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Sports Strength

NCAA Tournament Preview: West Region

The Favorites:

Tucked away in Spokane, Washington, Gonzaga (1 seed) has somehow become the premier program in college hoops. Since 2013, the Bulldogs have won the most NCAA tournament games of any team and transcended the West Coast Conference to become a national superpower. Last year, Gonzaga put together one of the greatest teams in modern college basketball history; they went 36-1 with that lone loss coming against Baylor in the Championship game. This year’s team isn’t quite at that level, but it was still the most dominant team in the country during the regular season by any conceivable metric; KenPom has their adjusted efficiency margin pegged as 5.5 points per 100 possessions better than any other team in the country. Although this team is tremendously balanced (all five starters average more than 10 points per game), the Zags’ real strength lies in their frontcourt—freshman big man Chet Holmgren is an all-world rim protector who shoots 41.2% from 3 and is the consensus favorite to be the first pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, and yet he’s still second-banana on the team to All-American center Drew Timme. Still, Gonzaga has dropped games against teams that can match their size and athleticism, losing to Duke and Alabama in November and to St. Mary’s in their last game of the regular season

If Gonzaga is the best team in college basketball, Duke (2) is undoubtedly the most talented. Come June, it seems likely that Duke’s entire starting five will be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, with Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin both going within the first seven-ish picks. Blitzing their way through an overmatched ACC during Coach K’s farewell tour, the Blue Devils are a phenomenally powerful and physically dominant squad, albeit an inconsistent one as well. Depending on the night, Banchero either looks like Duke Jabari Parker or Boston Celtics Jabari Parker; AJ Griffin is a turbo-charged sharp-shooter, and yet he’s often invisible down the stretch of games; the jumpers and defensive intensity of Wendell Moore and Trevor Keels wax and wane. Ominously, Duke has lost two of their last four games by double digits, sullying Coach K’s last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium against archrival UNC and then getting sliced apart by Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game. 

While Gonzaga and Duke deservedly hog the headlines, Texas Tech (3) is a no-nonsense juggernaut with the best defense in the country. In his first year as the Red Raiders’ head coach, former long-serving assistant Mark Adams has constructed a stingy, terrifying defense. “No-middle” has long been the prevailing defensive philosophy in Lubbock, but this year’s team transforms that into an immutable rule; the Red Raiders hermetically seal off the paint, allowing the fewest rim attempts per 100 possessions of any team in the NCAA Tournament. Offensively, Texas Tech is fairly pedestrian, but the individual gifts of transfers Bryson Williams, Davion Warren and Kevin Obaner help keep their attack aloft.

After starting slowly, Arkansas (4) has been among the 10 best teams since January 9th. No team in the country plays as fast nor as furious as the hogs, who surround their lone big man, Jaylin Williams, with four frenetic, aggressive guards and wings. Defensively, the Hogs have the third best defense in the country during their recent torrid stretch, ranking third in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency over that span. In particular, they’re elite pressuring the ball and force turnovers on more than 20% of their opponents’ possessions. Offensively, All-American senior guard JD Notae keys their attack and scores nearly 20 points per game. On the whole, the Hogs struggle to score in the halfcourt and are among the 50 worst three-point shooting teams in the country, but their shooting struggles are leavened by their ability to score in transition and get to the free throw line.

The Cinderella:

New Mexico State (12) has potentially the best wing in the region in Teddy Allen, their superstar shooting guard. As a unit, the Aggies are huge and physical, with not a single rotation player standing shorter than 6’4. They are the rare mid-major team that will not be at a stark athletic or size disadvantage against their power-conference opponent; the fifth-seeded UCONN Huskies are the best offensive rebounding team in the country, but the Aggies aren’t so far behind, ranking 33rd in that same metric. Really, though, the Aggies’ upset potential is the result of Allen’s greatness. If he plays well, they have a very real shot to win. It’s that simple. 

Prediction:

Arkansas (4) makes the Final Four, beating Texas Tech (3) in the Elite Eight.

Categories
Sports Strength

Texas Tech Is Making Defense Cool Again

If offense is an act of creation, defense is destruction. It’s an eradication of possibility. In college basketball, defensive success is most often culled from the weaponization of an opponent’s shortcomings. Fullcourt presses, zones, packlines: all gimmicky defenses rooted in the idea that just about no college team has the combined passing, shooting and dribbling bandwidth to succeed for 40 minutes against them. Even if these tactics are effective, they’re not necessarily fun to watch because failure is never as fun to watch as success. There’s a certain meanness and grimness to these enterprises, informed by a cynical understanding of how college ball Really Works. But, at Texas Tech, Mark Adams and the Red Raiders are making defense cool again.

Purely from an x’s and o’s perspective, Texas Tech plays the same kind of switching, no-middle defense that they’ve perfected over the years; former head coach Chris Beard (now coaching at their hated rival, the University of Texas) is credited with introducing the defense to the mainstream, but current coach Mark Adams is perhaps the most devout no-middle alocyte. With the second best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, Tech is good at nearly everything a defense is able to be good at. Adjusted for strength of schedule, they allow the 19th lowest effective field goal percentage, force the 20th most turnovers, and have the 41st best defensive rebounding rate. 

The premise of Tech’s scheme is simple—shade ball-handlers towards the sideline and aggressively bring early help from the weakside to discourage drives. Although this scheme has become trendy across college basketball, no team executes it as precisely as Tech. When their defense is humming, which is just about all the time, it seems like there’s a spawn point underneath the basket, pumping out wave after wave of athletic, giant-armed Adonises, such as, say, Adonis Arms. Putative advantages for the offense become harrowing situations once a rotating Red Raider comes screaming from your periphery. Tech doesn’t so much play defense as much as they chase the other team around the court with knives and hammers. 

Notably, Tech’s defense feels proactive. Whereas most defenses are at the mercy of the opposing offense, Tech is so defensively dominant that they effectively erase most scoring options—pick-and-rolls become a lot less appetizing when a hectoring defender is making it a chore to even access the pick and pre-rotating defenders clog driving lanes before they can even truly open in earnest. Against Tech, it’s nearly impossible to run a normal offense; the Red Raiders force their opponents into the fourth-most isolations and the 12th highest three-point rate in the nation.

Despite the fact that Tech turns games into grisly, low-scoring affairs, their heavy-metal ethos ensures they’re still an entertaining team to watch. Extolling a team’s toughness and togetherness is a well-worn piece of coaching palaver, but it feels completely earned in Tech’s case. Mark Adams, a lifelong Texas basketball grinder, has built a team in his image. Whereas Chris Beard tries to recreate a high-budget version of Tech’s institutional grittiness at UT, Adams and the rest of the Red Raiders were born into this grittiness, they were molded by it. Fittingly, not a single player on the roster was tabbed as a five-star recruit in high school and the majority of their rotation transferred to Tech from low-major schools. 

As such, Tech’s roster is stocked with guys who could average prolific stats in a different context, but have opted to play for Tech, usage rate be damned; Kevin Obaner, Bryson Williams and Davion Warren were all big time scorers at low-major schools last year who have seen their box score production dip since coming to Lubbock, Texas. Accordingly, the latent offensive talent is what makes this Tech team so special—this isn’t a team full of unskilled defensive specialists, but rather a team loaded with immensely talented scorers who have chosen to fashion themselves into defensive specialists. 

Ranked #9 in the country with a 21-6 record, the Red Raiders, improbably, might be the best team in school history. While they may not reach the same heights as the 2019 Tech team that made the Final Four, that’s almost besides the point: more joy is found in the process than the results. No one game in March could possibly negate Tech’s tsunami of happy mania as their tortilla-crazed fanbase adjusts to the new reality that the once-lowly Red Raiders are now a true powerhouse. Home games at the United Supermarkets Arena—and one special-occasion home game in Austin—pulse with the same electricity as games at more traditionally hallowed grounds like Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse or Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.

In the national media, Tech is treated as some kind of bemusing interloper or a charming-yet-unmannered party crasher. Everybody acknowledges that the team is very good, but nobody seems to take them seriously because it’s Texas Tech. And yet Tech has swept Baylor and UT and nearly swept Kansas. With each passing week, it’s increasingly clear that blue blood is no match for the Red Raiders.