If the University of Texas at Austin men’s basketball team finds glory next March, then May will go down as the month when the madness began. On May 18, seven-foot Mo Bamba, the third-ranked player in the class of 2017, shocked the basketball recruiting world by signing with the Longhorns over Kentucky and Duke, joining highly-touted point guard Matt Coleman in a talented group of incoming freshmen. Days after Bamba’s commitment, Andrew Jones, the team’s third-leading scorer last season, withdrew from the NBA draft and announced his return to Austin for his sophomore season, cementing a strong core that could help bring the Longhorns back to national prominence after a recent string of mediocrity. “How confident are we? I think we have a chance to make a major jump as a program,” head coach Shaka Smart told ZagsBlog earlier this month. Smart’s team is pretty much a lock to at least improve its dismal 11-22 record last year, and they seem to be a good bet to return to the NCAA tournament, perhaps to even make a deep run.
According to ESPN, Coleman is the sixth-ranked point guard and the twenty-ninth player overall in the class of 2017, and his playmaking skills should give an immediate boost to the Longhorns in an area they sorely lacked last season (Texas averaged only 11.4 assists per game as a team, ranking a woeful three hundredth in the NCAA). Coleman’s scoring ability can bolster the returning Jones, who was a highly-regarded player coming out of high school last year who performed well for the Longhorns last season. He’s expected to be a first-round pick in the 2018 NBA draft.
But Bamba is the real prize here. The seven-foot star from Harlem was a McDonald’s All-American and a finalist for the Naismith National High School Player of the Year, and led his high school team to two straight Pennsylvania state titles. ESPN says Bamba’s “physical tools are absolutely off the charts.” Coaches and scouts love long wingspans, and Bamba’s got one of the longest reaches ever. When he was measured at the 2017 Nike Hoop Summit, he came in with a seven-foot-nine wingspan and a nine-foot-six standing reach. Bamba’s expected to be a lottery pick in the NBA draft next year, and he already has a longer wingspan than any NBA player ever, according to SB Nation. Bamba combines that ridiculous reach with “incredible grace and fluidity, not to mention the athleticism to get his head on the rim,” ESPN says.
Bamba, who seriously considered attending Harvard, also just seems like a pretty cool dude. He’s attended the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT—founded by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey—twice. He kept a running diary about his life as a high school basketball star for SLAM Magazine, touching upon everything from his passion for environmental and social justice to a spur-of-the-moment spring break service trip to China. He scored a thirty on the ACT, landing him in the ninety-fifth percentile. From the SLAM diary: “I honestly don’t think the score really does any justice to us HS students because it doesn’t look at us holistically but I know it’s at least one important measure of aptitude.”
Anyway, Smart is understandably ecstatic to have Bamba on board. “He’s as unique a person and player as I’ve been around,” the third-year coach said after Bamba signed, according to ZagsBlog. “Mo’s combination of talent, intellect, and ability to impact others will make him a catalyst in our program and on our campus from day one. Mo’s personality and dynamic skill-set fit extremely well with the other members of our incoming class as well as our returning players. I’m very excited about our team composition and the way in which our guys will complement each other. There’s no question that Mo will make everyone around him better, both on and off the court.”
Bamba is Texas’s fourth-ever top-five recruit, joining Myles Turner, the number-two recruit in 2014 who went on to star for the Indiana Pacers; Avery Bradley, the top-ranked recruit in 2009 and a core player on the Boston Celtics; and Kevin Durant, the second-ranked player in 2006, who would go on to have a pretty decent NBA career, we suppose. Those are high bars for Bamba, but he’s got the potential to reach those expectations.
The Longhorns’ strong offseason could also put them back on the same plane as Baylor, which had pretty much overtaken Texas as the top men’s basketball program in the Lone Star State. The team’s rivals from Waco are coming off their best season in program history: they were the number one-ranked team in the nation for a short stretch, before bowing out in the Elite Eight for the second time in four years. But the Bears don’t have an incoming class of recruits as highly regarded as Texas’s, and they’ve likely lost star Jonathan Motley to the NBA draft, so it looks as though there could be a shift in the balance of men’s basketball power this upcoming season in Texas.