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What we learned from the 2020-2021 Texas Tech basketball season

A chaotic season has concluded for the Red Raiders. Here is what we gathered from it.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Texas Tech at Arkansas Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

The season is over for Texas Tech basketball.

It seems like just yesterday I was previewing what looked to be a stacked team and diving into Northwestern State film in preparation for the first game of the year, but now the season is over. Tech lost in heartbreaking fashion to Arkansas in the Round of 32, which ended their season in abrupt fashion after only 29 games. We will have more analysis of that game on the site, but for now, I think it’s fair to reflect on what was learned throughout the entire season.

Tech went 18-11 this year. They finished inside the top 20 in adjusted efficiency according to both Kenpom and Barttorvik, and they were ranked inside the AP Top 25 for every week of the season, which is something that had never been done in program history. A couple individual players enjoyed great seasons as well, with Mac McClung winning Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and Terrence Shannon playing himself into first round contention for the NBA Draft. Those are some of the more surface level observations, but here are a few of my takeaways from covering this team all year long:

Chris Beard’s winning culture is not going away, regardless of what happens in a season

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I’m usually not one to cover basketball or sports in general in a sentimental way, but I do have to admire what Chris Beard has been able to do in just five years at Tech. This team was supposed to be one of the best that he has ever coached, but the in-season turmoil easily surpassed anything else that he has had to deal with in Lubbock, and that is not even mentioning the COVID-19 issues that coaches around the nation had to deal with. It started with Kevin McCullar spraining his ankle just one day before the season started, and then just three games into the season Joel Ntambwe left the program. That seemed like a huge blow, as Tech had just come off a big loss to Houston where shooting issues were first uncovered. Things would run smoothly for a bit, but then Terrence Shannon sprained an ankle against Grambling State, which would be the start of an ongoing limitation that TJ was never able to really recover from throughout the year.

Finally, the most crushing story of the year came when Nimari Burnett, the program’s first ever five-star recruit and prized possession of the 2020 class, decided to transfer after only 12 games. At that point- it would have been easy for Tech to fold. They were 9-3, had two of their key players gone and another two banged up, and had no real rotation established. Despite all that, they kept fighting, and played their best stretch of the year after Burnett left the program. The run eventually fizzled out, but even with a tough end to the year it was still impressive to see how the team fought. I do not have any doubts about the culture and identity that Chris Beard has created at Tech, and the ability to fight through the adversity of this year was truly remarkable.

Having guards that can drive and finish at the rim is critical for offensive success

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Texas Tech at Arkansas Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Both Kyler Edwards and Mac McClung had good seasons, but I do not think it is a stretch to think that both of them were not in the elite tier of Big 12 guards. Why? Well, both had their struggles playing as lead guard at points, with Edwards struggling at times to be assertive scoring the ball and McClung struggling quite a bit down the stretch to be able to create plays for others when defenses keyed in on stopping him.

With that said- neither guy was ever able to consistently finish at the rim, which in college basketball is typically critical for success as a guard. McClung shot just 48% at the rim against top 100 teams, while Edwards was down at 37% on only 24 attempts during those 17 games. Tech only shot around 33% from three on the season, so getting to the rim and getting better looks from it was critical, and I do not think either lead guard was able to do this consistently enough. That is not to take anything away from Kyler and Mac- both are exceptional talents in their own right. Kyler was a great shooter through the year, and his all-around impact was bigger than any other player on the team in my eyes. Mac was an elite volume scorer at points this season, and his eight game stretch to start Big 12 play might be the best shooting stretch we have seen from a player under Beard at Tech.

A true big is not needed for Tech to succeed on either end of the court

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Texas Tech at Arkansas Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the season there was a lot of talk about Tech’s interior depth. Marcus Santos-Silva was the only proven big on the roster, and he was a 6-7 transfer from VCU that did not have the frame to match some of the bigs in the conference. People expected MSS to play close to 30 minutes per night, but he only averaged around 23. Tyreek Smith was a completely unproven commodity entering the year, but he was able to carve out a consistent spot in the rotation, playing in all 29 games and averaging close to nine minutes per contest. Both guys are only 6-7, but even then they managed to play well as rim protectors, as Tech ranked top 35 nationally in blocking shots and top 30 in two-point defensive field goal percentage.

Rebounding was somewhat of an issue, but that has been a recurring theme for Chris Beard-led Tech squads, even when Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase were in town. Tech likes to play small, athletic, and switchable lineups, so it is natural to assume that they are willing to give up a bit of rebounding advantage to play their brand of basketball.

I really do not see the point in pursuing a true big unless they have the lateral quickness to play great help defense and switch on to the perimeter. MSS and Smith were good fits because of those abilities, but I have serious doubts that a guy like Walker Kessler (who Tech fans seem to be clamoring over) would have the quickness to justify giving him serious minutes. The shot blocking and rebounding that a true big can provide are nice, but both of those quantities tend to be overvalued at times, and I think maintaining positional versatility is much more important in constructing a roster going forward.

The young players have a bright future

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On the surface level, it might not seem like Tech’s young guys played a huge part in this season, but their contributions picked up at the end of the year, and there is reason to believe that they will be great in the next couple of years.

Micah Peavy is the most obvious example of a young player that made a mark this year, as the freshman started 25 games, averaged 5.7 points per game, and made several huge effort plays through the year that made him a fan favorite. His playmaking improved throughout the year as well, although I still think there is room for him to become a smarter passer and generally improve as a primary ball handler. The two things he will need to work on to take the next step as a player are improving his jump shot tremendously and shoring up his off-ball defense, but the potential is there for Peavy to be an outstanding player.

Tyreek Smith was probably the biggest positive surprise of the season for many Tech fans. The 6’7 big from Baton Rouge was seen by many (including myself) as a guy that would not be in the rotation, but throughout the year he earned increased minutes and blossomed into a very efficient player. He had the best BPM on the team in conference play, and his block rate was consistently over ten percent. Smith’s jump shot also showed signs of improvement throughout the year, and his lateral ability on defense was something that really impressed me. He is still a bit raw as a player. but I expect Smith to see a much bigger role next season, regardless of who stays or leaves.

Clarence Nadolny and Chibuzo Agbo both saw increased opportunities as the season went on, and I believe both showed quite a few flashes in the limited time that they received. Nadolny finally cracked the rotation at the end of the year, and his playmaking and jump shot had clearly improved from his freshman campaign. Agbo showed signs of why he was viewed so highly by certain Tech fans (i.e. myself) in limited action, as his sweet shot and off-ball movement made him a unique piece for an offense that at times struggled in both of those areas. It was hard to get a good read on both guys throughout the year, but I firmly believe that they can be impact players for the Red Raiders in the very near future.

Finally, Vlad Goldin showed a couple really interesting traits that at least make him a potentially useful player in the coming years. His shot is very advanced compared to where I thought it was at coming into the year, and his defensive rotations were surprisingly very decent in late season action vs. TCU and Iowa State.

These young players all have the potential to play major roles for Tech in the next two years. I do not know if all of them will stay, but they all have at least a couple skills that are already very developed, and that is something that is rare to see out of freshman or sophomores that do not see much playing time (outside of Peavy). The next few years should be interesting to see how they develop in Lubbock.