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It’s time to give Tchewa more minutes

With the three games coming up don’t let them tell you any different: size matters.

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Look at the conference table right now. After playing a third of our conference game we’re .500 along with Oklahoma and staring down the barrel of a tough three-game stretch against teams above us (Oklahoma included, by overall record). Though still twelve games from the end of the regular season, the next three in particular are critical to redirecting our otherwise dire course.

Tomorrow night we face off against West Virginia again; a team hellbent on disrupting any rhythm or efficiency you thought your team had. Then on Saturday we head to the Phog to take on a Kansas team with possibly its best defense in a while. Finally our trio rounds out with a visit from Oklahoma next Tuesday. An in-depth analysis on our game against West Virginia has already been published, but we can take a piece of what Ryan Mainville mentioned and expand it over all three contests:

“...when 7 footer Russell Tchewa came into the Kentucky matchup, he played great defense in the post which included an incredible block. Tchewa scored 4 points in just 5 minutes of game time. As Holyfield continues to be hesitant and inconsistent, the desire is growing for Tchewa to see more time on the court. Unfortunately, Tchewa is likely not yet conditioned enough to play big minutes for this team and is definitely not ready to start. Hopefully, Chris Beard will make it a priority for Russell Tchewa to play more and develop him as a player and athlete.”

It’s been obvious all season. Our lack of ability (or effort) to rebound and box out has been an Achilles heel for this basketball team all when it counts. What’s worse is that pretty much every player holds some blame for a lack of toughness under the basket. It’s incredibly frustrating for Red Raider fans -understandably- after trying to replace the defensive production of Tariq Owens and Matt Mooney. Regarding length it appeared that Holyfield (2 inches shorter than Owens) would be able to fill that gap, but has not proven as much *yet*.

Against West Virginia, 6’9 Freshman Oscar Tshiebwe dominated the high ground all game with a supreme 17 rebounds and 4 blocks. He’s not the whole reason West Virginia tossed us around like a wet tortilla, but he exposed a big reason we ended up in that predicament: size. Tshiebwe is only one inch taller than the more experienced Holyfield but it was dramatically apparent that we’re not going to be able to out-tough the taller teams in our conference. So why not rely on science? The man who needs no presentation: Russell Tchewa.

Kentucky v Texas Tech Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

Last Saturday the crowd roared as the 7-foot, 260lb center took the floor and he was feeling that energy. It took only five minutes to see enough of Tchewa that has convinced me of improvement worth added playtime. In just the box score Big Russ had a blocked shot, a reverse layup, and a confident jumper from right under the arc. Five minutes! Then beyond the score sheet he made an effort play to open up a Chris Clarke jumper, boxed out EJ Richards for Kentucky, and obliterated Ashton Hagans’ lane after getting the step on Edwards. Let’s look at some of these a bit closer.

The most obvious advantage of Tchewa is his height. The seven-footer is in an elite club that doesn’t have to work too hard to get their hands to the rim; exclusive being an appropriate term for that membership. Putting Tchewa between a n y b o d y and the rim gives you the mathematical advantage in whether they a) take a shot and b) the percentage of probability that shot goes in. If they do try to drive the lane then they’ve got a wall to overcome. Here is Immanuel Quickley figuring that out the hard way.

And here is Hagans trying to get around Edwards only to find Big Russ waiting for him. Hagans turned the ball over after a carry, presumably expecting one outcome and trying to adjust mid-dribble with Tchewa’s continued pressure.

Now at this point in the season we can agree that Tech’s defense is pretty solid and forces opponents to take shots they otherwise wouldn’t like to take. Where we waste those defensive possessions is on the rebound; usually accumulating in second chance points. Let’s insert Tchewa under the rim and see how he does.

You can see Kentucky’s 6’10 forward EJ Montgomery trying to sneak up the backside of the basket for the rebound, but Tchewa picked him up and rendered his size obsolete. Teams have game-in and game-out rebounded over us with players with less talent and less size Montgomery. I’ll concede that Tchewa wouldn’t be able to do that every possession, but you can’t see him force Montgomery out of play and think “Tchewa hurts this team defensively.” You just can’t.

Offensively Big Russ has plenty of work to do going forward but offered a lot of hope in his five minutes against Kentucky. Again, size is the advantage near the basket. There are extremely minimal exceptions to that and to make the point even clearer look at Tchewa in this play.

He is playing the middle and mostly watching the ball rotate around him, then when Edwards starts to drive the lane he moves out of the way. The Kentucky players bite hard on Edwards who, rightly, tosses it off to Tchewa. Big Russ catches it on his body, turns, takes contact and makes a wonderful reverse layup. Nothing in that exchange made me feel like Tchewa is ready to be a long-term piece in this offense BUT regardless he gets us a basket. Physically. Again, physically it is damn hard to deny Tchewa at the rim. What about from the field?

The most important thing about this play is that Kentucky abandons Big Russ once it looks like he’s setting up a screen. While a lot of this article focuses on his physicality, and this examination is no different, there’s a lot to love about the big man hitting a bucket during his time on the court. The commentators said it best, “no hesitation on that shot!” which is exactly what this offense needs when opportunities present themselves. Then finally Tchewa has proved himself to be an incredible asset at setting up open looks.

LOOK HOW MUCH GROUND HE COVERS TO SET UP CLARKE. Was it intuition? Was it drawn up? Either way this is a clear representation of the kind of player that Tchewa can be even off the ball. There’s a clip I didn’t take the time to make where Tchewa one hand lasers a beautiful pass to Benson out wide; but you can just see the little improvements and awareness that he’s growing into.

All this being said: there are a number of reasons why dumping Tchewa more minutes in games is a gamble. His size precludes an obvious need for a lot of conditioning, because he can get burnt pretty quickly - at that point he’s of no help to anybody. His overall understanding and confidence in his roll on this team. Tchewa is the biggest player on a team that is used to running smaller, or at least more agile players. It is apparent that Big Russ still is learning his assignments on both sides of the floor, but I would rebuttal myself here and argue that Kentucky showed us a lot of growth in a short period of time.

How will we know whether more minutes are sustainable for Tchewa without playing him? Whether you like it or not West Virginia (Tshiebwe), Kansas (Azubuike), and Oklahoma (Manek) are about to give us a run for our money under the rim. We need the size of Russell Tchewa to keep things as even as possible.