Can Mo Bamba take Texas into college basketball’s elite?

AUSTIN, Texas — Of the 21 principles at the heart of Shaka Smart’s program, Mohamed Bamba is fond of one of them in particular.

“Everything we do is a domino.”

Each of those principles is written in a 10-page confidential culture document, a formal effort by Smart to constantly push the importance of the Texas program he’s trying to bring back to national relevance.

For Bamba, the Longhorns’ star freshman — and the program’s most important recruit since Kevin Durant hit campus in 2006 — there’s a reason it’s his favorite principle.

“It’s pretty self-explanatory, and it is the same way for every team, but that’s something we really embrace here,” Bamba says. “If one guy is bringing energy, the next one is going to want to up that.”

After an 11-22 campaign in 2016-17, energy is important. So is talent, which Bamba has in spades. Smart, entering his third year on the Forty Acres, is hoping that Bamba — who could have gone anywhere, including college basketball bluebloods Kentucky or Duke — is the domino that vaults Texas basketball into championship contention. Their working relationship might exist for only six more months, but if it goes favorably for the Longhorns, the impact could reverberate for much longer.

“The goal is simple,” Bamba says. “Just win.”

Smart, 40, left VCU two years ago — a program he guided to five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and a Final Four — for Texas “to recruit guys like Mo,” he said. “Not just to recruit, but to coach guys like Mo.”

Bamba, the No. 6 player in the 2017 ESPN 100, is the definition of a blue-chip recruit. His physical gifts include a 7-foot-9 wingspan on a 6-foot-11 frame. He’s an elite defender but more skilled offensively than most with a similar physical makeup.

“He does a lot of stuff that other people just can’t do, physically,” Texas assistant coach Darrin Horn said.

Smart began recruiting national top-100 players toward the end of his time in Richmond, Virginia, but nabbing the elite of the elite, the players who “could or would go anywhere in the country,” as he puts it, was a little bit tougher. Texas, with its brand, resources and history of topflight recruits — such as Durant, T.J. Ford or even Myles Turner in 2014 — was a place he could land those types.

Bamba is one of those. He headlined a stellar five-man recruiting class that included four ESPN 100 prospects (Bamba, point guard Matt Coleman and bigs Jericho Sims and Royce Hamm), a group that infuses the type of talent Texas needs to find real, significant success on the hardwood, a foreign concept in recent years.

The last time Texas made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament? 2008.

“2008?” Bamba whispered to himself, surprised. “That’s a long time.”

Though just 19, Bamba is expected to lead the Longhorns’ efforts to end that drought. Why did he choose Texas, a football-crazy school in a football-crazy state, over places with more recent championship basketball pedigrees?

“What it really, really, really came down to was probably — all of the other stuff was great — but relationships,” he said. “I’m big on relationships. Shaka was, to me and my family, the most genuine, caring coach of all the people.”

Bamba was a unique recruit. He initiated the relationship with Smart, not the other way around. The two met while Smart was coaching the USA Basketball under-18 team that Bamba was a member of last summer. Smart wasn’t recruiting Bamba at the time (“He just wasn’t a guy that we had any type of in with,” Smart said) and Bamba didn’t start for that team. The pair spent time talking about plenty that had nothing to do with basketball, and developed an organic relationship in their time together in Colorado Springs, Houston and Chile.

At the end of Bamba’s time on the team, he approached Smart and asked if he could take a visit to Texas.

Smart’s response: “Are you sure?”

It was the first of several times that Smart would take the temperature on Bamba, curious as to how serious he really was about considering the Longhorns. Bamba, who was meticulous about his recruiting, assured Smart that he wasn’t wasting his time. By the fall, when Bamba visited, Smart felt like he had a real shot. He began pouring as much time as he personally could into the recruitment; he had a lot of catching up to do to others who had been recruiting Bamba for longer. That’s one of Smart’s strengths, though.

Said Horn, a 20-year coaching veteran with two previous head-coaching stops: “The time that he puts into [building relationships] is very different.”

Meanwhile, Bamba was filling binders with information ranging from the tempo the Longhorns played to the quality of the business school. For each one of his finalists — Texas, Kentucky, Duke and Michigan — Bamba dissected what each program had to offer, helping to guide his decision.

When Smart met with Bamba’s parents, basketball wasn’t a frequent topic. “They’re not really basketball people,” Smart said. “They weren’t asking about pick-and-rolls or those sorts of things. They were more focused on people.”

Bamba, born and raised in Harlem, New York, had been away from home since middle school (he attended Cardigan Mountain, a boarding school in New Hampshire, in eighth and ninth grades, then went to Westtown School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, for his final three years), so picking a college wasn’t as daunting an experience as it is for those leaving home for the first time.

His parents stressed education. Greer Love, Bamba’s elementary school coach and longtime mentor, introduced the “big rocks” approach to decision-making that Bamba spoke of in his commitment announcement letter on The Players’ Tribune. His brothers, both of whom played college basketball (Sidiki Johnson played for Arizona; Ibrahim played in Division II) preached patience and not to rush in making a decision.

Armed with knowledge and perspective, Bamba concluded that Texas was the place.

“I felt like Texas had everything those [other] schools had to offer, but all in one,” he said.

Since arriving in Austin, Bamba has gained about 15 pounds (he weighs 225 now), is playing with better balance, becoming more detail-oriented on defense and working on improving his offensive range.

In his first bit of live action in an exhibition last week vs. Texas A&M, Bamba showed off his diverse range of skills. Yes, he can block shots. Yes, he can throw down a monster dunk. But he’s smooth, can run the floor, and can face up and drive to the bucket, which he did impressively once on Aggies preseason All-American forward Robert Williams. He’s comfortable shooting from distance. In one three-play sequence in the first half, Bamba showed a glimpse of what’s likely to be a common occurrence this season: He scored from close range in a half-court set, got a block on the ensuing defensive possession, then finished with a transition layup.

“He’s got a great feel on the block,” Horn said. “He can shoot the basketball and he’s got good basketball IQ.

“I think there’s a difference between saying a guy is skilled if he’s big and can make a shot and skilled from the standpoint of ‘OK, he can make a read and throw a backdoor, put it down a couple dribbles and then kick it out.’ To me, those are two different things. He can do all of that and I think that’s pretty exciting for his future.”

With Bamba anchoring the frontcourt, Coleman at the point, Jones returning for a sophomore season after bypassing the NBA draft and a plethora of athletes on the roster, there’s no questioning Texas’ talent. The difference between 11-22 and a deep NCAA tournament run, to Smart, all comes back to culture.

The three main core values in Smart’s super-secret document are “relationships, growth and victory.” Those words are posted in large text in the Longhorns’ practice court in Denton A. Cooley Pavilion.

“We have to get to a point where, culturally, every day — particularly in the game — we carry over exactly the things that we talk about and work on and say we’re going to be about,” Smart said.

This will be the only season Bamba will be around to help accomplish these things, as he’s almost certainly a one-and-done player. He called being the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft “definitely a goal of mine” but he’s got other goals, too, like winning the Big 12 or a national championship, lofty for a squad that didn’t even win a dozen games last season.

“You can see in everyone’s mindset that they’re hungry for more,” Bamba said. “It’s a statement year, obviously.”

Together, Smart and Bamba are trying to revive Texas basketball. Time will tell if they do. If Bamba is as good as advertised — in his 29 minutes against the Aggies, his 15-point, 10-rebound performance suggests he can be — that goal is within reach.

“I think we’ve made major progress since our last game,” Smart said. “But on the other hand, we haven’t played a game since our last game. You want your on-court results to mirror the progress you’re making off the court and in practice culturally. Sometimes, that doesn’t happen as fast as you want it to. But this is a big year for us to take a big jump on the court in terms of results.”

Said Bamba: “The platform for winning now is as big as can be. We have a really talented team this year. Can’t wait to get out there and show how things have changed since last year.”

If they indeed have, the results will show. And if Smart and Bamba can make magic together this season, and Smart hauls in another stellar recruiting class, Bamba could be the linchpin that propels the Longhorns into becoming the kind of program Smart envisioned when he arrived.

Everything they do is a domino. And they might topple in Smart’s and the Longhorns’ favor for years after Bamba leaves Austin.

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