Red Raiders are for Real
Given how the 2017-2018 season has gone thus far across college basketball, the above headline is a risky one to make. Many teams who seemed like they were “for real” not long ago (*cough* Texas A&M *cough*) have not been able to keep up the momentum, so what should make Texas Tech any different?
After defeating West Virginia on Saturday, the Red Raiders are now 5-2 against teams who have been ranked at least once in the AP poll this season (Northwestern, Seton Hall, Nevada, Baylor, Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia). They defeated Kansas on the road and their losses to Seton Hall (by 10 on a “neutral” court that was not far away from the Pirates’ home campus) and Oklahoma (by 10 in a true road game) are hardly losses to voice much concern over. They beat up on the teams they were supposed to beat up on, while winning more games than they are losing against stiffer competition.
I love teams with strong senior guard play, and the Red Raiders’ best player is a senior guard: Keenan Evans leads the team in scoring (17.3), assists (3.2), and steals (1.4, tied with Jarrett Culver). If you think that assists number is not very high for a team leader, well…you are right. The squad ranks 199th in the nation in assists, and their overall team offense is not going to remind you of Loyola Marymount of yesteryear (though their scoring average of 80.1 points per game is a decent 64th in the nation, their offense within the Big 12 ranks only 9th). This is a team built on defense, as evidenced by the fact that they are 5th in the nation in scoring defense, at 60.2 points per game. This is not a fluke based on shutting down poor out-of-conference competition. They have allowed only 64.8 points per game within the conference, which is the best rate in the Big 12.
This is not a squad that is going to hit many three-pointers, and they are terrible from the foul line (68.9%). However, they do hit on over 55% of their shots from inside the arc, good for 43rd in the country.
When it comes to basketball, Texas Tech is likely best known as the school Bobby Knight ran off to after the high-profile end to his career at Indiana. Knight showed off his coaching prowess when he was able to temporarily turn around the program. In his six seasons at the school, he won 20+ games five times, landing in four NCAA tournaments, one of which resulted in a Sweet 16 appearance in 2005. That also happens to be the last time this school won an NCAA Tournament game. After Knight left, and handed over the reigns to his son Pat, the team fell apart. They only had one winning season between the 2008-2009 campaign and the 2014-2015 campaign, and didn’t make the NCAA Tournament again until 2016, when Tubby Smith was able to lead them to a 19-13 mark that resulted in a first-round loss. Smith left for Memphis, but Chris Beard has built off Smith’s final year at the school, winning 18 games last season, though it didn’t result in getting invited to any postseason tournament.
While their offense gives you a valid reason for pause, their experienced roster (their most often-used starting lineup consists of four seniors and a junior) and their commitment to defense is going to make them dangerous come March. At the rate they are playing, they will be seeded better than South Carolina was in 2017, but their story has some similarities.
Boilermakers Rise to Top of Big Ten
I am just as guilty as anyone who said that the Big Ten looked like a potential cakewalk for the Michigan State Spartans. I was wrong about that, and one of the reasons may be the Purdue Boilermakers.
After destroying a Minnesota team that is decimated by both injuries and controversy on Saturday, Purdue is now riding a 13-game winning streak, and is within 7 points of having a perfect season (of course, one of those two losses was to Western Kentucky, so we shall save some of the superlatives surrounding that statistic).
Purdue is an equally strong team on offense and defense, as they ranked 22nd in both categories (using points-per-game, which is far from the perfect measure, but will do for now) heading into Saturday’s action. They are 8th in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage, while they hold opponents to a 32.5% mark from behind the arc. They block shots, they rebound, they distribute the scoring (four players are between 13.3 and 16.9 points per game), and they are experienced (those four players are all seniors).
While the win over Minnesota showed off their strength, their win earlier in the week over Michigan showed their heart. In a rough game that was fought down to the final seconds, Purdue was able to squeak by the Wolverines by a singular point in a true road contest. Given what Michigan did to Michigan State on the road Saturday afternoon, the Boilermakers’ win looks even more impressive.
If you asked me before the season what the Big Ten was going to look like, my answer would have been “Michigan State on top. Minnesota would hang tough with them, with Purdue solidly in the mix”). I wouldn’t have mentioned Michigan or Ohio State as serious contenders, and I certainly wouldn’t have expected any type of dogfight for the top spot in the conference. If you ask me now, I would tell you that Purdue may have the best overall team in the conference when you look at both offense and defense.
The Big Ten is still a bit down this season, thanks to the bottom part of the conference. Wisconsin’s program is taking a little break from being an elite squad in the country, while Northwestern has fallen on some hard times after their breakout 2017 campaign. Indiana, Maryland, Iowa, and Illinois aren’t offering much resistance either. That will all make it harder for a middle-of-the-pack team to make the tournament this year, but the upper echelon is probably stronger (and has more teams) than I originally thought it would. Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan all seem to have Sweet 16 potential.
- Villanova (16-1) (2) – St. John’s didn’t make it easy on them Saturday night, but Villanova pulled through in a road game. Earlier in the week, they destroyed Xavier to tell the Big East that they are still the sheriff. Their next two games are road games, including a non-conference tilt with UConn.
- Virginia (17-1) (3) – I thought Virginia was going to have a down year this season, but I should never doubt Tony Bennett’s defense. As is always the case, there will be several questions about their ability to put the ball in the basket once March Madness is upon us. Road games are never easy, and they have two coming up: Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.
- Purdue (17-2) (9) – Winning at Ann Arbor and following that up with a destruction of Minnesota are enough to convince me to leap them up in the rankings. A veteran squad playing this well is always dangerous. Other than a home game against Michigan, their schedule the next few weeks is a bit mundane as they play the weak underbelly of the Big Ten. Three of those games are road games, though.
- Duke (15-2) (6) – Pitt and Wake Forest had no chance. This week, they travel to play a team that will have a chance, as they visit Miami.
- Oklahoma (14-2) (8) – Hard to find a team that had a more convincing week, as they were able to knock out both Texas Tech and TCU. The win over TCU on Saturday was especially thrilling, as Trae Young continues to annihilate defenses. Their reward for this strong play is a tough match-up at Kansas State next.
- Texas Tech (15-2) (5) – Lost by 10 at Oklahoma earlier in the week, but followed that up with a gutsy 1-point win over West Virginia. The schedule doesn’t offer many breathers, and a trip to Texas will be a tough one this week.
- West Virginia (15-2) (1) – In the tough Big 12, losing by a point on the road against a team as strong as Texas Tech is not something to cause a panic. I drop them six spots only because there is a lot of back-and-forth this year in the rankings. Purdue goes on the road and wins by a point and gains ground. West Virginia goes on the road and loses by a point, and loses ground. Those are the margins we are dealing with.
- Wichita State (15-2) (4) – After pummeling three teams in a row, they received quite a scare on the road against Tulsa, but were able to pull through. They drop four spots due to a mix of that struggle and some stronger performances above them. SMU comes in for a visit next, followed by a potentially tricky road game against Houston, a team the Shockers did destroy at home earlier this year.
- Cincinnati (15-2) (13) – Since losing to Florida, the Bearcats have won eight in a row by an average margin of victory of 19.4. The competition hasn’t been the greatest, and it doesn’t get any tougher with Central Florida and East Carolina next.
- Michigan State (16-3) (7) – In their last three games, they lost at Ohio State by 16, defeated Rutgers by only four at home, and lost to Michigan by ten at home. The team that was supposed to be, far and away, the best team in the Big Ten is having trouble getting out of their own way.
- Xavier (16-3) (11) – Followed up their 24-point loss to Villanova on the road with a 22-point win over Creighton at home. St. John’s is next, followed by a huge road test at Seton Hall as the two schools fight for being next in line after Villanova.
- Kansas (14-3) (15) – Won by a combined seven points at HOME against Iowa State and Kansas State. They are walking a tightrope, but unlike other teams on this list, they were able to survive. Up next is a road game against West Virginia, which may give us some indication as to whether Kansas will be in the fight to win the conference crown.
- Clemson (15-2) (16) – Almost pulled off a signature road win, but succumbed to North Carolina state by a point. Followed that up with a big home win over Miami. Tuesday night, another stiff road test awaits with a game at North Carolina.
- Seton Hall (15-3) (10) – They now own road losses to Rutgers and Marquette. The latter loss was by 20 points. The win at home over Georgetown is fine, and they did win in a tough environment when they knocked off Butler by three. Up next is another big road test against Creighton.
- Auburn (16-1) (19) – Right now, they are the answer to the trivia question “What other school besides Villanova and Virginia has only one loss this season?” Bruce Pearl’s squad has a middling strength of schedule number (80th), but has been able to go on the road to beat Dayton, Tennessee, and Mississippi State. Up next is a rivalry game at Alabama, a team most felt was better than the Tigers when the season began.
- Gonzaga (16-3) (17) – San Francisco actually hung tough with the Bulldogs this week, but still lost by double digits. Finally, we get the West Coast Conference game we have been waiting for: St. Mary’s at Gonzaga, Wednesday night.
- Arizona State (14-3) (12) – Played at home against two middling Oregon schools this week, losing to Oregon before surviving to beat Oregon State. Their offensive rating is still sparkling (8th in the nation), but their defensive rating is currently 157th out of 351 schools. Two road games against not-so-great opponents (Stanford and Cal) pop up on their schedule next. Will they continue their swoon, or get back on track?
- Miami (13-3) (14) – Their only game this week resulted in a loss at Clemson. They are the opposite of Arizona State: Strong on defense, not-so-great on offense. They will get a chance to put their defensive prowess on display this week, when high-scoring Duke visits their arena.
- St. Mary’s (17-2) (20) – It is put up or shut up time for the Gaels, as they visit Gonzaga on Thursday night. Both teams are 6-0 in conference play, with St. Mary’s having the most impressive win (a road win at BYU in overtime).
- Kentucky (14-3) (22) – Squeaked by a struggling Texas A&M team by one, before taking care of Vanderbilt by seven on the road. A dominant squad, this is not, as they haven’t been particularly strong offensively or defensively. A trip to South Carolina could be tricky, but their schedule eases up overall until a non-conference trip to West Virginia at the end of the month.
- Arizona (14-4) (25) – Knocked off both Oregon schools at home. They now move on to road games at Cal and Stanford, as they once again try to climb their way back up the rankings.
- North Carolina (14-4) (NR) – Destroyed Boston College at home, but the win at Notre Dame was even more impressive, even though they only won by one. They have played a very strong schedule, and it only gets stronger when they welcome Clemson to Chapel Hill this week.
- Ohio State (15-4) (NR) – They are 9-1 in their last ten games (loss being on a neutral court to North Carolina). They defeated Michigan (in a come-from-behind thriller) and Michigan State during this streak of strong play. They now embark on a three-game road trip against Rutgers, Northwestern, and Minnesota. All three games are winnable, but it would still be surprising if they actually won all three.
- TCU (13-4) (18) – Losing four out of five would normally be a recipe for me to drop a team completely out of the rankings, but when you look closer, this is what you see: 1-point loss vs. Oklahoma, 3-point win over Baylor, 4-point loss to Kansas, 1-point loss at Texas, 5-point loss at Oklahoma in overtime. A loss is a loss is a loss, but they have run into one of the toughest stretches that any team will face this year, and are within a few bounces of the ball of being a Top 10 squad.
- Michigan (15-4) (NR) – John Beilein continues to put his stamp on this school, as they followed up a heartbreaking loss to Purdue with a huge win on the road against Michigan State. They have played a strong schedule and rank in the top 40 in both offensive rating and defensive rating. They play three games between now and next week’s rankings, taking on Maryland, Nebraska, and Rutgers (the Nebraska game is on the road).
Creighton (14-4) (21) – A lot of teams will lose on the road against Xavier, but the Blue Jays weren’t even competitive. They get Seton Hall at home this week before taking a road trip to Providence.
Texas A&M (11-6) (23) – It is commendable that they have played the fifth hardest schedule so far, but you do have to win some of those games. They have lost five straight, and weren’t competitive in three of those five games.
Florida (12-5) (24) – They were able to sneak their way back into the rankings last week, but a loss to Mississippi knocks them back out. Games vs. Alabama and Kentucky await.
Rhode Island (13-3) – The Rams were penciled into my new Top 25 until Michigan pulled off that Saturday upset. They are 5-0 in the A-10, and four of those five wins were by double digits. This conference may not even be competitive at the top.
Tennessee (12-4) – I should be more bullish on a 4-loss team that has played the country’s toughest schedule. Maybe next week.
Nevada (16-3) – Have now won five straight conference games, as they appear to be the overwhelming cream of the crop in the Mountain West. All of these teams near the bottom of the rankings all have a case for Top 25 status, and Nevada has one of the best non-power conference teams in the nation.