Texas Tech Basketball: Three Biggest NCAA Tournament Challenges

LUBBOCK, TX - FEBRUARY 07: Zhaire Smith
LUBBOCK, TX - FEBRUARY 07: Zhaire Smith /

As the No. 3 seed in the East bracket, Texas Tech Basketball appears to have one of the least daunting paths to the Final Four of any team in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. The East bracket is not stacked with elite teams filled with lottery picks. Instead, it seems full of solid, fundamentally-sound squads that have a lot of toughness but not much firepower. There’s plenty of reason for Tech to be confident heading into the first round of the tournament this week.

That being said, college basketball is ‘win or go home’ in March, and the Red Raiders aren’t approaching any game lightly. No wins will come easy, and though Tech has a good shot at a deep tournament run, there are a few challenges they must face if they hope to build on one of the most successful seasons in program history:

1. Free-Throw Struggles

The last time Tech stepped on the court was against West Virginia in the semifinal of the Big 12 tournament. The Red Raiders came away from that game with a disappointing loss, not least because of their inability to make free-throws down the stretch. They shot 52% from the stripe (11-21) including a 3-8 mark from Keenan Evans, typically an 82% free-throw shooter. Four of Evans’s misses came in the second half, including two in the final 1:30 of the 2nd half that would have drastically changed the game.

Texas Tech has not been an excellent free-throw shooting team this season, making just 70% of their attempts as a team. This was better than only Iowa State and Texas in the Big 12. If they hope to advance very far in the NCAA tournament, they will need to be more consistent in their free-throws, especially at the end of games. The East bracket will likely be full of tough, defensive matchups, meaning the ability to convert on free baskets late in games could be the difference between a deep run and an early exit.

2. Offensive Slumps

Keenan Evans is the undeniable leader of the Texas Tech Red Raiders, particularly on the offensive side of the court. He leads the team in minutes, points, assists, and free throws per game. Tech needs Evans to be successful offensively to win. In 5 of the team’s 9 losses, Evans failed to reach 10 points, four of which came in February while Evans battled a toe injury. The only time Evans was held under 10 points in a Texas Tech victory was in November against Savannah State. Evans was recently named a 2nd team All-American by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and Tech needs him to play at an All-American level to be successful.

Tech does not have another player that can run the offense consistently and effectively. Niem Stephenson has shown flashes of this ability, but often plays a bit out-of-control. Jarrett Culver has the talent to take over a game, but he often plays deferentially, looking to pass first. That’s a positive sign from a freshman, but it’d be nice to see his game open up a bit. Similarly, Zhaire Smith has the offensive talent to put up big numbers, but seems more comfortable playing off the ball than running the offense.

Tech needs Evans to play consistently efficient offense, but if he struggles or is still battling his toe injury, the team will look to one of these talented freshmen to step up and lead the team.

3. Opponent 3-Pointers

Texas Tech is 2-5 in their last seven games, not exactly a hot way to enter the NCAA Tournament. In 4 of those 5 losses, opposing teams made at least 10 3-point shots, converting on at least 43% of their attempts from beyond the arc. In fact, Texas Tech was 2-4 in their Big 12 play when allowing opponents to make at least 10 3-pointers. The only two victories came in close wins against West Virginia and Texas in January, and Tech converted 24 free throws in each of those games. Given their recent free-throw struggles, the Red Raiders should focus on more effectively guarding the perimeter.

Some of their defensive struggles recently are due to injuries that caused Keenan Evans and Justin Gray to miss time. Both players are excellent perimeter defenders, so their limited availability and mobility left a hole on the defense. Both players are more-or-less healthy now, but Evans may still have some difficulty moving laterally. They will have to rely on their typically stout team defense to ensure they can limit opposing 3-pointers.

If Tech advances to the second round and faces the Florida Gators, this issue will undoubtedly rise to a head. The Gators are one of the most prolific 3-point shooting teams in the country. They have 4 players shooting above 39% from deep and 5 players averaging at least 1 3-pointer per game. When Tech’s perimeter shooting is quenched, however, they can struggle to find offense.

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Hopefully Texas Tech will be able to improve their free-throw shooting, maintain offensive consistency, and limit opponent 3-pointers. If they can’t rise to these challenges, they may be in for another brief tournament appearance. If they make necessary changes, however, they may have a reasonable path to the Final Four. Hopefully we will see the Red Raiders in San Antonio in a few weeks.