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The Starting 5: The Red Raiders climb fast to the Top 25

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Championship-Texas vs Texas Tech

Between now and the beginning of conference action in Big 12 men’s basketball, HeartlandCollegeSports.com contributor Matthew Postins will watch at least one game for each Big 12 team and assess where each team stands in the final weeks before league action. Today it’s the Texas Tech Red Raiders.

 

Keep an eye on the freshmen

No team in the Big 12 may rely more on freshman talent this season than the Red Raiders. Two of Tech’s three scorers in double-figures are first-year players — Jarrett Culver (10.3 points per game) and Zhaire Smith (10.0 ppg). A third freshman, Davide Moretti, is giving Tech valuable minutes off the bench, scoring 5.3 ppg in 15 minutes per contest. He’s their third-best 3-point shooter and their top free-throw shooter, so I suspect he could see an uptick in playing time when Big 12 play starts. While the Red Raiders do have plenty of senior leadership to lean on, Culver, Smith and Moretti are averaging nearly one-third of the Red Raiders’ scoring after 10 games. Plus, none of them have started a game. That gives the Red Raiders some valuable depth going into the Big 12 slate.

The time is now for Zach Smith

The Plano, Texas, senior is not exactly on his game at the moment. The preseason All-Big 12 First-Team selection is averaging just 7.0 ppg, and that’s a five-point drop from where he finished a year ago as he grabbed All-Big 12 Honorable Mention honors. His rebounding numbers are also down by about three per game. His field-goal percentage is steady from a year ago. The reasons why are hard to pinpoint in watching just one game, in this case FAU. He’s not injured. I don’t feel like other players are stealing minutes from him. He’s been a rock steady performer for Tech the last two years (a reliable 10 points and 7 boards a game). Whatever the issue is Smith needs to work it out by the opener against Baylor because he’s one of the pieces that makes this team go. Players go through these valleys sometimes. It happens. But it’s time for Smith to find the peak.

 

The defense on this team is remarkable

The Red Raiders are a Top 10-defense nationally in terms of points allowed (60.3 through their first 10 games). Now, that’s bound to change a little when they get into Big 12 action and start facing some of these great offensive players I’ve been writing about for the past month. But, the Red Raiders have a great foundation defensively. They play solid man-to-man defense and some of the best help-side action out of any Big 12 team I’ve seen. They display good open-court instincts when the ball is in transition. Smith is one of the team’s best shot blockers, while Tommy Hamilton IV (6-foot-11) and Norense Odiase (6-foot-9) are solid interior defenders. Now, they’ve only played two ranked teams, but the Red Raiders beat both of them, holding one of them, Northwestern, to a ridiculous 49 points. So, while the points the Red Raiders are allowing is bound to change, the way they’re playing defense won’t. Head coach Chris Beard has them in a great mindset on that end of the floor.

The Red Raiders need Hamilton and Odiase to bang a lot more inside

One thing this Red Raiders team does not have is dominance in the paint. Zach Smith is a forward and the team’s second-leading rebounder at 4.2 per game. As mentioned, that’s three rebounds down from last year’s average. What the Red Raiders really need is one of the big men who have logged serious minutes to this point — either Hamilton or Odiase — to step up in a big way once Big 12 action begins. Hamilton is taller than Odiase, but is only averaging 3 rebounds per game in 14.1 minutes. Odiase, meanwhile, logs similar time (14 minutes) but actually leads the Red Raiders in rebounding per game (5.5 per game). Beard only recently slid Odiase into the starting lineup, and against FAU he logged 14 minutes but only two rebounds. It was Hamilton who had the better contest, grabbing 7 rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench. Hamilton is a bit more of the traditional back-to-the-basket post while Odiase can bring posts out of the paint as he has a bit more athleticism. They’re both going to play this season. But Beard and the Red Raiders need one of them step up because the Big 12 has plenty of big men that can shake off tandems like Hamilton and Odiase.

 

The senior shall lead them

The Red Raiders need Smith to get back to last year’s form and they need a big man to step up and play with more authority, but their season will rise or fall on the back of senior guard Keenan Evans. He’s a joy to watch because he’s such a fundamentally sound and athletic player. After last year’s explosion — he doubled his scoring average from his sophomore year to 15.4 points per game — he’s built on it, leading the Red Raiders with more than 17 points per game and leading the team in points in seven of their first 10 games. He could have a huge Big 12 slate for a couple of reasons. First, he’s coming up big in big games so far — 25 points against Northwestern, 21 points against Seton Hall and 32 points against Nevada (Northwestern and Nevada were ranked at the time). Second, he’s only played 26.5 minutes per game this season because the Red Raiders have been able to play their freshmen more and balance double-digit minutes between 10 different players. That should have him well-rested for the league slate. He’s the one player the Red Raiders can’t afford to lose.

You have to admire what head coach Chris Beard has done in one-plus years in Lubbock. He took over an already-solid program (the Red Raiders went to the NCAA Tournament the year before Beard arrived) and has them nationally-ranked going into Big 12 play. He’s done it the hard way as a head coach at the junior college, Division III, Division II and Division I levels before landing in Lubbock. He parlayed last year’s 18-win season into a solid set of freshmen recruits who are already paying off handsomely. Still, this is a team that is probably a year or two away from being a true Big 12 power. Beard also has to address the fact that he’ll lose five seniors at season’s end, including Evans. But that’s for next year. Right now, the Red Raiders may not win the Big 12, but they’ll be a hard win for every opponent this season and a hard out in the Big 12 Tournament.

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