Texas Tech basketball: Are Red Raiders about to repeat critical mistake?

Feb 25, 2023; Lubbock, Texas, USA; A general view of the Texas Tech Double T on the court before the game between the TCU Horned Frogs and the Texas Tech Red Raiders at United Supermarkets Arena. Mandatory Credit: Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 25, 2023; Lubbock, Texas, USA; A general view of the Texas Tech Double T on the court before the game between the TCU Horned Frogs and the Texas Tech Red Raiders at United Supermarkets Arena. Mandatory Credit: Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /

With the resurgence of the Texas Tech basketball program over the past decade, following the offseason roster building process has become a near obsession for many Red Raider fans.  That’s especially true this year given the arrival of new head coach Grant McCasland.

Many interested observers have taken a hard look at what the former UNT head coach is doing in the way of managing his scholarship count and assembling the type of talent that will be required to be competitive in the nation’s most rugged conference and as we look at the players we know will be on the team this fall, it is hard not to fear that McCasland might be repeating a critical mistake that was a large factor in the downfall of his predecessor, Mark Adams.

Thus far, McCasland has 10 scholarship players set to suit up for him in his inaugural campaign on the High Plains.  Of that group, five players (Pop Isaacs, Lamar Washington, Robert Jennings, KyeRon Lindsay, and Nevada transfer Darrion Williams) are true sophomores.  What’s more, two other scholarships are set to go to incoming true freshmen Drew Steffe and Jason Jackson.

That means that the only three players on the roster at this time who are upperclassmen are seniors Kerwin Walton and D’Maurian Williams, neither of whom can be counted on to be difference makers this season given that each was essentially a passenger on last year’s team despite the desperate need that squad had for guards with the ability to shoot the ball from deep, and junior transfer Chance McMillan who has spent the last three years at mighty Grand Canyon University.

In other words, we could be looking at another season in which the Red Raiders are one of the youngest teams in the league and, as we saw last year, that isn’t a great way to approach a season.  Sure, McCasland is certain to target older players with his remaining scholarships.  (He’s also guaranteed to add some size as well given that the 6-foot-7 Jennings is Tech’s only post presence at this moment.)  But, regardless of how he fills out his team, McCasland is already committed to relying heavily on underclassmen in 2023-24 and that is a risky gamble.

There was once a time when fans of a young team could manage the frustrations of inevitable growing pains by hanging onto the hope that as the pups on the roster matured, they would turn into grizzled, undaunted veterans.  However, in the modern age of the NCAA, the likelihood of a player staying with a program for three or four seasons is infinitesimal.

Also, there was once a time when young players were allowed to ease into major roles at the collegiate level.  Now, though, players are expected to contribute almost as soon as they register for Freshman English.

What’s more, the transfer portal has made it commonplace for major conference teams to be comprised almost entirely of upperclassmen with only the occasional true freshman star sprinkled into the mix.  Therefore, a program that decides to lean heavily into a youth movement, as Tech did this past season, is going to be at a decided disadvantage as they throw their 18 and 19-year-olds up against teams featuring entire rotations of players that have been legally purchasing alcohol for two or even three years.

McCasland is not naive to that.  In fact, when he was interviewed on the May 3rd edition of the “College Hoops Today” podcast hosted by Jon Rothstein, he spoke specifically to the value of experience in the world of college basketball.

"“We’ve got a young roster.” McCasland admitted.  “I think that’s what is difficult about college basketball, as you know.  Experience wins.  So, I do think guys got great experience [last season] but we’ve had some big pieces who’ve moved on from last year’s team, who’ve entered the transfer portal so we’re gonna be on that journey of continuing to grow [the program].”"

To know how important age is in college hoops, understand that last season’s Big 12 regular season champs, Kansas, had only one sophomore and one freshman play more than 9 minutes per game.  Similarly, conference tournament champion Texas saw only one sophomore, one redshirt freshman, and one true freshman log 10 or more minutes per contest.  Meanwhile, Tech had five underclassmen log double-digit minutes while Jennings came close to that number at just below 9.

Now, it is likely that the next version of the Red Raiders might rely even more heavily on sophomores and freshmen.  With seniors De’Vion Harmon and Kevin Obanor now gone after leading the team in time on the court last year, their replacements at this point in time are set to be much younger and less experienced.  That’s because McCasland has seemingly prioritized adding players via the portal who have multiple years of eligibility remaining and that is a risky proposition when looking for immediate contention.

In the long run, that plan might yield some amazing results.  Of course, we can’t count on that coming to fruition given the ease with which players move programs these days.

Teams like the 2018 Elite 8 squad, which featured career-long Red Raiders like Keenan Evans, Norense Odiase, Justin Gray, and Zach Smith all in their fourth years on campus, are going to be extremely rare in the sport moving forward.  Instead, teams like the 2019 National Runner-up, which featured grad transfers Tariq Owens and Matt Mooney, and the 2022 Sweet 16 team comprised of eight newcomers (7 of which were upperclassmen), are likely to be what we see become the norm across the nation.

So here’s hoping that McCasland can successfully find a balance when it comes to the age of the players on his roster.  It will be imperative that with his remaining scholarships, he not only finds players that can contribute in meaningful ways but that he also brings to the locker room some age and experience.  If he can’t, his first season might look painfully similar to the disastrous season that we just witnessed.