One of the stars from Tuesday night’s victory at Kansas State, Kevin McCullar Jr. has started to come into his own for the Texas Tech basketball program.
We all knew that for this year’s version of Texas Tech basketball to reach the lofty heights of the previous two Red Raider teams, some of the seven freshmen on this roster were going to have to grow up in a hurry. While you could argue that true freshmen Jahmi’us Ramsey and Terrence Shannon Jr. arrived fully grown and ready to compete at the highest levels, the Red Raiders have been waiting for at least one more member of the 2019 signing class to emerge.
It now appears that redshirt freshman Kevin McCullar Jr. is that guy. As the importance of games has ramped up during Big 12 play, the 6-foot-6 guard is playing his best ball of the season.
That was certainly the case in Tuesday night’s win at Kansas State. The San Antonio native matched a career-high with 10 points while giving his team five rebounds and three steals in a 77-63 victory
“I just wanted to come in and contribute and do my role,” McCullar said. “Play hard, make plays on the defensive end and let the offense come to me.”
To say that he contributed would be selling his impact short. Though Kyler Edwards got most of the headlines after a career-high 24 points, McCullar made what were arguably the two most critical plays of the game. Both came on the offensive glass.
With his team clinging to a 49-48 advantage after having lost a 15-point first-half lead, McCullar fought for position on the offensive glass to grab a missed Davide Moretti 3-pointer. Knifing between two KSU players, he got the board and muscled the ball back up through contact for a bucket and a foul. After knocking down his free throw, he had given his team just a bit of breathing room but more importantly, he had seized momentum from the home team and quieted the KSU crowd, which was into the game for the first time all night.
Two possessions later, with his team ahead 55-50, McCullar again put on his grown man pants and did the dirty work his team needed. After he missed a tough layup in traffic, McCullar tipped the ball up twice, the second time putting it home to push the lead to seven points.
Those are the type of plays that have become a huge part of what he’s giving his team. Because he might be one of the least reliable outside shooters on the roster and his ball-handling is often suspect, he’s going to have to help his team in unconventional ways for a guard.
Not only will his length and athleticism continue to be an asset defensively, but he must also continue to use those attributes on the glass to help offset his team’s general lack of size. That’s something he’s started to do with some consistency in Big 12 play.
Against Oklahoma State to open conference play, he had seven points and a steal. Then he gave his team six points, four rebounds, and a steal at West Virginia. In between that, he was held scoreless against Baylor as Beard shortened his bench to only six players resulting in just three minutes for McCullar.
But in the last two games the freshman, who decided to skip his senior year of high school basketball so that he could enroll early at Tech, has been called upon to take up some of the slack for the missing Terrence Shannon Jr., who has been battling a sore back. Averaging 18 minutes per game in Shannon’s stead, McCullar has started to come of age at a point in the season when the light bulb often begins to flicker for first-year players.
“I just try to come in and help my team and do whatever I need to do to help us win,” he said when asked about his 3-point play that sparked an 11-2 run.
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The last two games put an end to a streak of three-straight outings in which McCullar spent less than 10 minutes on the floor. Naturally, that has come as a result of Shannon’s absence, which has shifted Chris Clarke back into the starting lineup.
After the way McCullar has responded to his increase in minutes, there’s no doubt that he will continue to see more time on the court. That’s especially true because he’s proving to be an energy player who can spark his teammates with hustle and defense.
“He’s overcome a lot of adversity,” Beard said after the game. “He’s had two injuries, he didn’t play his senior year of high school. He just hasn’t played basketball in a long time. So starting to get his legs under him. The guy’s obviously talented. It’s never been about basketball with Mac, it’s about getting him healthy.”
If McCullar can continue to give his team the type of effort that we’ve seen in the last two games, especially on the boards, he will become an even more integral component of this team that he already is. It’s a role that a player like Deshawn Corprew filled last year.
Of course, the former JUCO transfer was dismissed from the team this offseason after Title IX allegations were brought against him. At times, it has been evident that this roster has missed the toughness Corprew brought off the bench as a dogged perimeter defender and a fearless rebounder.
Now, McCullar is starting to become a player who is filling Corprew’s shoes. Unfortunately, he doesn’t shoot the ball nearly as well as Corprew did last year (the sophomore shot 40% from 3-point range a season ago) but he has the ability to be a hard-nosed defender and a player who mixes it up in the paint against bigger players.
“He wants to play, he wants to win so bad,” Beard said. “But there’s a patience factor to this when you’re young and you didn’t have an offseason. Really proud of Mac. His teammates were as happy as he was in that locker room because the guy works really hard and on any given day in our practices, he’s one of the best players on the floor. So tonight, it was a great individual night for Mac.”
Indeed, it does appear that the patience Beard and his staff have extended McCullar is beginning to yield positive results. Just as the heart of Big 12 play arrives, this key freshman is starting to grow up and that maturation process is something this team certainly needs to continue.