After a late collapse in Stillwater, the Texas Longhorns have a chance to make things right again tonight in Austin, but a win won't be easy against the No. 8-ranked Texas Tech Red Raiders (15-2; 4-1).
A season ago, first-year Red Raider coach Chris Beard suffered through something of a disappointing season. After inheriting a strong NCAA tournament squad from his predecessor (Tubby Smith, who had departed for Memphis), Beard's team struggled to a 6-12 Big 12 record that was good enough to finish eighth in the conference standings.
Texas Tech was actually a pretty good team last season that didn't catch any breaks and struggled against a murderous conference schedule. The Raiders, led by a deep and talented junior class, suffered their share of close losses, but the underlying quality of the team was better than the record would suggest.
This year those juniors are seniors, the team has improved, and now the quality shows. Around this core of seniors, coach Beard has added a few transfers and a good freshman class.
The best and most talented Red Raider is senior point guard Keenan Evans. If Tech keeps things going like the way they are going right now Evans is probably going to get some All-American buzz at some point this year. He would be a pretty good Big 12 Player of the Year candidate in a world without Trae Young.
Evans is a grown up who scores, makes plays for others, and protects the rock. He struggled significantly as a freshman, but has gradually improved every year since. While he hasn't shot the ball that well from the perimeter this season, he is still a career 37 percent three-point shooter, so defenses need to respect his shot.
Around Evans Tech has plenty of depth, and that depth is serving Beard well ever since losing talented senior forward Zach Smith to what could be a season-ending injury (it is still too soon to say). It is a big loss, but one the Raiders have taken in stride; the truth is Smith's minutes had been limited by a nagging ankle injury for a while before a foot injury put him on the shelf.
With the loss of Smith, Texas Tech still has nine players who can reasonably expect to play ten or more minutes in a given game. A player who has emerged this season and has seen an increase in minutes with Zach's injury is Zhaire Smith. The two players share some similarities. While Zhaire is shorter than Zach, both have significant bounce and can really get off the floor. The 6'5 Zhaire Smith warrants a spot on the Big 12 All-Crack-Your-Head-Open-on-the-Rim team (Texas' Jericho Sims, OU's Jamuni McNeace, and Baylor's Mark Vital join him).
Tech has plenty more inside. After sitting out all of last season with an injury, redshirt junior Norense Odiase has continued his weight loss, but still remains massive. He starts at center, and is a significant presence defensively in the lane, as well as on the glass. Another senior, Justin Gray, is also solid and steady in the Raider front court. Finally, 6'11 senior transfer Tommy Hamilton comes off the bench. Mohamed Bamba is going to have to find a way to hold his ground against a bunch of grown men.
6'5 senior Niem Stevenson is the fifth starter. Stevenson's calling card is his perimeter shot. Beard will give similar minutes to both Florida transfer Brandone Francis — a onetime high level recruit who has shot the ball well this year — and freshman Jarrett Culver who is having a strong first season of college. Tech also plays Italian freshman (and perhaps point guard of the future) Davide Moretti, who has a nice looking shot.
Texas Tech has been pretty good offensively this season, but the Red Raiders owe more of their success to defense. The Red Raiders currently have the second highest rated defense at kenpom.com (or as I prefer to call it the top defense in the non-Virginia category). They have a lot of big guys who block shots inside and control the glass, and they also turn teams over at a pretty high rate.
The Raiders are almost entirely a man-to-man team and have played almost no zone defense at all this year; Beard did work for Bobby Knight for a while, and Knight's disdain for zone defense apparently rubbed off. Tech takes a lot off the table from opposing offenses, so the Longhorns have their work cut out for them.
The game tips in Austin at 7 p.m. CT, and airs on the Longhorn Network.