Nine short days ago, the Longhorns were on the NCAA Tournament bubble fighting for their lives.
Texas needed two wins in its final three regular season games, and a late-season toe injury to freshman forward Mo Bamba threatened to derail any shot at a tournament bid.
But the injury to Bamba hasn’t been all bad for the Longhorns.
Texas rose to the occasion, winning two of its final three games. In the process, the Longhorns also found a future star: freshman forward Jericho Sims.
“My future is bright,” Sims said. “I am going to have a good career here. I’m just going to keep having to, whether it is this season or the season after that, just keep on improving each year.”
Fans were treated to the Sims show on Saturday as Texas upset then-No. 20 West Virginia at home in the final game of the regular season. There, Sims rocked the rim on not one but five separate occasions, any of which could have been featured on ESPN’s nightly highlight reel.
Sims has emerged, not just as a stand-in, but as a formidable force in his own right.
Texas head coach Shaka Smart sees it — and coaches around the Big 12 see it, too.
“Sims is going to be really, really, really, really good in the not too distant future,” Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton Jr. said after Texas’ 65-64 win over the Cowboys in Austin on Feb. 24. “Shows you the type of job Shaka has done in continuing to recruit high-level guys. So even when a guy who is likely going to be a top-five pick goes down, you can still find a way to sustain and overcome.”
Sims is averaging 13 points and seven rebounds in his last three games while shooting 69 percent from the floor. On Monday, he was named the Big 12 newcomer of the week.
Bamba, the team’s transcendental talent, averages 13 points and 10 rebounds on the season.
Sims has been more efficient than Bamba while maintaining similar production. He has even matched Bamba’s ability to get the crowd involved with awe-inspiring plays.
Sims and Bamba came to Texas under very different circumstances. Sims is the future of Texas — a raw talent with a high ceiling. Bamba is a one-and-done prospect for whom the 40 Acres is a brief stop before professional play.
Sims is remarkably soft-spoken for a guy standing nearly 7 feet tall. He is a man of few words, but he maintains an air of quiet confidence. Sims and Smart have developed a close relationship off the court.
And that relationship was a big reason why Sims chose Texas.
“(Shaka) has described it like coaches are like parents,” Sims said. “And I think that is very true. I think that he has really made me feel comfortable here — Texas away from home. One of the reasons I came here was because I thought he was kind of like me, a guy I could relate to.”
Coming out of Minneapolis’ Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, Sims had to transition from competing against small-school, Division 1A talent to facing off with the top centers every week in the deepest conference in the nation.
Smart joked that the teams Sims played against back in Minnesota looked like “me and four of you guys,” gesturing to reporters.
Even compared to the other freshman, Sims acknowledged that his transition was particularly difficult. A fact that has made his rapid development all the more remarkable.
Smart has pushed Sims hard to make that happen.
“He is just scratching the tip of what he is going to be able to do,” Smart said. “He’s had a good amount of opportunity his freshman year, but it is a whole different story when Mo is not in there. Now you need him in there 30-something minutes a game, and I think that he has really embraced that. I like the way he’s attacked things.”
The team’s forwards have pushed each other as well. The group often competes one-on-one during practice. Sims said Bamba or junior forward Dylan Osetkowski usually win — but not always.
“Sometimes I win,” Sims said with a smile.
Sims’ teammates know what he is capable of, and they aren’t surprised by his breakout. After Sims’ recent success, junior guard Kerwin Roach II issued a warning to the rest of the conference that the flourishing forward isn’t going anywhere.
In fact, he’s just getting started.
“I always tell Jericho that he is cold,” Roach said. “Mo is out, but Jericho is going to step up in his place and he is going to make some noise. And you are going to see his name a lot. So be ready for it.”