After taking a mid-week loss against the Oklahoma State Cowboys in Stillwater, the Texas Longhorns don’t have much time to regroup. Shaka Smart’s team faces the No. 8 Texas Tech Red Raiders (14-1) in Austin, with a chance to pick up a win against one of the top teams in the Big 12.
Texas Tech had a breakthrough season for the program last year, winning 27 games and making a deep NCAA tournament run. But after the season was over, head coach Chris faced a tough situation, losing a huge and important senior class as well as breakout freshman Zhaire Smith.
A lot of basketball observers — and I include myself in this — looked at Beard’s returning roster and figured that while Brandone Francis, Norense Odiase, Jarrett Culver, and Davide Moretti were all good players, as a whole the Texas Tech roster was in a bad place. Beard apparently agreed with us, because he went out and got two graduate transfers (Matt Mooney from South Dakota and Tariq Owens from St. John’s) and a junior college player (wing Deshawn Corprew) to plug the holes in his rotation. And did they ever plug them.
Culver is the key returning player, and is to a large degree carrying the Tech offense. I want to be clear; Texas Tech’s offense is not one of the stronger ones in the league. But Culver is not what is holding things back — he is having an exceptional sophomore year.
The thing that is making this season go for the Red Raiders is great defense, and by great I mean really, historically great defense. We haven’t yet reached the end of the season, so some reversion to the mean could very well change this, but at the moment Texas Tech is on pace to have the single greatest defensive season in the history of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which goes back to the 2001-2002 season. Even with some reversion, it is hard to imagine this Raider D finishing the year as anything other than exceptional.
What makes this defense so good? Well, I think Beard’s defensive system is excellent — the Red Raiders had a top five defense nationally last season as well. I will talk about Beard’s defensive model in a few paragraphs, but any defense is made even better when it adds one of college basketball’s best rim protectors.
Back to the grad transfers. Beard ended up with a good one when Tariq Owens made the move from Queens to Lubbock. With Sagaba Konate out and missing time at West Virginia, Owens looks to be the current leader in the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year race. He adds a previously missing dimension to a defense that was already really good — the ability to shut off chances to score around the basket. Raider opponents this season have converted on 48 percent of shots at the rim, which is the fifth lowest percentage in D-I. I have seen Owens play in person a few times when he was in the Big East; he is rather impressive and will be a big problem for the Longhorns.
But it is more than just Owens that makes the Tech defense go. The stuff happening in front of him is also pretty good. The Texas Tech defense does one particular thing that is rather noticeable and important for it — the Red Raiders are fully committed to a specific goal; when the ball gets to the wing they want to prevent middle penetration.
To understand this level of commitment, we need to examine the photo below. It is taken from the Texas Tech’s single loss of the season, which came in Madison Square Garden against Duke. (It was the only game of the season so far that Duke has been held below 1.1 points per possession. The Blue Devils only managed to 0.85 PPP; Tech is hard to score on.)
In this photo, Cam Reddish (No. 2) has the ball on the wing. Look at where his defender is playing him.
Reddish is essentially being given a baseline drive to the basket. While this may look unsound — honestly can look a little ridiculous — Tech has defenders ready to cut off a drive to the basket. If Reddish puts the ball on the deck and then pulls up for a contested jumper off the bounce, the Raiders are ready to contest, box out, and live with the results. If Reddish drives all the way to the rim, he is going to meet some large and hostile opponents when he gets there. (In this case Owens is off the floor, but Odiase has plenty of time to take two steps and draw an easy charge.)
Meanwhile, every other action that Duke might consider is not happening. Like, for example, the wing ball screen that they are perhaps attempting to run here. The Red Raider defense naturally creates “ice” ball screen defense, where middle penetration of the ball screen is not allowed, and the dribbler is confined to one side of the floor.
And this is where Texas is going to need to have some sort of tactical answer. The Longhorns offense uses a lot of wing ball screens and wing to middle penetration to try to collapse a defense and then create ball reversal to the other side of the floor. The Tech defense is built to prevent those things from happening, and I am betting that it will be mostly successful at doing that. To avoid spending the afternoon aimlessly running into the same dumb wall over and over, the Longhorns are going to need another tactic.
During the Oklahoma State game the Longhorns showed one approach they might take. OSU, while a little less extreme, was also forcing the ball to the sideline and icing ball screens. So Texas countered by no longer sending center Jaxson Hayes for a wing ball screen, but instead having him position at top of the key for a reversing pass. We will probably see this again against Texas Tech, which is going to force Owens to defend away from the basket against an athletic big man who can put the ball on the floor for a bounce or two. It is probably where I would recommend the Longhorns start in their attempts to crack open a great defense. And if that doesn’t work move on to something else.
The game tips in Austin at 1 p.m. Central, and airs on the Longhorn Network.