Texas Tech basketball: Red Raiders have a T.J. Holyfield conundrum

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 28: TJ Holyfield #22 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders is fouled by Connor McCaffery #30 of the Iowa Hawkeyes during the 2019 Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on November 28, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 28: TJ Holyfield #22 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders is fouled by Connor McCaffery #30 of the Iowa Hawkeyes during the 2019 Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on November 28, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) /

After yet another no-show from T.J. Holyfield, the Texas Tech basketball team is facing quite a conundrum.

You could make an argument that no player on this year’s Texas Tech basketball team is more critical than grad transfer T.J. Holyfield.  You could also argue that no player has been worse in the last five games.   Now, Chris Beard and his coaching staff face a conundrum.  Should a player that has been giving the Red Raiders nothing in the last five games continue to receive critical minutes, much less start despite the fact that he’s the only viable big man on the roster?

When this team was put together, we knew that there would be two issues that Tech had to overcome; a lack of experience and a lack of size.  Both are areas in which the Red Raiders need Holyfield to be an answer but he’s not yet stepped into the type of role that was envisioned for him when he joined the program this summer.

The 6-foot-8 transfer from Stephen F. Austin is one of only two seniors on the team and is the only real post presence Beard has at his disposal now that 6-foot-9 UNLV transfer Joel Ntambwe has been denied eligibility for this year by the NCAA.  The only other options Tech can turn to for size this year are freshmen Russell Techewa, Andre Savrasov, and eventually Tyreek Smith (the latter of whom has yet to play for the Red Raiders due to a foot injury).

In other words, Holyfield is all this team has in the paint.  Unfortunately, he’s been so abysmal in his last five games that it isn’t unthinkable to entertain the idea of starting a five-guard lineup when freshman Jahmi’us Ramsey returns from his hamstring injury.

After averaging 18.6 rebounds in the first three games of the year, Holyfield has scored just five points per game in the last five.  That includes just two combined points in the last two losses after he was shutout by DePaul on Wednesday night.

That’s not what this team expected from a player who has averaged 10.7 points per game for his career and put up 12.9 points in his most recent season of basketball, 2017-18.  Though he sat out last year with a shoulder injury, it’s hard to attribute his struggles to rust given that out of the gates this year, he was dynamic.

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Rather, there are other factors at work.  Most noticeably has been his propensity for collecting cheap and unnecessary fouls.  In each of the last five games, he’s collected at least four fouls and in the loss to DePaul, he fouled out.

Twice in the five games since his sizzling start, he’s been held to below 20 minutes in a game and in both, Tech struggled.  In the November 21st win over Tennessee State in Lubbock, he played only 15 minutes and Tech looked rather pedestrian in a 72-57 showing.  Against Creighton in Las Vegas, he was on the court for just 16 minutes in Tech’s overtime loss.

But even when he’s been on the floor, he’s not been impactful.  After going 4-13 from the field against Iowa, a showing that saw him miss more than a couple of uncontested shots at the rim,  he’s gone two games without making a shot from the floor.  What’s more, he attempted a mere three shots and two free throws during those two games.

Many Red Raider fans are wondering if the jump from playing for a Southland Conference Team to playing for a Big 12 team is proving to be more than Holyfield can handle.  But a look at his numbers against major conference opponents suggests otherwise.

Prior to coming to Tech, in 10 games against teams from one of the six premier conferences Holyfield averaged 10.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.  Those are numbers that we would gladly accept from the New Mexico native this year.

In 2017, he had 19 points and 8 rebounds at Mississippi State and 18 points and 7 rebounds at Missouri, two SEC programs.  He also had a 15-point, 5-rebound showing at Norte Dame as a true freshman in 2016.

Thus, there’s no indication that he can’t be an effective player against major conference teams.  So we are left to wonder if perhaps he is playing out of position as Tech’s primary post player, which means he has to try to handle the opposing team’s biggest players.

That might also prove to be a misconception.  In 2017-18, when he had his best season and led SFA to the NCAA Tournament, where they played Texas Tech in the first round in Dallas, Holyfield played 27.3 minutes per game, tops on the team.  The only two players on that year’s Lumberjack roster taller than he was were the two players that played the least of any players on the team.

Thus, Holyfield was his team’s primary big man at SFA, just like he is this year at Tech.  Now, the level of post player that he had to contend with in the Southland Conference was not at the level that he will encounter this year.

But remember, neither Creighton or DePaul had dominant post players that were significantly taller or bigger than Holyfield is.  Rather, they had players that were more aggressive.

That’s what’s been surprising and frustrating about Holyfield.  He’s not yet shown the type of fire or competitive urgency that one might expect from a senior in his last go-round.

It looks as if he is thinking too much rather than playing instinctually.  Granted, the schemes Tech runs on both ends of the floor are unique and he wouldn’t be the only player on this year’s team currently trying to acclimate to Beard’s system on either end of the floor.  Still, he must be more of a warrior than a passenger.

One way his lack of aggression can be illustrated is in his offensive rebounding stats.  With a career average of 2.0 per game, he’s been rather impactful in helping his team gain extra possessions.  But this year, he’s pulling down just 1.1, which is naturally limiting the number of put-back scoring opportunities he has had, an important part of his game.

Of course, we must allow for the possibility that Holyfield is just in a bad stretch right now and if any coach can get him back to being the player that he’s been for the majority of his career, it would be Chris Beard.  But there’s no question that Tech has no choice but to give Holyfield heavy minutes while he works through this malaise.  There just aren’t any other suitable options on this roster.

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That’s why Holyfield might be the most important player on the team.  While other members of this roster are better or more talented, until Holyfield is able to be a factor, this team is at a huge disadvantage in the paint.   Thus, getting this key grad transfer back to a place of confidence and assertiveness has to be Chris Beard’s most pressing task.