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.
The rise of Culver
The sudden departure of Zhaire Smith — who left after his freshman year for the NBA — left a gaping hole in the offense, when coupled with the graduation of Keenan Evans. Who might fill that void was the subject of some debate this offseason, but the focus centered on sophomore Jarrett Culver, and the 6-foot-6 guard has not disappointed anyone in Lubbock. He’s already one of the leading scorers in the Big 12 with 19.7 points per game, and his performance against Duke — 25 points — included a 17-point first half that left the Blue Devils’ defense, at times, befuddled. He’s shooting nearly 56 percent from the floor, 45 percent from the 3-point line and nearly 70 percent from the free-throw line. But against Duke he proved adept at driving to the basket and scoring in traffic, too. His ability to score both inside and outside is going to make him one of the most difficult players to defend in the Big 12 this season. He’s improved by more than eight points over last year’s 11.2 points per game. When the big moments come, Culver will be the one to deliver, and the Lubbock Coronado product may be following his former teammate, Smith, into the NBA next year. His game is rounding into shape for the next level.
A defensive juggernaut
Head coach Chris Beard has built his Red Raiders around defense and doing the little things on that end of the floor. Last year’s defense was remarkably good. This year’s edition might be better. Going into the holiday break the Red Raiders were No. 1 in scoring defense in the nation allowing 51.2 points per game. Duke, No. 6 in the nation in scoring offense at 91.6 ppg going into their matchup at Madison Square Garden, provided a particular test for the Red Raiders. Despite losing the game, they passed. Duke only scored 69 points in the game, but at halftime the Blue Devils only had 28 points and only two baskets had come out of Duke’s halfcourt set, so Texas Tech’s defense was extremely disruptive. Plus, Tech was forcing Duke into multiple offensive fouls, including five in the first half. The Red Raiders have bought into Beard’s desire for stifling man-to-man defense and proper positioning to draw charges and other offensive fouls. No team in the Big 12, to me, looks better positioned to do the “little things” on defense better than this Tech outfit. Defensively it can handle any team in the Big 12 and as well as just about every team in the country.
The transfers fit right in
Tech brought in a few transfers this season, and with the departures of Evans and Smith their move into the program was well-timed. Tariq Owens, the lanky 6-foot-10 forward from St. John’s, got a homecoming of sorts with the game at MSG, while Matt Mooney, the 6-foot-3 guard from South Dakota, has fit right in with the Tech backcourt. It can be daunting bringing in new players, especially when Tech’s system is so predicated on intense man-to-man defense. Both have slid into the starting lineup and are giving the Red Raiders plenty of minutes, but it’s Mooney — the former two-time All-Summit League First-Team pick who averaged 18 ppg for South Dakota — who is the only other Red Raider averaging in double figures this season with 10.6 ppg. His overall offensive game helps take some of the sting out of the loss of Evans, as Mooney shoots 46.4 percent from the 3-point line (but he’s actually shooting only 46.8 percent from the floor). He’s also assumed some ball-handling duties, leads the team in turnovers (33) and steals (24). Owens gives the Red Raiders an interior presence who has some value as a wing, too. With Norense Odiase still on the roster and starting at center, Owens doesn’t have to bang inside as much. Owens is averaging 8.3 ppg and 5.2 rpg while averaging 54.4 percent shooting. That the pair have filled out the starting lineup right away is a great boon not just for this season, but for the young talent that Beard needs to develop for the future.
It’s probably Davide Moretti, the sophomore guard from Italy (yes the country, not the small city in north central Texas). We knew Moretti had a good shot last season in bench duty with the Red Raiders. But he wasn’t that productive — 3.5 points and 1.1 assists. But I think anyone who watched Tech last year knew that given the opportunity Moretti could be more productive. Well this season his scoring average has shot up to 8.7 ppg, third-best on the team. He’s shooting 33 percent from the 3-point line — which can be improved — and has missed one free throw. Watching him against Duke, where he only scored 3 points, I sensed a different defensive player. He was better positioned to defend guards, quicker to double team and understood help-side rules better than he did a year ago. He’s clearly made strides with his game around his obvious attributes as a scorer.
Rebuild, not reload
That appears to be where Texas Tech is now, and if you’re going to be a quality program with a national profile that’s what you must do. This is Beard’s third season at the helm. This could have been a year where the Red Raiders took a step back, given the losses of Evans and Smith, who were key to last year’s Elite Eight run. Instead, Culver made strides across the board, Moretti improved his defense, the graduate transfers integrated into the fold immediately and players like Brandone Francis and Norense Odiase continue to play vital roles. The Red Raiders only played eight against Duke, and their season box score says that Malik Ondigo could be the ninth player in the rotation. The fact is Beard is building a roster where most underclassmen play vital roles on the team and a recruiting base that is allowing him to pull higher quality players than the previous regime. Duke took the Red Raiders seriously in this matchup and while it stood as Tech’s only loss going into the holiday, there’s no question that the Red Raiders can play with anyone in the country. That includes the Kansas Jayhawks, who are seeking their 15th straight Big 12 regular-season title under Bill Self. Going into the season I saw the Red Raiders as a Top 3 team in the league, with some question marks. After watching the Duke game, I have no questions about what this team can accomplish, barring injury. The Red Raiders are a Big 12 contender.
Next up: Baylor takes on Oregon.
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