Texas Tech basketball: Key to 2020-21 could be improvement of two sophomores

For the Texas Tech basketball team to be a title contender in 2020-21, the improvement of Kevin McCullar Jr. and Terrence Shannon Jr. may be the biggest key.

During the Chris Beard era, the yearly roster churning that seems to result in at least half of the roster’s departure has become a near obsession for Texas Tech basketball fans.  But while the addition of new faces is always exciting, it may be the improvement of sophomores Kevin McCullar Jr. and Terrence Shannon Jr. that turns the Red Raiders into Big 12 and even National Title contenders.

With the recent realization that former UNLV transfer Joel Ntambwe isn’t likely to be on the team this year as he is expected to play in the G League (he is the only member of the 2020-21 roster who is not working out in Lubbock at this time), more focus and responsibility will fall upon McCullar and Shannon.  In fact, now it seems likely that both will start as the impending departure of Ntambwe opens up a forward spot in the starting lineup.

Last season, McCullar and Shannon played essentially the same role for the Red Raiders.  In fact, when Shannon lost his starting job in February, it was McCullar who took his place for the final six games of the year.

But now, expect that tandem to enter the season as favorites to man the wing positions for Tech.  And if that transpires, the assumed sophomore improvement that most expect from second-year players will play a huge role in determining Tech’s success.

Last year, Shannon averaged 9.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.  But after a strong start that saw him average 12.1 points per game for the first 18 games, he put up just 6.0 per contest over the season’s final 11.

Meanwhile, McCullar’s season followed an opposite trajectory.  In his first 21 games, he mustered a mere 4.3 points per game but over the final eight games of the year, he scored 10.6 per outing.

Now, during the offseason, both are being hyped as potential breakout candidates.  And that praise is coming from people inside the program.

Georgetown transfer Mac McClung is already hyping Shannon after less than a week of working out with his new teammate in an official capacity.  In fact, the brash guard is proclaiming that Shannon will be an eventual lottery pick.

But perhaps the greatest praise for the Chicago native has come from a pretty tough man to please, assistant coach Mark Adams.  Last week, the man credited with being the architect of the Texas Tech defense tweeted that Shannon will be an all-conference player when he becomes more consistent on the defensive end of the floor.

It’s believed that Shannon’s move to the bench last year was due to a lack of intensity on defense.  But a player with his size (6-foot-7, 210-pounds) and athleticism should be a lockdown defender and rebounder and that’s the greatest area of improvement that Tech needs to see from the sophomore.

In addition, he also has work to do when it comes to his outside touch.  The lefty shot just 25.7% from beyond the arc last year meaning that defenders were able to sag off of him in order to guard against his lightning-quick first step to the basket.  If he can shoot at around 30% from deep this year, he will be nearly unguardable and it will help the Red Raiders replace the offense lost by the departures of three of last season’s top five scorers (Jahmi’us Ramsey, Davide Moretti, and T.J. Holyfield).

Speaking of shooting the ball, McCullar must make strides in that area as well.  After all, he was the third-worst outside shooter in the Texas Tech rotation last year (ahead of only Shannon and Chris Clarke).

At just 28.7% from deep, McCullar was not able to threaten teams offensively as the majority of his offense came as a result of doing dirty work like cleaning up the offensive glass.  But Tech was going to depend on Ntambwe to open up the floor for players like Shannon and incoming freshman Nimari Burnett to drive to the bucket.

Ntambwe is a skilled offensive player who has a consistent mid-range jumper and if he isn’t part of next year’s team, McCullar will not be able to be the same type of player offensively that he was last year.  If the San Antonio native doesn’t make teams respect his jump shot, it will allow them to clog the lane thus making it easier to defend Shannon and the rest of Tech’s slashers.

The good news is that McCullar shot 40% from 3-point range in the final eight games of this past season.  During that span, he also shot 59.6% from the floor overall as it seems like the lightbulb came on.

McCullar is already viewed as the team’s best perimeter defender, as was the case during his redshirt freshman season.  In fact, last week, Adams referred to him as a possible defensive leader thanks to his instincts.

But he is going to have to become more of an offensive threat this year after putting up a respectable 6.0 points per game in 2019-20.  Meanwhile, Shannon has to make the defensive end of the floor as much of a priority as the offensive end.  If both happen, Tech could have two all-conference caliber sophomore forwards and the 2020-21 Red Raiders will be a nightmare to deal with.


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