Saturday, business will pick up significantly for the Texas Tech basketball team as the Red Raiders kick off Big 12 play with a tough road test at No. 20 Texas. Fortunately, Grant McCasland's team appears to be playing its best basketball as conference play arrives.
Currently 11-2 on the season, Tech is riding a season-long six-game winning streak. What's more, five of those wins have been of the double-digit variety.
Now, it must be pointed out that the level of competition has not been great. Only one of the teams Tech has beaten in the last six games was from a major conference and that team was Vanderbilt, a squad that is currently just 5-8 overall this season.
In fact, Tech's best win during the current winning streak was likely against Oral Roberts out of the Summit League. Yes, the Golden Eagles are just 6-7 overall but that's because they have played a number of money games where they've been paid to play on the campus of some major conference opponents such as Tech, Texas A&M, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State. Still, ORU is a sneaky-good team that might just find itself dancing again in March.
When good teams play poor teams, though, they are supposed to dispatch them easily and that's what Tech has done in recent weeks. That's because the Red Raiders are playing some quality basketball right now.
For example, Tech is taking great care of the basketball. Averaging just 10.3 turnovers per game since its last loss, this team has had only one game with more than 12 giveaways during this winning streak.
In a related stat, Tech's assist-to-turnover ratio during its winning streak is 111: 62 or 18.5: 10.5 per game. That's a ratio that will win games in Big 12 play but can it sustain against more rugged competition?
Also, the 3-pointer has become a reliable weapon for Tech in recent games. Going 63-153 in the last six games, the Red Raiders have shot 41.1% from deep as a team. That's fantastic. What's more, in four of those contests, the team has made at least 10 shots from beyond the arc.
At the free-throw line, McCasland's team is also dominating. Going 96-117 in the last six games, Tech is shooting 82.5% as a team. Also, the Red Raiders have made 96 free throws during that time while their opponents have attempted just 76. While that disparity won't carry over into Big 12 play, the fact that this team is the best in the conference at the line and the fact that it doesn't foul much will only help the chances of success in league action.
Individual players are also rounding into form, especially some of the Red Raider guards. That begins with Pop Isaacs, the reigning Big 12 Player of the Week.
In the last month, Isaacs has averaged 17.7 points and 4.0 assists per game. What's more, he's shot 31.9% from 3-point range, a noticeable improvement over the start of the year when his 3-point percentage hovered around 20%.
Meanwhile, Kerwin Walton is playing the best basketball of his career. Since entering the starting lineup on December 12, five games ago, he's averaged 11.2 points per game and has shot 50% from beyond the arc.
If you take out the game against UT-Arlington in which the former North Carolina transfer played through an illness but didn't register a point, he's averaged 14 points per game. What's also fascinating about Walton is that he's yet to turn the ball over this season.
Why this uptick in play has been impressive is that it has all come without Devan Cambridge in the lineup. The versatile forward who was one of the Red Raiders' most important players was lost for the year in the first game of this winning streak, the 87-58 win over Omaha on December 6th due to a leg injury.
One might have assumed that Tech would take some time to adjust to life without Cambridge but the team hasn't missed a beat in his absence. Of course, playing a string of games against poor teams helped in that matter.
Now, we are about to find out if this recent run of good play will sustain itself in the Big 12. In the next six games, Tech will face four top-20 teams with three of those games being on the road.
That means that life will become increasingly more challenging and the days of stress-free games for fans are over for the remainder of the year. However, the good news is that McCasland seems to have found a way to have his team firing on all cylinders at an optimal time.