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The ultimate 2020-21 Texas Tech basketball preview

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With Tech basketball less than a week away, it’s time to take a deep dive into this year’s promising team

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Oklahoma Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been over eight months since we last saw a Chris Beard coached team in action.

On that March day, Tech narrowly lost to a top-five Kansas team. The loss would put Tech as a five seed in the Big 12 tournament, which unfortunately never happened due to coronavirus. With that, the season was over. A four-game losing streak capped a tumultuous season with many highs, such as beating the No. 1 team in the nation in Louisville, and many lows, such as getting dominated by a lowly TCU team in Fort Worth.

Overall, Tech was a lot better than their resume suggested last year. They went 18-13, but were 1-7 in one-score games, which includes losing all four overtime contests last year. The squad ended the year No. 22 in Kenpom, which is extraordinarily high for a team projected to be a 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament. With that in mind, there is a strong sense of optimism around this year’s team. With a fair amount of returning talent and the best incoming class in Texas Tech history, it makes sense to be bullish about the squad. Let’s take a look at the roster:

Guards:

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Illinois at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Returning: Kyler Edwards, Clarence Nadolny

Newcomers: Nimari Burnett, Jamarius Burton, Mac McClung

Departures: Davide Moretti, Jahmi’us Ramsey

The guards have been the most intriguing storyline heading into each of the last two seasons. In 2018 there were serious questions about who could replace Keenan Evans and Niem Stevenson as lead ball handlers (spoiler alert: Jarrett Culver), and in 2019 people were curious to see how Culver and Matt Mooney would be replaced. This year features a little less uncertainty at the guard positions, although there are still quite a few unknowns in how the rotation will be balanced.

For one, there was no true lead guard last year, so there is not much to replace in that sense. Davide Moretti saw his highest PBH (Primary Ball Handler) usage to date at Tech last year, but eventually settled into an off-ball role that suited his game much better in the Big 12 schedule. Jahmi’us Ramsey was never going to be much of a playmaker, but having an assist percentage of 16 percent and only a handful of games with more than three assists was not expected. Ramsey became more of an off-ball shooter as the season progressed, and if anything his on-ball possessions were not conducive to good team offense. Finally, Kyler Edwards was a PBH in several sets and games throughout the year, but even then his offense was largely predicated on spot-up shots from Chris Clarke-initiated offense.

This year, more self creation by all of the guards should be expected. Edwards was probably at his best last year with the ball in his hands, and without Clarke, that should be a more common scenario. Mac McClung is a high volume scorer, and while his shooting is questionable, his ball handling and self-creation is a benefit that should not be overlooked. Also he can dunk with the best of them, and brings unprecedented marketing opportunities to Tech basketball. Jamarius Burton is much more of a calculated driver, and his efforts are more focused on team-centric playmaking. His assist rate as a freshman was phenomenal, and even last year was really good. Initially it looked like he would redshirt, however with the eligibility rules granting a free year in 2020-21, it seems naïve to think that Beard will not take advantage of his ability.

Nimari Burnett is the prized possession of the 2020 recruiting class, as he is the highest ranked prospect in school history. Burnett figures to be similar to Ramsey in being more of an off-ball player under Beard, however his passing skills are more advanced than what Jahmi’us had at this time last year. Additionally, his jump shot should be effective in creating more floor space in on-ball situations, as he had pull-up ability from NBA range in high school.

Lastly, Clarence Nadolny might be able to crack the rotation this year, and if he does I would expect him to play quite a bit as a PBH. His PnR skillset is very valuable (as I elaborated on in an article from a few months back), and while he is obviously still developing fundamentally on both sides of the ball, it is not outlandish to suggest that he could be a legitimate rotation member at some point during the year.

Defensively, the guards are interesting. Last year Ramsey and Moretti were both negatives on that side of the ball to varying degrees. Moretti was always limited in on-ball assignments due to a size and strength deficiency, while Ramsey was laughably bad off the ball at times, which mitigated the tangible impact he made with two stocks per game. Kyler Edwards, on the other hand, was great last year. His steal and block rates do not jump off the page (1.6 and 1.9 respectively), but his POA defense was exceptional, and his awareness in PnR situations was a large part in Tech shutting down guards such as Devon Dotson, Charlie Moore, and Tyrese Maxey.

The new group of guards should at a minimum equal the value of Ramsey and Moretti, although my belief is that we will see better team defense from the trio. McClung is probably the most suspect defender of the bunch, as questions about his effort and commitment to defending have been noted since the high school days. With that said- watching his tape at Georgetown shows a guy that has the skillset and processing to at least be a solid team defender. Furthermore, his anticipation should allow for some easy steals, which look great on the surface level. Burton is a very similar defender to Kyler. His biggest strength is probably positioning, and although he is not a stats guy by any means, his on-ball defense is pretty solid despite a bit of a strength deficiency. Burnett is an unknown, but his instincts in high school competition seemed reasonable, and all reports seem to indicate that he is a willing defender.

Holistically, how you view this unit largely comes down to how you see them producing offensively, given that Tech was still a top ten defensive unit according to KenPom despite fielding two negative defenders at the guard position. McClung and Burnett both add on-ball dimensions to this Tech offense that were sorely missed last year, and I am confident that the guards will be a driving force for this team. While there are still some question marks- namely with shooting and on-ball defense, there is more than enough evidence that suggests a guard line-up that will give opposing Big 12 teams a headache.

Projected Starters: Mac McClung and Kyler Edwards

Key Reserves: Nimari Burnett and Jamarius Burton

Wings:

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Returning: Terrence Shannon Jr., Kevin McCullar, Avery Benson,

Newcomers: Chibuzo Agbo, Micah Peavy, Joel Ntambwe

Departures: Chris Clarke, Andrei Savrasov

One word describes why I am so excited for this position group: versatility. Seriously. Want a guy who can guard both Jared Butler and Derek Culver? Kevin McCullar is your guy. Want to have the best off-ball defender in the Big 12 on the court? Just call up Terrence Shannon. Want a 6-9 forward with a smooth jump shot and a pretty nice driving ability? Just ask Joel Ntambwe to play. Oh, and I have not even mentioned the two freshman that might be the biggest x-factors on the team in Chibuzo Agbo and Micah Peavy. Both of them have really promising defensive tape and surprisingly developed offensive games.

With all that said, there is some concern with how this group will perform offensively. While Shannon and McCullar are probably the best defensive wing duo in the conference, their jump shots are not developed, and neither are great playmakers, as they largely relied on cuts and straightline drives to score. Shannon had an absurdly high free throw rate last year, but he also struggled to consistently create for himself, and was a bit of a black hole on offense.

Micah Peavy was an exceptional scorer at the high school level, but there are serious questions in regards to his jump shot. His playmaking is an overlooked aspect of his game, and he has some nifty finishing ability, but without a shot it’s hard to justify having him be a key element of the offense.

Agbo might be my favorite player to evaluate on this team offensively. He drew a lot of free throws in high school, and his jump shot has developed from a weakness in his early high school days to arguably his biggest positive now. “Swiss Army Knife” is a term used too often to describe basketball players, but Agbo is as close as you will get to being one. His offense is extremely well rounded for a 6-7 wing, and his defense is already solid.

The one player in this group with an established offensive value is Joel Ntambwe, who might be the best self-creator on the team. He shot 38% from three point range as a freshman at UNLV, and less than 50% of his shots were assisted. Shot selection may be an issue for him, but regardless of that I expect Ntambwe to make a pretty major impact on that end of the floor.

The defensive potential of this group is absolutely enormous. I will not go too in depth about the actual schematic discussion, but McCullar’s on-ball versatility might be the single most elite trait on the team. He had a block percentage of nearly 2.0 and a steal percentage of 3.8 in his freshman year, and that only tells part of the story. In the last six games alone, he was tasked with guarding Devon Dotson, Jared Butler, Brady Manek, and Mark Vital at various points. Those are four completely different players, ranging from explosive guards to shot-hunting bigs. McCullar was as effective as they come in defending all of them.

In addition to McCullar, you also have Terrence Shannon, who made a habit of picking off passes in conference play and creating easy transition opportunities with them. Shannon’s instinctive ability makes him very valuable off the ball, especially under the scheme implemented by Mark Adams. He may be prone to some overplays, but he is very quick at processing and making assertive decisions. In a no-middle concept, that is essential, as it speeds up the decision-making required by the ball handler, and that can cause mistakes, which leads to turnover opportunities. Shannon’s on-ball ability is not bad either. He is generally good with positioning, and although he is not really aggressive, he rarely gets blown by in standard matchups.

Ntambwe had some issues with consistency as a freshman at UNLV, but it has been nearly two years since that was relevant. Given what I have heard in recent months, it sounds like Joel has worked on his defense quite a bit in Lubbock.

Both freshman are great defenders for their age. Agbo is a more versatile player in my opinion, however Peavy’s game awareness and rotational understanding is very impressive. Neither are really pesky on-ball defenders, but I would expect both to get some rotation time due to their engagement and potential on that end.

Ultimately, this group will be extremely fun to watch over the course of the year. I am genuinely excited to see Agbo and Peavy play together, and McCullar and Shannon improving even more in their sophomore years is another exciting proposition. Oh, and we may even get to see more of Avery Benson’s outstanding hustle throughout this year. That might be the best part of this season.

Projected Starters: Terrence Shannon Jr., Kevin McCullar

Key Reserves: Joel Ntambwe, Chibuzo Agbo, Micah Peavy

Bigs:

NCAA Basketball: Old Dominion at VCU Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Returning: Tyreek Smith

Newcomers: Vlad Goldin, Marcus Santos-Silva

Departures: TJ Holyfield, Russel Tchewa

Tyreek Smith technically returns from last year, but he never got to play due to injury. With TJ Holyfield, and Russel Tchewa gone, there is not a single player who started at the five slot returning for Tech this year. Enter Marcus Santos-Silva.

The easiest way to describe Santos-Silva would be tough. The VCU grad-transfer is notoriously scrappy on the boards, averaging almost nine rebounds per game, and he racks up a lot of counting stats defensively purely from hustle. His touch around the rim cannot be overlooked on offense, though, as he shot nearly 70% in the paint over the last two years. With that said, his calling card is his ability to act as an anchor on defense and secure rebounds. The former might not be as much of a strength for him as it was for Holyfield and previously Tariq Owens, but the rebounding is something he provides in spades, and that is an element of play that Tech has constantly struggled with under Chris Beard. It was most notable last year due to the defensive lapses being more prevalent, but Tech’s rebounding has consistently been outside the top 50 nationally under Beard.

Offensively, Santos-Silva probably cannot be expected to do a ton outside of finishing and some midrange shooting. He has yet to attempt a three pointer in his college career, and his free throw shooting is not spectacular by any means. Still, he is a high feel player who finds way to make impactful plays without demanding a high usage. Any sort of scoring that is not from tips or layups is a bonus from Santos-Silva, and I would expect his defense and rebounding to be the true impact that he makes on this team.

Beyond Santos-Silva, Smith is an athletic freak who should see some playing time this year, although it is unclear how he really fits in. His finishing and rim protection is promising, but he still needs to develop as a team defender and improve his half-court offense to receive serious rotational minutes. Vlad Goldin is the only player on this roster who I do not have at least a page of notes on, however I can tell you he is actually decently fluid for his size, though obviously his game awareness needs work. I would imagine he will be a lot like a Josh Mballa type of development project for Beard, and I doubt we see him for more than two minutes in any given game.

Projected Starter: Marcus Santos-Silva

Final Thoughts

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I am really looking forward to seeing this team in action. People will make comparisons to the team that went to the Final 4 in 2019, but honestly I see this team as being most similar to the 2018 squad led by Keenan Evans. The wings are so versatile, the guards have a lot of self-creation ability, and there are no less than ten guys who deserve serious minutes. There is a very real possibility that someone like Micah Peavy or Chibuzo Agbo could be left out of the rotation entirely, which is absurd given that both of those guys would be the centerpiece of a recruiting class in most years prior to Chris Beard. We are living in the golden age of Texas Tech basketball, and I truly believe this team will be special. There are a couple of uncertain areas that may limit team success- namely the shooting and rim protection, but I am very bullish on this team. Quite simply, there has never been a more talented team in Lubbock. This year should be fun.

FINAL ROSTER PROJECTIONS:

Starters: Kyler Edwards, Mac McClung, Terrence Shannon Jr., Kevin McCullar, Marcus Santos-Silva

Key Reserves: Jamarius Burton, Nimari Burnett, Joel Ntambwe, Micah Peavy, Chibuzo Agbo

Spot minutes: Clarence Nadolny, Tyreek Smith, Vlad Goldin, Avery Benson