-15 when the Cardinals played a full Division I schedule for the first time.
“We're playing our share of big schools as we try to build this program, and there are times when we come away from the game excited about our potential and others when we are just ready to move on,” Burmeister said. “We're ready to play a game because that's when we'll learn the most about ourselves. We just appreciate being able to play someone like Texas.”
The Cardinals finished the 2015-16 season averaging 74.0 points per game, while shooting 43.5 percent from the field. Over the previous two seasons, Incarnate Word ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring.
Sophomore forward Simi Socks and junior guard Shawn Johnson return to lead the backcourt, while junior college transfer forward Devin Wyatt and freshman guard Christian Peevy headline a strong class of incoming players.
Johnson is the Cardinals' most athletic player and will take on an added scoring role while rebounding and defending the opposition's best player. He was first on the team in blocks and third in steals, while shooting 40.0 percent from 3-point range last year.
Burmeister said his team is a fighting through some preseason injuries, most notably a back ailment for junior transfer center Myles Banks.
The Longhorns have won 13 of their last 14 season openers and have posted an overall mark of 90-20 (.818) in their previous 110 season-opening games. Texas has won 14 straight home openers and is 34-5 in home openers since the Erwin Center opened prior to the 1977-78 season.
Friday's contest is the first meeting between the Longhorns and Incarnate Word in men's basketball.