The Texas Tech basketball team was picked to finish seventh out of ten teams in the Big 12 preseason poll released on Friday.
Apparently, the Texas Tech basketball team’s run to the Elite 8 last season did not earn the program too much credibility in the eyes of most outside of the Hub City. Despite contending for the Big 12 regular season title and making the deepest NCAA Tournament run in school history, Texas Tech checks in at the exact same spot in this year’s preseason Big 12 poll as it did last year; seventh.
Certainly, one can understand why voters may be skeptical about Tech’s ability to repeat last year’s performance. Head coach Chris Beard must bring together a roster featuring six newcomers of which, two are graduate transfers, one a JUCO transfer and three are true freshmen.
And that group must help offset the loss of six of the team’s top eight scorers from a season ago. But what voters are forgetting is the fact that Beard has pulled off a similar one-year rebuild before.
In Beard’s first Division I head coaching job in 2015-16, he inherited an Arkansas-Little Rock team that had only seven players on the roster after going 13-18 the season before. In fact, the Trojans had not finished more than two games above .500 since 2008.
But Beard brought in ten new players and went to work molding that team into arguably the best in school history. The Trojans set school records for total wins (27), conference wins (17) and road wins (12) on their way to a conference title and a No. 12 seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
Beard’s team would then pull off a stunning 85-83 double-OT win over No. 5 seeded Purdue in the first round of the tournament earning Beard national attention and ultimately leading him home to Texas Tech.
But apparently, Big 12 voters have no faith in his ability to get this year’s Texas Tech team back to the top of the conference despite a roster that enters the season with more high-end talent and known quantities than last year’s team began the season with.
Certainly, replacing Zhaire Smith, Keenan Evans, Zach Smith and three other seniors from last year will be a challenge, especially as teams like Kansas State and Iowa State see their entire starting lineups return and others like Kansas, West Virginia and Texas have reloaded to build around established stars.
But consider what Beard did with his roster. To replace Zach Smith, he added St. Johns grad transfer Tariq Owens who led the Big East and was 11th nationally with 2.8 blocks per game. What’s more, his 8.4 points per game is virtually equal to Smith’s 8.8 point career average and better than the 6.6 points Smith put up last year as he was slowed by a foot injury that cost him two months of action.
Helping offset the loss of leading 2017-18 leading scorer Keenan Evans is another grad transfer, Matt Mooney. The sharp-shooter was considered by most to be the top graduate transfer in the country this offseason after earning Lou Henson All-American honors (recognition given to players at mid-major Division I programs) last year at South Dakota.
While it would be foolish to assume that Mooney will take over where Evans left off as arguably the best player in the conference, his scoring touch should help ensure that the Red Raiders are able to put plenty of points on the board. He put up 18.0 points per game last year, almost exactly the same as Evans, while draining 152 three-pointers.
Perhaps Beard’s biggest challenge will be replacing Zhaire Smith, who became the program’s first ever one-and-done player. Coming out of nowhere, the former 3-star recruit developed into an NBA lottery pick in just one season at Texas Tech.
But this year, Beard will have a much more highly-touted true freshman to mold. Khavone Moore, a 6-foot-8 forward from Georgia arrives on campus as the No. 39 overall player in the 2018 signing class according to ESPN.com.
Moore is not Zhaire Smith. They play vastly different styles of basketball.
Smith utilized never-before-seen athleticism to make up for a lack of skill with the basketball in his hands. Moore, who is still recovering from a nasty broken leg that ended his senior season in high school, is much more comfortable with the ball. He is a facilitator and a jump shooter who will thrive in the motion offense because of his offensive skill.
Looking down the roster, there appears to be more offensive talent on this year’s team than last year when Texas Tech struggled to score against quality defenses like Villanova, West Virginia or Texas.
Certainly, sophomore point guard David Moretti and senior guard Brandone Francis can replicate or exceed the scoring of 2017-18 seniors Justin Gray and Niem Stevenson. Likewise, 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Malik Ondigo can give the Red Raiders what Tommy Hamilton did (at least in the post but certainly not from the outside). Mix in promising newcomers like powerful 6-foot-7 forward Josh Mballa and the high-scoring guard Kyler Murray and Beard will have all the ingredients necessary for another successful season.
Of course, sophomore forward Jarrett Culver should be even better this year after a year in the wight room. The Lubbock native put up one of the best freshman seasons in program history scoring 11.2 points per game last year. He and senior forward Norense Odiase will be the leaders of the team both on and off the court.
Culver earned honorable mention preseason Big 12 honors and many believe he will be a 1st round NBA pick next summer. When you are reloading, it certainly is nice to have a player with Culver’s ability to be the focal point of the team.
Still, it appears that many pundits don’t trust the Red Raider head coach to make another masterpiece. Fortunately, Chris Beard has made a career out of defying expectations.