You’re in for a treat Thursday night.
Per KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric, Texas Tech and Michigan have the top two defenses in the nation, respectively, and it isn’t particularly close. The drop-off from the Wolverines’ second-ranked unit to third-ranked Virginia is almost as great as the difference between the Cavaliers and the No. 10 defense, Florida State.
Thursday, the Red Raiders and Wolverines meet in Anaheim with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line.
In many ways, this matchup still takes some getting used to. Michigan, until last year, wasn’t known for good defense. Texas Tech, until last year, wasn’t known for good basketball.
But just two years after failing to even make the NIT, coach Chris Beard’s team shared the Big 12 regular-season title with Kansas State and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Outside of Michigan State and North Carolina, the Red Raiders are the best team Michigan will have seen this season.
The Daily looked at tape from three of Texas Tech’s most recent games, including its 78-58 win over Buffalo in the Round of 32, to help break down the matchup between two defensive titans.
The Red Raiders share with the Wolverines a disciplined and committed man-to-man scheme. The similarities mostly end there.
Michigan prioritizes forcing one-on-one situations, running players off the 3-point line and avoiding fouls. As a result, the Wolverines allow low shooting percentages, but don’t block a high number of shots or record a ton of steals.
Texas Tech, on the other hand, does all three. The Red Raiders help liberally and clog up the middle of the floor, forcing teams to drive to the baseline where they are met by elite rim protection.
Many modern offenses focus on attacking through the middle. Texas Tech tries to take this away as much as possible. In this clip, it blocks off the lane initially, and as Texas attempts to post up, Tariq Owens shows great awareness to drift into help position on the weakside, eventually forcing a travel.
Matt Mooney, a graduate transfer from South Dakota who the Wolverines targeted last spring in search of a high-volume scorer, starts at point guard. But while the jump from the Summit League to the Big 12 has cut Mooney’s scoring nearly in half, from 18.7 to 10.9, he’s made his mark as one of the country’s best on-ball defenders.
Mooney isn’t the quickest of foot, but he has a 6-foot-9 wingspan and uses it well, averaging 1.8 steals per game. The anticipation, the length, the toughness — it’s all there.
But as good as Mooney is, the Red Raider defense is anchored by two elite, but different, big men — Owens and Norense Odiase.
Odiase, the more traditional of the two, is a conventional bruiser at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds. He ranks among the nation’s top 100 in both offensive (13.5) and defensive rebounding rate (23.3), but he’s also agile enough to step out on the perimeter.
If Odiase is a weapon intended to induce blunt force trauma, Owens is a swift, piercing blade. The graduate transfer from St. John’s packs a huge amount of bounce in a lithe, 6-foot-10 frame, and blocks 2.4 shots per game at a rate good for 11th nationally. He’s not just a rim protector, though — in the clip below, you’ll see him swat shots, including an impressive transition chasedown, but you’ll also see him check Iowa State’s Marial Shayok, the Big 12’s third-leading scorer, on the perimeter.
Expect to see a lot of that on Thursday night, as Owens’ agility allows Texas Tech to switch on most screens — a possible Kryptonite against Zavier Simpson and Co.
Put it all together, and this is the result. It’s as good as defense gets.
Note how Jarrett Culver, at the beginning of the play, sets up his body to force the Buffalo player to drive right — where Owens and Culver are both waiting for him. This is the “no-middle” strategy at its finest, and it nearly creates a turnover.
One last thing — and this will drive Michigan fans insane — the Red Raiders take charges. A lot of them. Per Dylan Burkhardt of UMHoops, they draw 3.1 per game — even more than notoriously charge-happy Wisconsin.
Consider yourself warned, and think before you throw a heavy object at your TV in frustration.
On the other end of the floor, Texas Tech has one goal: get the ball to Jarrett Culver.
It’s a pretty solid goal.
In his sophomore season, Culver won the Big 12’s Player of the Year award and burst onto the scene as a legitimate NBA prospect, with NBA size at 6-foot-6 and a two-way game that, to this writer, called to mind Paul George.
Culver scores 18.8 points per game while shooting 48.4 percent from the field — solid efficiency for anyone, but even more impressive when you take into account the fact that he uses 31 percent of the Red Raiders’ possessions. While he’s not necessarily elite in any one area, there’s nothing on offense he doesn’t do well — he scores around the basket, scores from midrange and scores from outside, while averaging 3.8 assists per game to boot. He’s just as deadly without the ball in his hands, as he knows his spots and gets to them with great awareness.
Charles Matthews will almost certainly draw the assignment for the Wolverines, and while Matthews is an NBA-caliber defender in his own right, he hasn’t seen a wing like Culver all season. The same might be true for Culver.
But while pro scouts will have their eye on that matchup, the game might be more likely to be decided by another duel between perimeter players — Jordan Poole vs. Davide Moretti.
Moretti is Texas Tech’s second-leading scorer at 11.5 points per game and is absolutely lethal from beyond the arc. He shoots 45.4 percent from there and has the kind of quick release that allows him to get shots off from anywhere, no matter the defense.
If he has even an inch of space, you don’t expect him to miss.
Here, Iowa State’s Zoran Talley Jr. clearly demonstrates what Poole absolutely cannot afford to do on Thursday. Poole’s had success against players like Moretti in the past — he notably limited Minnesota’s Gabe Kalscheur on Feb. 21 — but the stakes will be raised here.
The weakness of the Red Raiders’ offense, ranked No. 31 in the nation, isn’t anything schematic — instead, it has to do more with their roster.
When the initial actions break down, and if easy buckets in transition off of Mooney steals or Owens blocks aren’t there, Texas Tech is hindered by a lack of shot creation. Many possessions end with Culver given the ball and being asked to make a play — a challenging mandate that will only be more so on Thursday night.
While nominally the Red Raiders’ point guard, Mooney has a higher turnover rate than his assist rate. Mooney also functions as the team’s secondary shot creator — a role that probably asks him to do a bit too much. Coupled with his lack of speed, this means that his offensive game is quite reliant on midrange looks.
In most contests, Mooney has the strength advantage to make this work often enough to help keep Texas Tech’s offense above average. He might not against Simpson.
It sounds far too simple, but in a game where the country’s two best defenses go head-to-head, one offensive outlier is all it might take to turn the tables.