Texas Tech Is Making Defense Cool Again

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If offense is an act of creation, defense is destruction. It's an eradication of possibility. In college basketball, defensive success is most often culled from the weaponization of an opponent’s shortcomings. Fullcourt presses, zones, packlines: all gimmicky defenses rooted in the idea that just about no college team has the combined passing, shooting and dribbling bandwidth to succeed for 40 minutes against them. Even if these tactics are effective, they’re not necessarily fun to watch because failure is never as fun to watch as success. There’s a certain meanness and grimness to these enterprises, informed by a cynical understanding of how college ball Really Works. But, at Texas Tech, Mark Adams and the Red Raiders are making defense cool again.

Purely from an x’s and o’s perspective, Texas Tech plays the same kind of switching, no-middle defense that they’ve perfected over the years; former head coach Chris Beard (now coaching at their hated rival, the University of Texas) is credited with introducing the defense to the mainstream, but current coach Mark Adams is perhaps the most devout no-middle alocyte. With the second best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, Tech is good at nearly everything a defense is able to be good at. Adjusted for strength of schedule, they allow the 19th lowest effective field goal percentage, force the 20th most turnovers, and have the 41st best defensive rebounding rate. 

The premise of Tech’s scheme is simple—shade ball-handlers towards the sideline and aggressively bring early help from the weakside to discourage drives. Although this scheme has become trendy across college basketball, no team executes it as precisely as Tech. When their defense is humming, which is just about all the time, it seems like there’s a spawn point underneath the basket, pumping out wave after wave of athletic, giant-armed Adonises, such as, say, Adonis Arms. Putative advantages for the offense become harrowing situations once a rotating Red Raider comes screaming from your periphery. Tech doesn’t so much play defense as much as they chase the other team around the court with knives and hammers. 

Notably, Tech's defense feels proactive. Whereas most defenses are at the mercy of the opposing offense, Tech is so defensively dominant that they effectively erase most scoring options—pick-and-rolls become a lot less appetizing when a hectoring defender is making it a chore to even access the pick and pre-rotating defenders clog driving lanes before they can even truly open in earnest. Against Tech, it's nearly impossible to run a normal offense; the Red Raiders force their opponents into the fourth-most isolations and the 12th highest three-point rate in the nation.

Despite the fact that Tech turns games into grisly, low-scoring affairs, their heavy-metal ethos ensures they’re still an entertaining team to watch. Extolling a team’s toughness and togetherness is a well-worn piece of coaching palaver, but it feels completely earned in Tech’s case. Mark Adams, a lifelong Texas basketball grinder, has built a team in his image. Whereas Chris Beard tries to recreate a high-budget version of Tech’s institutional grittiness at UT, Adams and the rest of the Red Raiders were born into this grittiness, they were molded by it. Fittingly, not a single player on the roster was tabbed as a five-star recruit in high school and the majority of their rotation transferred to Tech from low-major schools. 

As such, Tech’s roster is stocked with guys who could average prolific stats in a different context, but have opted to play for Tech, usage rate be damned; Kevin Obaner, Bryson Williams and Davion Warren were all big time scorers at low-major schools last year who have seen their box score production dip since coming to Lubbock, Texas. Accordingly, the latent offensive talent is what makes this Tech team so special—this isn’t a team full of unskilled defensive specialists, but rather a team loaded with immensely talented scorers who have chosen to fashion themselves into defensive specialists. 

Ranked #9 in the country with a 21-6 record, the Red Raiders, improbably, might be the best team in school history. While they may not reach the same heights as the 2019 Tech team that made the Final Four, that’s almost besides the point: more joy is found in the process than the results. No one game in March could possibly negate Tech’s tsunami of happy mania as their tortilla-crazed fanbase adjusts to the new reality that the once-lowly Red Raiders are now a true powerhouse. Home games at the United Supermarkets Arena—and one special-occasion home game in Austin—pulse with the same electricity as games at more traditionally hallowed grounds like Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse or Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.

In the national media, Tech is treated as some kind of bemusing interloper or a charming-yet-unmannered party crasher. Everybody acknowledges that the team is very good, but nobody seems to take them seriously because it’s Texas Tech. And yet Tech has swept Baylor and UT and nearly swept Kansas. With each passing week, it’s increasingly clear that blue blood is no match for the Red Raiders. 

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