Texas Tech has made deep March Madness run with defense

MINNEAPOLIS — They told Matt Mooney he would be required to play defense. And when he transferred to Texas Tech, he was quickly immersed in drills, beginning, of course, with the basics: players in a semi-circle at halfcourt, squatting low and sliding this way, then that.

“Stuff you did in middle school,” Mooney says.

There were so many more, of course. Drill after drill after drill, constant reminders that this program valued defense above, well, above everything else. But maybe the moment the graduate transfer from South Dakota really understood what he’d gotten himself into came a few minutes into the Red Raiders’ first game this season, when he arrived at the bench during a timeout – and was accosted by Tech assistant Mark Adams.

“Where are the steals?” Adams asked him. “Why don’t you have any deflections? What have you been doing?”

Mooney laughs now, but in the moment? “In my head, I was like, ‘It’s only been two minutes!’ ”

That’s when Mooney got it. By now, we all should have. 

Texas Tech’s run to the Final Four, and its very real potential to win the national championship, is fueled by a defense-first culture instilled by third-year coach Chris Beard and his staff, which includes Adams as the de facto defensive coordinator. On so many opponents’ possessions, the ball seems to get pulled into a swirling vortex, only to emerge somehow – steal, rebound after a forced shot, whatever – in the hands of a Red Raider. Or maybe it’s more like a meat grinder. Whatever, but four times so far during the NCAA tournament, Texas Tech has clamped down, then applied continuous pressure until, inevitably, an offense is suffocated.

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Northern Kentucky went nearly eight minutes of the second half without scoring. Texas Tech held high-flying Buffalo 27 points below its season average with a performance that included an 11-minute stretch (19 possessions) when Buffalo managed only three points and no field goals.

The Red Raiders stifled Michigan in the Sweet 16 – which is how many points the Wolverines had at halftime. And in the West Region final, they held Gonzaga’s balanced, potent offense to 19 points fewer than its average – the Zags shot 36.4 percent in the second half – to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history.

“Our defense,” Mooney says unnecessarily, “is the real deal.”

Texas Tech ranks third in scoring defense, allowing an average of 59 points (Virginia leads the nation, allowing 55.4 points a game), and No. 2 in field-goal percentage defense (36.8 percent average). But going a little deeper, Texas Tech is not simply No. 1 in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, with a rate of 84.1 (points per 100 possessions) – more than 2 points better than the next best team. It’s the best defense since KenPom began measuring the stat in 2002.

Gonzaga, by the way, ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency, but was no match for Texas Tech’s defense. Which was why Zags coach Mark Few sounded like Mooney when he told reporters afterward: “It’s real. That defense is real. … It definitely impacted us. It’s tough. It’s real.”

And it’s really a reflection of Beard, who says he got a Ph.D. in defensive coaching as an assistant at Texas Tech for Bobby Knight and then Pat Knight (he also credits former Texas coach Tom Penders and Texas State coach Danny Kaspar and many others).

“It’s always just been part of my basketball makeup,” Beard says. “And it’s just the way you win in the Big 12. If you don’t guard in our league, you don’t win possessions, so defense has always been something we’ve embraced.”

He’s not wrong about the Big 12, but Texas Tech’s defense this season has been extraordinary anywhere, in any year. It’s designed to keep opponents out of the lane and force them toward the baseline, where other defenders lurk. And if the culture is instilled by Beard, the defense is largely installed by Adams, a veteran grinder at college basketball’s backwaters.

“He’s a defensive genius,” sophomore guard Jarrett Culver says.

And Beard, who says Adams was his first call when he became a head coach, praises Adams’ ability to teach. It includes frequent challenges – like the one he issued to Mooney in the first minutes of the first game – and obsessive attention to drills and details, but also bribery and rewards.

Adams entices players to watch video of opponents with candy he keeps stocked in his office. And he awards prizes to leaders in several categories. There’s a rebound chain (yeah, a knock-off of Miami’s turnover chain) along with a deflection belt (like a boxing championship belt) and a charge chair. Mooney likes that one best, because it’s a massage chair.

“You get to sit back until the next game, so it’s nice,” he says.

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It’s not just scouting. Players say Adams’ in-game adjustments often pay immediate dividends, too. Still, the culture obviously requires their buy-in. There’s a reason this defense is so unusual, and it’s more than simply the right combination of coaching and playing skill.

Texas Tech’s style isn’t for every recruit. The current roster includes Culver, who’s projected as a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft. But Culver is a Lubbock kid who was lightly recruited. Like Mooney, Tariq Owens, a 6-10 forward, is a graduate transfer (from St. John’s; he started at Tennessee). Mooney’s career started at Air Force. 

The Red Raiders are a collage of scrappy players who play with a collective edge. They’re also very quick, long-armed and springy. But mostly, they’re willing.

“I’ve never thought I’m a magician,” Beard says. “I don’t have a magic wand. I can’t make you something you’re not, so we try to get team-first guys, tough guys, guys that want to defend, guys that want to go to class and guys that want to win.”

Says Owens: “They’re not gonna change the expectations for anybody. It doesn’t matter who you are or how highly recruited you are, there’s a culture here that we’ve got to play defense. … It’s definitely an adjustment. Everybody wants to play defense. It’s kind of something you just learn to get used to.”

Unless you’re trying to score against them.

 

 

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