Chris Beard is a perverse man. The Texas Tech coach’s idea of a perfect basketball game does not involve the quick-hitting offense, transition athleticism, and side-to-side ball movement that so often makes this such a beautiful sport. No, to Beard, basketball should be a game defined by pain and suffering. It’s an approach that has carried his Red Raiders all the way to the Elite Eight for a second year in a row.
Texas Tech put a straightjacket around Michigan in a 63-44 victory in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night in Anaheim. This was supposed to be a matchup of the top two defenses in college basketball, but only one lived up the hype.
Michigan set a record for futility by scoring only 16 points in the first half. Its 44 total points were the lowest ever for a No. 2 seed. The Wolverines didn’t make a three-pointer all night until a walk-on mercifully connected on one when the game was already in garbage time. This game was repulsive, just the way Beard likes it.
Texas Tech has been playing its brand of basketball brutalism all season. The Red Raiders are No. 1 in the country in defensive efficiency. They force turnovers, run teams off the three-point line, and contest every shot. More specifically, Beard has his team walling off the middle of the floor by pushing everything to the sideline. He has them switching every screen. And when the opposition actually does get a look at the rim, there’s a help defender — usually shot blocker Tariq Owens — there to challenge the look, if not swat it.
Michigan knows a thing or two about great defense. The Wolverines end this year No. 2 in defensive efficiency after finishing No. 3 last year. To hear Michigan players tell it, the things the Red Raiders’ defense did were almost supernatural.
“Some of the things we thought we were going to do, it was like they were in our huddle,” Livers said. “They knew what we were going to do and they took it away. Our ball-screen plays or our off-ball screen-away play, they played them how we didn’t want them to play it and it messed us up. They’d get a finger on the ball, a block, a steal, a turnover or we just hoisted something up at the end of the shot clock.”
Texas Tech had never advanced past the Sweet 16 before Beard showed up ahead of the 2016-17 season. Now the program is going to the Elite Eight for the second year in a row.
Few expected Texas Tech to sustain this type of success after emerging as an upstart last season. The Red Raiders essentially came out of nowhere a year ago, led by a fearless senior point guard in Keenan Evans and a three-star freshman who suddenly emerged as a one-and-done lottery pick in Zhaire Smith. Though Beard’s team lost to eventual champ Villanova with a trip to the Final Four on the line, the season was a triumph. No one would have anticipated an encore after the team lost five of its six leading scorers.
Instead, Texas Tech is even better this year. The defense has improved from No. 4 to No. 1 and the offense has shot up from No. 50 to No. 31 in efficiency. There’s a new lottery pick this year in breakout sophomore Jarrett Culver, the do-it-all hub of the Red Raiders’ offense. Owens was a late add to the roster as a grad transfer from St. John’s, and he’s thrived under Beard, finishing top-15 in the country in block rate, posting a hyper-efficient 65 percent true shooting percentage on offense, and emerging as a top-five player in America in BPM.
Around them, Texas Tech has shooters in Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney (who also defends) and a pair of tough guys in Brandone Francis and Deshawn Corprew. This team doesn’t look like it should be in the Elite Eight despite Culver’s all-around brilliance, but it is a roster that has proven the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Next up for Texas Tech comes its greatest challenge yet: a date with Gonzaga for the right to play in the Final Four. The ‘Zags look like the best team in college basketball right now, boasting the No. 1 offense in the country thanks to a team full of big, athletic, shot-makers. If Beard can shut them down, we really might be witnessing a historically good defensive mind.
It might not be pretty, but Beard’s distinct style of basketball is unflinchingly effective. Built around an offensive star and a defense that compromises nothing, Texas Tech has already proven its for real. Keep a cover over your eyes, because the Red Raiders aren’t done yet.