TULSA — Basketball analytics and the evolution of the game suggest playing defense soon may be little more than a quaint old notion.
Texas Tech coach Chris Beard seems to view defense as more of a lost art.
The Red Raiders went into this year’s NCAA Tournament ranked second in the nation in opponents’ shooting percentage (36.8 percent) and fourth nationally in fewest points allowed (59.3 points per game). According to KenPom ratings, Tech leads the nation in defensive efficiency, yielding just 85.7 points per 100 possesions.
“Number one by their defensive efficiency,” said Buffalo coach Nate Oats. “They’re supposed to be the best in the country. … Then, get to the film and figure out why they’re number one.”
Texas Tech’s best player, Big 12 player of the year Jarrett Culver, shot just 32 percent from 3-point range this year but ranked sixth in the league with 1.4 steals per game.
At Tech, defense remains a priority regardless of how deep Trae Young is when he shoots it, or how many 3-point attempts the Golden State Warriors get up, or what the analytics say is the best way to win a basketball game.
“It helps to have the type of athletes this they do,” said Buffalo senior C.J. Massinburg, the Dallas native who leads the Bulls at 18.3 points per game. “You know with the length that they have and the jumping ability, so, you beat the first line of defense, there’s always going to be a second guy ready to challenge your shot or even block your shot. And (they’re) also good at taking charges.”
When senior guard Matt Mooney transferred to Texas Tech from South Dakota, it didn’t take him long to understand Beard’s emphasis on defense.
“I just remember like the first game of the year, came out of the game 2-3 minutes into the game, and Coach (Mark) Adams was on me. He said, ‘You got any steals? You got any deflections?’ You know, ‘What have you done?’ In my head, it’s only been two minutes. But that’s what they expect out of us. They challenge us every day.”
Realistically, it seems infinitely simpler to find, recruit, sign and coach players who can provide elite defense than it would be to bring in players who can change a game with perimeter shooting. Defense is about effort and desire, about covering for your teammates, about sacrificing personal goals for the team.
Making deep 3s is way harder than that.
“For us in recruiting,” Beard said, “we get guys that want to play defense, want to be coached at a high level, and go from there.”
It’s worked out pretty well. Tech was 27-10 last year and went to the Elite Eight, and goes into Sunday’s 5:10 p.m. second-round game against Buffalo as the West Regional’s 3-seed with the program’s first Big 12 Conference championship and a 27-6 record.
Tariq Owens is another 2018-19 transfer (via St. John’s and Tennessee), a near-7-footer who relishes physical contact and roams the paint with his expansive wingspan. He has two 8-block games in his career, and in Friday’s 72-57 victory over Northern Kentucky, he had five blocks.
“Since I got here day one,” Owens said, “it’s always been an emphasis — just being aggressive and intensity on defense. And me coming in, that’s just the kind of player I was. I’m a defensive player. Something I bought into, and it’s just an attitude that our team takes has taken on, just a mindset that every guy on the floor takes on playing defense and locking in. It’s something we really enjoy doing as a team.”
Said Mooney, “In my previous schools, I wasn’t challenged as much defensively as I am here at Texas Tech. That’s kind of our DNA. When I was getting recruited, if you go there, you’ll have to play defense. I was like, ‘OK, I think I can play defense.’ But, you know, everybody has to play defense or you won’t play. Everybody on our roster plays D.”
Beard and Buffalo coach Nate Oats both said Sunday’s game represents a defensive showdown between two teams whose success bucks basketball’s offensive trends. That makes sense, actually. Oats was coaching in high school six years ago, and Beard got his start in junior college before 10 years as a Tech assistant and a year in the ABA.
“I’ve respected him from afar for a long time,” said Buffalo coach Nate Oats. “I’m a (basketball) junkie, he’s a junkie. He’s coaching out of his car 6-7 years ago, some semipro ball, whatever it is, to stay in the business, and now all of a sudden, next thing you know, he gets a D2 job, (then) Arkansas-Little Rock, bang, bang, bang, next thing you know he’s one of the best coaches in the country.
“From a guy who was a high school coach six years ago and a guy really respects guys who maybe took a non-traditional route to get where they’re at, I got a ton of respect for him.”
Beard said as the game has evolved in the last decade or so, his fundamental approach really hasn’t.
“I don’t think coaching has really changed in my time,” Beard said. “Good players want to be coached. I think what’s kind of changed is society and social media and all this. But the actual player wants to be coached. We had 90 minutes out here (for practice on the BOK Center floor) a second ago, and those seniors are looking at me, lighting my eyes, ‘Coach, help us.’
“Good players want to be coached hard.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.