It is not an immutable law of nature that Texas Tech must be bad at basketball. There have been times over the last two decades where the Red Raiders were good. Just ten years ago the Raiders finished fourth in the Big 12 before winning two NCAA tournament games and advancing to the Sweet 16.
Tech was a competitive program for the entire tenure of Bobby Knight, posting a winning conference record four times while making four NCAA tournaments in six seasons. Roughly a decade earlier, the Raiders were among the best basketball teams in the Southwest Conference, peaking during a 1996 NCAA tournament run that ended at the Sweet 16.
But it has been quite some time since anyone has thought about the NCAA tournament in Lubbock. The transition from Bobby to Pat Knight was the start of the program's decline. Things dropped off further when the volatile Billy Gillispie -- once the brightest rising star among NCAA coaches -- self-destructed. In the wake of Gillispie's meltdown, there was little interim coach Chris Walker could have done to salvage the 2012-2013 season. The Red Raiders needed a fresh start.
In an effort to rebuild the Tech hoops program, the school followed its usual playbook, bringing in a well-established coach. Tubby Smith, like Bobby Knight and Billy Gillispie, had coached at the highest ranks of college basketball. Like Knight and Gillispie, Smith found himself looking for work at a time that the Red Raiders had an opening.
But that is largely where the similarities end. Smith's personal style is quite different from those of either Knight or Gillispie -- two men who seemingly lack the basic impulse control required to navigate adult society, but who managed to find the only profession that would put up with their crap. Smith's arrival in Lubbock meant that less volatile times were likely ahead for the Red Raiders.
And maybe those times would include better basketball.
Smith's first season in Lubbock
Before we go any further, I have to reveal a bit of personal bias. I am a hopeless Tubby Smith fanboy. I haven't quite reached the level of making creepy collages to commemorate Smith's 1996 Sweet 16 run as head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, but I do need to admit that I struggle to be objective about Smith.
But here I am at least going to try to be objective. In Smith's first season as the head coach of Texas Tech, the Red Raiders were not exactly a great team, but they were substantially improved when compared with the previous two years. The improvements came in large part from doing two things that Smith's teams almost always do: the Raiders went to the offensive glass like maniacs, and they started sharing the basketball.
Going to the offensive glass is partly about finding the type of players who can do it, and partly a strategic choice. Certain coaches make this choice, choosing to send players hard to the glass and spending the time teaching how to do it well. Some coaches who are/were famous for sending players hard to the offensive glass include Tom Izzo, Jim Calhoun, Jamie Dixon, Frank Martin, John Calipari, Rick Barnes, and of course Tubby Smith. These are coaches who (rightly, in my view) have chosen to buck the modern trend of sacrificing offensive rebounds in exchange for better transition defense. (At the other end of the spectrum are coaches who emphasize transition defense at the expense of second chance shots. Examples include Bo Ryan, Fred Hoiberg, and the late Rick Majerus. There are successful coaches on both lists.)
At Texas Tech, the team offensive rebounding rate increased the moment Smith set foot on campus. The Raider offensive rebounding rate jumped from 32 percent during the season prior to Smith's arrival to 38 percent this year. Only 17 teams rebounded a higher percentage of their own misses than did Texas Tech.
I have previously written for SB Nation about the role that ball movement played during Smith's first season at Texas Tech. But while Tech did pass better last season than it had in previous years, there is still substantial room for improvement. At Minnesota, Smith's teams typically recorded assists on more than 60 percent of their field goals, which was generally among the highest rates in the nation. Last season, Tech's assist rate was around 47 percent. So while the offensive load was more evenly distributed among the Tech players, it didn't translate immediately to teammates finding each other cutting open under the basket as frequently as occurred at Minnesota.
Tech also improved on the other end of the floor, although here the story is less convincing. Tubby Smith is one of those coaches who's defense has a name -- it is commonly called the "ball-line" defense (names like this are great for selling coaching DVDs). It is a defense that looks to deny and deflect passes from the point guard to the wing, and collapses weak-side defenders into the paint when the ball ends up on one side of the floor. And it is a defense that drew gallons of internet venom from Kentucky basketball fans, who essentially blamed it for every bad thing that ever happened in the Commonwealth.
Let's take a look at the Tech defense, and some of its features and problems last season. In the photo below, the ball is out high. Note that the wing defenders are denying entry passes.
This sort of ball-denying approach can make it hard for a team to get into its offense, and potentially leads to increased turnovers. Historically, Smith's teams have forced a decent number of turnovers, but last season Texas Tech did not. During Big 12 play, Raider opponents coughed the ball up in only 16 percent of their possessions, the third lowest rate in the conference.
One thing missing in the image above is pressure on the ball. To play a successful pressure defense, it is helpful to try to force the ball handler to make a quick decision, and not allow him to carefully study the floor. You cannot deny passes forever -- without ball pressure it is hard to force a bunch of turnovers. This is why "constant ball pressure" is an important rule of Smith's defense.
Behind this ball-denying approach is a defense that looks to protect the paint. It is a sensible mix; when applying pressure a defender is going to need some help. When a pass goes to the wing, the weak-side defenders sink deep into the paint, to limit penetration. This is illustrated in the image below.
These two images above give us a feel for the philosophy of this defensive approach. The basic concept is to make any sort of pass that advances the ball towards the basket difficult, but to put fewer restrictions passes back away from the basket. Fundamentally, Smith's approach strives to make it hard to get the ball close to the goal. To this end, the Raider defense was somewhat successful. Tech opponents took 35 percent of their field goal attempts at the rim, which placed them in the upper half of all of Division I.
Over the years, teams have typically shot a relatively low percentage from two point range against Smith's defenses, which typically manage to block a lot of shots, in addition to limiting chances at the rim. Last season in Lubbock, the two point defense was far less effective, as Tech opponents shot 50 percent from two point range (compare that with the 43 percent Minnesota opponents managed in the in the final year of Smith's prior stop). The Raiders blocked a good but not great total of 11 percent of opponent twos. This poor performance on two point shooting defense was a real surprise; Texas Tech featured a decent amount of size, and Smith has a long history of getting good interior D from his squads. But there was at least some improvement; the season before Texas Tech blocked eight percent of opponent twos, allowing 51 percent shooting from inside the arc.
One of the downsides of Smith's approach to defense is that it tends to allow a large number of three point attempts. When the ball penetrates deep into the lane, Smith's preferred defensive tactic is to trap the ball in the post, and then rotate defensively when the ball is kicked out. Smith isn't alone among college basketball coaches who take this approach. Doubling the post is one of the ways that Florida keeps the ball out of the paint, and Iowa State reflexively doubles the post as well.
The diagram below shows one of the ways that Smith's teams like to double team the post. When the ball is entered from the wing, a nearby weak-side defender will trap down on the post, while the man guarding the low post quickly repositions to cut off the baseline.
With the post doubled, we reach the diagram shown below. A good double team takes away any hopes the post player might have of getting to the basket. He needs to pass out. Assuming he can cleanly pass the ball out of the double team, things now become tricky for the defense. Typically the weak-side defensive guard has the assignment of defending whichever of the two unguarded perimeter players receives the first pass. It is a somewhat difficult cover, but something that typically can be handled. Much harder is that the double-teaming defender in the post is assigned to scramble out to the perimeter and pick up the other guard.
Because of this, the first pass out of a double team in the post is often well covered, but a second quick pass often is not. A quick two pass sequence out of a post double team will often lead to an open catch-and-shoot look from three. This shot is the Achilles heel of Smith's defense. It always has been; this is a shot that drove Kentucky fans nuts.
And when defenders are unclear on their assignment, and too many guys converge on the ball, things get even worse, as we see the situation in the image below. That is a little bit more than a double team.
Last season, the extra allowed threes didn't really haunt the Red Raiders, as Tech opponents ended up making only around 33 percent of their three point attempts, which meant that opponent twos and opponent threes registered identical effective field goal percentages.
When Smith's defenses give up high two point shooting percentages and don't force turnovers, as happened last season, there isn't much chance of being good. Turnovers and lowering opponent two point field goal percentage are the two main strengths of his defensive approach. When these strengths aren't realized on the floor, trouble follows. If opponents would have hit a few more threes, things could have been much worse.
When I look at the failures of the Texas Tech defense last season, I seems that execution of Smith's basic defensive principles was a big part of the problem. Smith's principles generally have worked for him; the structure of the D is not the problem. But in the sequence above, taken from late in the season, we saw a handful of real issues. (That Texas did not score on this sequence is immaterial -- actions and outcomes don't align on every single possession.) In particular, the lack of ball pressure in a defense that needs ball pressure to really go is a big problem. Forcing opposing guards to make quick decisions on the move is a big part of forcing turnovers. Combine that with mediocre rim protection and a lot of wide open threes, and you end up with a poor defense.
The Red Raiders were a significantly improved team in Tubby Smith's first season. But continued gains next season may prove to be difficult. Smith has lost four of his six top players from last season's team. Jaye Crockett and Dejan Kravic were seniors last season, while Jordan Tolbert and Dusty Hannahs have transferred to SMU and Arkansas, respectively.
Smith does return his starting backcourt of Robert Turner and Toddrick Gotcher. Turner served last season as the Raider point guard, and had an otherwise decent season that was undermined by poor perimeter shooting. Gotcher played a secondary role, but was the more efficient offensive player of the two, earning a decent chunk of his points at the free throw line.
Joining Turner and Gotcher on the perimeter will be junior college transfer Devaugntah Williams, who put up solid numbers in junior college, and was considered one of the better JuCo prospects in the country.
Williams isn't the only newcomer joining the backcourt in Lubbock. Tubby Smith also brought in Justin Gray, a talented freshman wing from Florida. The list of schools that were pursuing Gray is interesting, and includes Rice, Harvard, and Stanford. Keenan Evans is another Smith recruit, who put up big scoring numbers as a high school senior.
The Tech back court sounds promising, but near the hoop there is reason to worry. With the departure of last season's top three Tech big men, 6-8 sophomore Aaron Ross figured to make an impact. In limited time, Ross showed an ability to score near the basket. Ross also demonstrated a decent shooting touch, going 8-21 from three point range and 28-35 from the free throw line. But after suffering a knee injury, he may be out until January.
Losing Ross for the early part of the season is a tough blow for Tech, as Ross would otherwise look to be a solid candidate for a breakout season. Without Ross, sophomore Alex Foster and junior college transfer Justin Jamison should expect to get early playing time inside. The 6-9 Jamison has taken an unusual path to major conference hoops. Jamison pitched in the minor leagues for several seasons before blowing out his arm. Jamison was a teammate of Devaugntah Williams last season, and the two came together to Lubbock.
Given such a thin front court, freshmen Zach Smith and Norense Odiase have a chance to make an impact right away. Smith had a long list of D-I schools making offers to him, and he ended up choosing Texas Tech. Smith is a big, athletic kid who looks like he knows what to do with the ball when he gets near the rim. (His highlight videos basically consist of him dunking a bunch of times.) Athletic big guys who crash the boards, dunk, and block the occasional shot tend to do well under Tubby Smith.
Odiase isn't the leaper that Zach Smith is, but he has the potential to develop into a physical inside presence for the Red Raiders. The Texas Tech website lists him at 6-9 and 265 lbs, and watching his highlight video suggests that he enjoys physical contact.
Given so much youth, the prognoses for Texas Tech this coming season probably isn't very good. While it is true that freshman can excel in college hoops, the freshman who do are typically among a small number of elite future NBA players. Texas Tech's freshman don't appear to include anyone like that. Although this first real Tubby Smith class is likely to turn out well, it may be a few seasons before we really see it flourish.
It is easy to imagine the Red Raiders once again finishing the season near the bottom of the Big 12 standings. They are headed in the right direction. It just will take some time.
In case you missed it, you can read the first instalment of this series, which examines TCU, here.