Friday, the 2023-24 Big 12 basketball preseason poll was released and it proves that no one quite knows what to make of Texas Tech. Sitting at No. 8, Tech is right in the range where dark horse teams usually rise from but, that is also a place where bubble teams typically begin the season.
Therein lies the conundrum when trying to predict what the Red Raiders will be in the first year of the Grant McCasland era. Not only is there uncertainty about what McCasland will be able to do in his first stint as a head coach in a major conference, but also, the roster he has assembled is one of the hardest to assess in the conference, if not the nation.
Why Texas Tech is so difficult to predict in 2023-24
Whenever a new coach begins to guide a program, there is a sense of uncertainty, especially when it comes to his first season. That’s only multiplied by the fact that McCasland arrives with no experience above the mid-major level of the sport.
On one hand, his success thus far as he’s worked his way from the JUCO ranks to now leading one of the most well-funded programs in the NCAA is impressive. His overall record is 352-121 for a .744 winning percentage.
What’s more, he’s never had a winning percentage below .625 at any of his head coaching stops. That might suggest that his methods and systems translate across all levels of the game.
On the other hand, He’s never had to compete at the level that he will be asked to in the Big 12. Can he win at a high level in the toughest and deepest conference in the country? Can he recruit at the level that he must in order to have rosters that can rival Kansas, Houston, Arizona, and other top-flight teams that will be in this conference?
He certainly took an interesting approach when assembling his first team at Texas Tech. That’s another reason that few people know what to expect from the Red Raiders this season.
It appears that McCasland is a huge proponent of establishing his culture over everything else. A defensive-minded coach, he wants players who are going to buy in on both ends of the floor. The good news is that’s consistent with the values that Texas Tech has been trying to cultivate during the past decade. Therefore, McCasland’s style and approach might feel rather familiar to fans and the returning players.
What that philosophy meant in terms of building his roster, though, was that he didn’t necessarily target superstar transfers in the portal. Rather, he found a collection of role players who fit the mold of what he wants both physically and mentally.
Of the five scholarship transfers McCasland brought in this offseason, none averaged more than the 10.9 points per game that junior guard Chance McMillian averaged last year. What’s more, McMillian put up that scoring average at Grand Canyon, which plays in the Western Athletic Conference, a far cry from the Big 12.
However, all of them put up at least 7.7 points per game in 2022-23. Thus, this might be a roster built not around a defined star but rather around depth.
Rosters without name-brand superstars often don’t receive a ton of attention from pollsters in the preseason. That’s because it is easier for a voter to just base her/his vote on recognizable player names, established head coaches, and the history of the program.
To fully grasp what this Texas Tech roster could be, voters would actually have to research the newcomers and understand their games to find out how they might flourish under McCasland’s watch. We all know that’s not going to happen so Tech was predictably placed right in the middle of the pack.
The No. 8 spot is not high enough to make anyone look foolish for predicting big things from the Red Raiders but it is not so low that it will turn any heads either. Rather, it is a safe place to put a program that has built up some benefit of the doubt over the past eight years but which is also in a transition year.
Naturally, Kansas sits atop the poll, and don’t be surprised if the Jayhawks open the year as the No. 1 team in the national polls as well. They have a head coach with two national titles in Bill Self, the top transfer in the country in Hunter Dickinson, and the richest tradition of any program in the sport.
Houston was a safe pick for No. 2 in the Big 12 poll. But will the loss of last season’s star guard, Marcus Sasser (16.8 points per game) take them down a notch? It’s certainly possible. Also, will the grind of the Big 12 provide a rude awakening for a program that has coasted through the American Athletic Conference for the past several years? Likely.
Texas, Baylor, TCU, Kansas State, and Iowa State are the other teams ahead of the Red Raiders (in that order). The one thing those programs have in common is that their head coaches are thought of positively. Baylor and TCU have well-established veteran coaches with decades of results at the highest levels of the sport. Meanwhile, the Horns, Wildcats, and Cyclones have exciting new coaches who have had instant success in their short tenures in the Big 12.
Maybe McCasland can do this year what KSU’s Jerome Tang did last season in leading the Wildcats to the Elite 8 in his first season in Manhattan. Maybe he can get Tech to the NCAA Tournament with a completely rebuilt roster and then, who knows, maybe the Red Raiders can make noise in March.
If that happens, Tech will likely get a greater benefit of the doubt in next year’s Big 12 preseason poll. Of course, the great thing about preseason polls is that they don’t really matter.
That’s why it is fine that Tech sits buried in the middle of this year’s Big 12 poll. The reality is that no one really knows what to expect from McCasland and the Red Raiders and that is what will make the upcoming season so fascinating.