An entertaining non-conference season, featuring play on multiple continents, is over. The 8-4 Texas Longhorns have settled down and played mostly good basketball in December, and it is time for the Big 12 season to begin. A grueling two months of Big 12 play start on the road this Saturday, when Shaka Smart's men travel to face the 10-1 Texas Tech Red Raiders.
Oh yea, Cameron Ridley is out for a couple of months.
Last season, an extremely young Raider roster struggled to a 3-15 conference record. This season, coach Tubby Smith hopes to start reaping the benefits of playing so many kids a season ago. And the early indications are that he stands a pretty good chance of doing that; Texas Tech has a legitimate chance to compete for an NCAA tournament bid for the first time in many years.
Wait, what? Texas Tech is good?
This will come as a shock to many Big 12 fans, but the Red Raiders aren't likely to be the pushovers that they have been since Bobby Knight retired in 2008. Tubby Smith has started to shape this team to the point where it is resembling the squads he has put together throughout his career. The fact that he is beginning to have success in Lubbock is not at all surprising; perhaps the only surprise is that he has gotten Tech to play this well this quickly.
The Texas Tech non-conference schedule has been an odd grab bag of teams. Tech started off against High Point (Smith's alma mater) before dropping a neutral court game to Utah, which is so far the only blemish on the Red Raiders' record. Smith's men did him a solid and beat Minnesota, his former employer, and have since picked up wins against a collection of solid D-I programs such as Hawaii, Arkansas Little Rock, South Dakota State, and Richmond.
The Raiders have been strongest so far on the defensive end of the floor. For long time followers of Smith's career, the defense being played by his team this season will look familiar. Smith's team contests passing lanes, looking for deflections and turnovers, and collapses weak-side defensive help deep into the lane. They fight like hell to make things as tough as possible for opponents around the basket, where big men Norense Odiase, Zach Smith, and Aaron Ross challenge shots and control the glass.
The downside of this defensive approach is also well-known to anyone who has followed Smith's teams over the years -- the Red Raiders are going to give up looks from three-point range. A lot of looks; opponents have attempted nearly 42 percent of their shots from the floor from beyond the arc. So far it hasn't cost Tech all that much, as opponents have shot poorly from the perimeter.
When on the other end of the floor, Texas Tech finds its offense in a lot of different places. A pair of 6-4 seniors -- Davaugntah Williams and Toddrick Gotcher -- are Tech's two biggest threats to hurt opponents from the perimeter. Williams is a more of a slasher than Gotcher, and both are solid three-point shooters. They share ball handling duties with 6-3 sophomore Keenan Evans, who is playing under control and finds his way to the free-throw line rather frequently.
Inside, Tech has a trio of good big men, and coach Smith likes his team to get the ball inside to them. Odiase, Smith, and Ross are all off to strong starts this season, sporting effective field goal percentages of 50 percent, 57 percent, and 56 percent, respectively. 6-6 sophomore Justin Gray is also capable of coming off the bench and making trouble for Texas.
With Cameron Ridley out for a couple of months, groups like Texas Tech's big men may give the Longhorns trouble, particularly if they are able to quickly put fouls on Texas center Prince Ibeh. Ibeh, Shaq Cleare, Connor Lammert, and Tevin Mack (Lord have mercy -- I like his game, but this could be an educational experience for the young man) will have their work cut out for them going up against the Red Raiders, who will not be interested in trying to duplicate Shaka Smart's small lineups. This will be an interesting early test for the Horns, who will face several other Big 12 teams that will similarly challenge them inside.
Along the perimeter, the match up is just as intriguing. Isaiah Taylor has shown the ability to drill his way inside of virtually every defense he has faced, even when everyone on the floor knows it is coming. Will he still be able to do this against a Tech team that will frequently have two or three extra defenders standing in the paint? Or will Taylor become more of a facilitator in this game, penetrating just enough to collapse the defense before kicking the ball out to perimeter shooters?
If the game breaks in the Longhorns' favor, it seems likely that perimeter shooting will feature prominently in the outcome. Eric Davis, Javan Felix, Connor Lammert, and Tevin Mack will get their chances from three-point range against a Tech defense that looks to take away everything else, but gives up its share of threes. It would not surprise me if half of Texas' shots in this game came from beyond the arc. What happens on these 25 or so shots will be the key.
If the Longhorns hit 12-of-15 threes, then they can steal an upset win on the road. But if they go 7-of-25 from deep, it is going to be pretty tough to win in Lubbock.
The game tips at 1 p.m. CST, and airs on ESPNU.