TULSA, Okla. — Texas Tech assistant Mark Adams is a former boxer, so at times he relates that bruising sport to the one he now coaches: basketball. He squats into a boxer’s stance, thrusts his fists playfully toward players like the stinging bee and shuffles his feet like the floating butterfly. On Sunday afternoon, Texas Tech’s defense embodied its hardnosed assistant coach and defensive guru. The Red Raiders knocked Buffalo out of the NCAA tournament ring with a bruising defensive effort in a 78–58 win, providing more proof that the nation’s most efficient defense is impenetrable even against the best of offensive systems.
Afterward, Adams traded in his boxing act for a triumphant gesture, extending his right index finger and thumb––the “Guns Up” pistol––as the band played the school’s alma mater. Thousands of red-clad fans gave this defensive juggernaut a standing ovation in celebration of the school’s first-ever consecutive trips to the Sweet 16, accomplished on this day after the Red Raiders swallowed one of the country’s fastest offenses in a meeting of college basketball’s extremes. “We proved that our defense is the real deal,” guard Matt Mooney said.
The final score is unavoidable evidence of the feisty unit that Adams and head coach Chris Beard have constructed in Lubbock. The Red Raiders held the Bulls 27 points below their average. They blocked three shots, got eight steals, took three charges, allowed a shooting percentage of 33% and held Buffalo without a field goal for a whopping 11-minute stretch. This is no light accomplishment. The sixth-seeded Bulls operate out of a pace-and-space attack that has the third-shortest average offensive possession (14.5 seconds) in the country and is Division I’s fifth-highest scoring unit, a lethal combination of efficiency and quickness that’s rare in college basketball. “It was kind of the game inside of the game,” Beard admitted afterward.
For Beard, this season has been extra special. The Red Raiders won a share of the Big 12 regular season title and are now through to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament after losing five of their top seven scorers from last year’s Elite Eight squad. “We’re trying to make a statement in this tournament,” Beard said. “We’re not supposed to be here. They picked us at the bottom of the Big 12.” On Sunday, they did it, of course, with defense. His team controlled Buffalo’s high-flying offense by crippling its transition game. Texas Tech took smart shots, made 48% of them, gave up just nine points off turnovers and, fearful of the Bulls’ fast-break speed, didn’t send its normal amount of players to the glass for offensive rebounds. “We had no agenda to run with Buffalo,” Beard said.
The top-ranked defense in scoring, despite facing such an electric offense, is sure to remain the top-ranked defense. And it’s about time you got to know them before they clash with second-seeded Michigan on Thursday in Anaheim. You probably already know the main cog in Adams and Beard’s defensive machine: projected NBA lottery pick Jarrett Culver. On Sunday for instance, he became the first Tech player to post at least 15 points, 10 boards and five assists in an NCAA tournament game, but there are others that make this group go. There’s 6'10", 205-pound rebounding and blocking beast Tariq Owens, a St. John’s transfer, and there’s South Dakota transfer Mooney, a nifty 6'3" guard who might just lead the team in non-shot blocking deflections. Davide Moretti ends up on the right end of charge calls more than any other player, just ahead of 250-pound Norense Odiase, who doubles as a rebound hog.
Adams takes his defense serious enough that he awards prizes after each win—only victories—to the best defender in three categories. A special chair in the team room is designated for the player who took the most charges. A gold, gaudy chain, modeled off the Miami football team’s turnover jewelry, goes to the rebound king, and there’s a WWE-style championship belt (“the deflection belt”) meant for the player who interrupts the most shots or passes. “The charge chair is the best one because, in the film [room], it’s the middle seat and it’s a massage chair,” Mooney says. Offseason training here is mostly spent on a host of defensive maneuvers, like close-outs, block-outs and stabbing, according to strength coach John Reilly. “I’ve never been at a place that focuses so much on defense,” Reilly says.
Schematically, the defense is quite simple: Texas Tech pushes its opponents toward the perimeter and the baselines, while keeping them as far from the lane as possible and forcing them into help defenders. Communication and trust is key. “It’s hard to play defense if you don’t trust the guys behind you to do your job,” says Owens. “Like, I can leave to go block a shot and I know the guy behind me is going to be right there doing his job. One guy goes to help and we’ve all got to rotate.” On each possession, the Red Raiders even have a player designated as a goalie––“like a hockey goalie,” says Adams, a former general manager of a minor league hockey team. Buffalo center Nick Perkins described the defense as “different than we’re used to seeing. They force everything one way.”
The Red Raiders are a weird team all around, and even Beard admits that. “We have three ball-handlers. We’re not a typical team that has a point guard,” he said. “I don’t even know what that word means. We have players.”
The defensive system is perfected in individual film sessions in Adams’s office over a buffet of candy. Adams keeps jars of Skittles, drawers full of Oreos and bowls of Halloween staples. The longer players stay inside his office, the more candy they get. “We bribe them,” Adams laughs. “It’s kind of like a trap,” says the tall, lanky Owens, whose 10 points Sunday are made more impressive by the fact that he made all four of his attempts. “You go in there and watch film with Adams, and you’re going to end up eating candy for 45 minutes.”
Beard is integral to this unit, too, but he admits that Adams—a 40-year veteran in the industry, longtime small-college head coach and Tech graduate—is his de facto defensive coordinator. Beard first met Adams when he was an assistant for Bobby Knight in Lubbock. The Knights, both Bobby and Pat, are part of the roots of Beard’s defensive emphasis, and the system leaks onto the recruiting trail. The staff targets players whom they believe can play aggressive defense and then convinces them to do so once they arrive. “You try to explain to the player that these are the things we do to do win. You got to get them to understand why and get them to agree with you,” Beard explains. “Once they say, ‘O.K., Coach, I want to win. I understand how important it is,’ then you got to get it done.” A good example of this is Mooney, who readily admits he was only a scorer at his last stop, showing up to Lubbock and realizing a stark truth: “Practice was defense over offense,” he said inside a celebratory locker room Sunday.
Defense ruled the day for the Red Raiders––up until the very end. With Beard having cleared his bench of reserves in a blowout, redshirt freshman Avery Benson found himself on the floor in the waning seconds after slapping the ball out of a Bull’s hands for a game-ending steal. “Fitting,” Mooney says. “Awesome.” On the bench, Beard embraced Benson as the horn blared. The ex-boxer turned candy man smiled. “We sell defense to the players,” Adams says. “They’re drinking the Kool-Aid.”