It’s a tradition as old as time: Kentucky playing in the marquee game of a college basketball event. It happened in the Champions Classic, it happened in the CBS Sports Classic, and it will again happen Saturday as the Wildcats visit Texas Tech for a mega-showdown in the Big 12-SEC Challenge.
And make no mistake: While Texas Tech did lose on Tuesday night, this will in fact be a marquee matchup and a mega-showdown. The Red Raiders record might have added a blemish or two in recent weeks, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t or won’t beat Kentucky if the Wildcats don’t show up ready Saturday night on the road. Texas Tech has already taken down No. 1 Louisville and are coached by Chris Beard. And if we’ve learned anything in college hoops these last few years, it’s that Chris Beard always has his teams ready to go in big games.
So with the game set for Saturday, I did what I always do before a big Kentucky game: Called a coach who has faced the Red Raiders for an “anonymous scouting report.” In exchange for complete anonymity, this coach – who faced Texas Tech earlier this season – gave me unfettered access to his game=plan and explained how his team tried to beat the Red Raiders earlier this year.
So far, these scouting reports have had a bit of a good track record, as Kentucky has gone 6-0 in games where I’ve provided these pregame scouting reports. We went 4-0 last year (with Kentucky beating North Carolina, Auburn, Kansas and Houston) and 2-0 this year, so it’s clear that John Calipari is reading my work and taking every word I write to heart (seriously, I promise to stop making this joke every time I write the anonymous scouting reports!
Anyway, with this game on the horizon, what do you need to know about Tech? Here are a handful of things:
For Texas Tech, it all starts with hybrid Chris Clarke
In Lubbock, Jahm’ius Ramsey is the star freshman some are touting as a potential lottery pick. Davide Moretti is the name everyone remembers from last year’s national title game run. But it’s Virginia Tech grad transfer Chris Clarke who makes the whole thing go.
Put simply, Clarke is a matchup nightmare, a 6’6 forward who is built like a linebacker and rebounds like a young Dennis Rodman – but also initiates the offense and is this team’s best passer.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that there is no one in college basketball quite like him. And how Kentucky chooses to guard him will be their first big challenge against Tech.
“He makes you make tough decisions before the game even starts,” this coach said. “They’ll use him in ball screens and then you’ve got to make decisions. Are you going to switch [defenders]? And now when you’re switching in some cases, you’re switching your point guard onto him. Are you willing to do that?”
“So now you’re like ‘Shoot, now I really can’t sit back here and clog up the lane, I’ve got to be up on him,’” the coach said. “Now he can go by you.”
For those who might not have followed, what the coach was essentially asking (and what John Calipari and his staff will have to ask themselves) is this: How do we defend Clarke? If we put a traditional guard on him, he can bully his way into the lane, and then find the open man out of it. If we put a big guy on him, he can blow by him and score at the rim.
And then on top of that, there’s an even tougher part of the matchup: When the shot goes up, whoever is on Clarke has to find him and box out. That’s right, Texas Tech’s best offensive play-maker, who leads the team in assists, is also averaging almost eight rebounds per game.
Again, it’s a thankless task, and the toughest decision John Calipari will have to make heading into this game.
However, there is one hole in Clarke’s game:
Despite all that skill, there is one major hole in Clarke’s game: He simply isn’t a good shooter. On the season Clarke is shooting just 2 of 10 from beyond the arc, meaning that whoever is defending him has to be smart.
“With him specifically, I think it’s ‘stay in front of him,’” the coach said. “You absolutely cannot go for any shot fakes with him. With him you have to know, ‘if he shot fakes, I’m staying down.’”
Really, the whole “no shot fakes” thing doesn’t just apply to Chris Clarke – but the whole team
If anything, the whole “don’t leave your feet” principle basically applies to everyone on Texas Tech’s roster.
Chris Beard is of course, a Bob Knight disciple, and love or hate Knight, there might be no better teacher of the fundamentals in the history of the game then the former Indiana coach.
Beard has brought that Bob Knight discipline and attention to detail with him to Lubbock.
“They do all the little things well,” the coach said. “They’ll get into the lane and pivot, back cut, and you’ve just got to be solid. And always have vision of your man and the ball. Like it’s the simple stuff. I think that’s why they’re so good, because they’re very fundamental.”
Now again, the whole “don’t get beat by the basics” might sound silly. But when it comes to beating Texas Tech, it is actually a key element to the game.
The reason is simple: Every time you do bite on a pump fake, or get beat on a back cut, or lose your man, it leads to one of two things: Either easy points for Texas Tech, or a trip to the foul line.
The Red Raiders get to the foul line on 36 percent of their possessions this season, one of the top marks in college basketball.
Kentucky must be disciplined in how they defend them.
Speaking of fundamentals, you just have to box out
Again, “boxing out” seems like a pretty elementary thing. But few teams take care of the elementary stuff like Texas Tech does, and that includes absolutely killing opponents on the glass. They actually get an offensive rebound on 36 percent of their possessions, which is one of the best marks in all of college basketball.
“If you look at our notes from before our game,” the coach said, “There’s six, seven guys, in their deal, it’s ‘boxing out, gotta box out.’ Because they are relentless on the glass.”
And really, that’s how Texas Tech beats you.
For all the talk about this player’s skill-set or that player’s abilities, really, most of their offense simply comes by outworking you. They are going to get second and third opportunities on offense. And when those opportunities don’t work, they are going to make you make a mistake which will allow them to get to the foul line.
While all this sounds like doom and gloom, there is good news
If you’re still reading to this point, you’re probably thinking “Mercy, how do you beat this team?” That was honestly my thought as I listened to my buddy discuss what it was like to match up with the Red Raiders.
However, there is a big gaping hole in their game: If you get them into their half-court offense and you make sure not to commit dumb fouls, you can force them to take bad shots. And the Red Raiders are not a particularly good jump shooting team.
“If you can make them score in the half-court, you’re going to have a chance,” the coach said. “But if you allow them to get out and run, and then allow them second chance opportunities, they will eat you alive.”
The reason for that is multi-fold.
One, as the coach explained, Tech really doesn’t run all that complicated of an offense. Basically, they’re hoping to beat you up the court to get easy transition baskets. And if that doesn’t happen, most of their offense is simply initiated by Clarke getting a high ball screen at the top of the key and going from there. And of course once the shot goes up, Tech believes that it will out-tough you to get the rebound.
So there’s that part of what the Red Raiders do, and then there is this: Tech simply is not a very good three-point shooting team. Ramsey shoots 40 percent and Moretti shoots around 38 percent (and even that number is down from last year when he shot a staggering 46 percent from behind the arc). No other regular shooters better than 30 percent from three.
“They have some skilled players,” the coach said. “[But] if you stay in front of them, if you make them take long shots, you can beat them.”
Alright, enough on Tech’s offense, let’s get to the defense
Because really, that’s where Chris Beard has made his mark. His teams just play nasty, tough, in-your-face man-to-man defense.
Again, there are no big secrets. They simply believe they can outwork you for 40 minutes.
“It sounds silly but it’s just really hard to score on them,” the coach said. “They give up 0.8 points per possession, which is No. 7 in the country. It’s nuts.”
In terms of the specifics, well, Texas Tech’s defense is essentially the exact opposite as the “Pack Line” defense that Virginia has made famous in previous years. While the “Pack Line” tries to force the ball to the middle of the court (where there is the most help) the way that Texas Tech defends, tries to instead push the ballhandler to the baseline.
The reason why is for two reasons: One, the baseline acts as an extra defender for Tech, and two it doesn’t allow you to rotate the ball to the other end of the court. Put simply, the quicker you rotate the ball, the higher the possibility that you’ll end up with an open look at the basket.
Tech does an excellent job of making sure that doesn’t happen.
“For us, it was being ready to skip the ball,” the coach said. “If you can get into the lane, jump stop, pump fake or two and kick opposite. That stuff is open against them.”
It also means that for Kentucky to have success offensively, they will need to do two things well: Their guards are going to have to make quick, decisive decisions with the ball. In other words, they’re going to have to catch and go. And when the defense collapses, they need to be ready to move the ball. If not, they’re playing right into Tech’s hands, where they are exceptionally good at creating dead ball turnovers (travels, a player dragging their pivot foot, things like that).
Also, when Nick Richards catches the ball in the middle of the lane, he too will have to make quick, decisions and try to get the ball to the other side of the court.
Speaking of Richards, he could be Kentucky’s X-Factor on Saturday:
The first reason is mentioned above. Kentucky is going to get him the ball in the mid-post (around the foul line) and it’s going to be on him to quickly reverse it to keep the Texas Tech defense from setting up.
But two, and this is more important: Texas Tech has no one to match up with him. The Red Raiders pride themselves on playing “position-less” basketball. Which is great in some regards, but concerning in others. Specifically, they don’t start a player taller than 6’8. And that 6’8 player, T.J. Holyfield, might be their weak link.
“I hate to say it,” the coach began. “But, Holyfield, he’s the guy you look at and say, ‘One of these guys is not like the other.’”
For those unfamiliar, Holyfield is a grad transfer who began his career at Stephen F. Austin, but who has had trouble with the step up in competition since he arrived in the Big 12 this season. He is averaging just 8.7 points per game and 4.6 rebounds, despite being Tech’s biggest starter on the court.
Because of their lack of size elsewhere, Tech may also try to get, big, strong, 7-foot freshman Russel Tchewa into the action. Still Tchewa is also incredibly raw and probably not ready for Richards’ quick and diverse skill-set.
“Nick Richards will feast,” the coach said.
Finally, Kentucky needs to keep focused for 40 minutes
With all due respect to Michigan State, Louisville, Arkansas and whatever is to come in the SEC, Texas Tech is the most mentally and physically tough team that Kentucky will play all year.
They will defend harder than any team Kentucky has played so far and crash the boards with more abandon. Therefore, beating them it really comes down to one thing.
“They’re beatable,” the coach said. “But it’s just a matter of you’ve just got to do it for 40 minutes.”
He stopped, and emphasized that last point again.
“This is in my notes here,” he said. “But you have to be composed for 40 minutes.”
Do that, and Kentucky can win in Lubbock.
Don’t do that, and it will be a long night for the Wildcats.