With a NET ranking of 14, a road win against then-No. 4 Texas and a winning record in the RPI’s toughest conference, Texas Tech would safely be in the NCAA Tournament if the season ended today.
Barring a collapse over the next month and a half, Tech should be competing in the postseason once again. At the moment, the question is not a matter of if but a matter of what seed the Red Raiders will receive come Selection Sunday.
While there is still a lot of Big 12 basketball left to be played, here are three things that need to happen for the Red Raiders to make a run come March.
Emergence of a star player
For more than a year, Tech went without having a go-to guy to hit a game-winning basket.
That was until Wednesday, when Mac McClung put a dagger into Texas’ then-No. 4 ranking with his go-ahead shot with three seconds left.
The game-winner let the nation know what most people around Lubbock have begun to figure out: McClung has star potential.
While team basketball is a recipe for success, especially in the Big 12, when the game is on the line, it’s a must for championship-caliber teams to have somebody trustworthy to win the game.
The 2017-18 Elite Eight squad had Keenan Evans, who notably hit an overtime buzzer-beater against Texas and averaged 17.6 points throughout the season.
The 2018-19 national runner-up team had the Big 12 Player of the Year in Jarrett Culver, who averaged 18.5 points.
While the 2019-20 roster was full of talented players, none of them had the “clutch gene” of Evans or Culver.
As a result, last year’s squad found itself flirting with the NIT before the cancellation of the postseason.
While that team had many flaws, its biggest kryptonite may have been an inability to finish out close games. In fact, the team was 0-5 in games decided by four or fewer points.
This year’s team is not a victim to the same inability, with nail-biting two-point victories in Norman and Austin as proof.
In both of those games, McClung left his mark late.
Against Oklahoma, the junior scored Tech’s final six points of the game to ice the victory, and in Austin, well, we know what happened.
After a season-high 24 points in Saturday’s loss to No. 2 Baylor, McClung has elevated his conference points-per-game mark to 19.7 -- good for the highest total in the league.
Head coach Chris Beard trusts his star player to close out a game.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in Mac McClung, as do I with other players on our team,” Beard said. “It’s a team sport. Mac has the courage to take those shots. He’s a fun guy to coach.”
The key to Tech’s long-term success may ride on the shoulders of McClung.
Don’t peak too soon
Tech got a rude awakening during the first week of the season when Houston quickly exposed the Red Raiders’ lack of team chemistry.
It should not have come as a surprise. The team started the season with nine players who had previously never stepped on a court in the scarlet and black.
To say the connection between the players has not noticeably increased over the course of the season would be oblivious.
Maybe it’s the close wins on the road in Norman and Austin. Maybe it’s the unconventional season, when players have no choice but to stay locked inside together. Whatever it is, Tech has found its groove.
A little over a month after hanging on by a thread against Abilene Christian, Tech gave undefeated Baylor -- a team thought only to be rivaled by No. 1 Gonzaga -- a run for its money.
But if Tech’s claim to fame at the end of the season is a week in January when it went 1-1 against two top-four teams, something went terribly wrong.
Before worrying about the Red Raiders’ 4-3 conference record or their 1-3 mark at home in the Big 12, remember that no championship team plays its best basketball this time of the year.
Tech fans should be familiar with this notion.
Almost two years ago to the day, the 2018-19 team that reached the Final Four was in the midst of a three-game losing streak in conference play. Anybody who thought that was a championship-caliber team after mustering just 45 points against Kansas State would have been labeled as crazy.
Beard, more than anybody else, knows not to get too high or too low.
“We didn’t set this team up to win a game in Austin,” Beard said after beating Texas. “We set this team up to be a part of the fight in March.”
Get to the stripe
Tech excels when it’s aggressive, maybe more so than any other team in the conference.
Thanks to 273 free throws made over the course of the season so far, the Red Raiders lead the Big 12 in points from the charity stripe.
They have soared in this aspect of their game during all four of their conference wins.
In their first win in Big 12 play, Tech made free throws late and shot 90% overall from the line in a 69-67 win over Oklahoma.
Throughout their ensuing three conference victories, Tech used free throws to boost its offense. The Red Raiders converted 30, 18 and 22 foul shots against Kansas State, Iowa State and Texas, respectively.
In those four wins, Tech has averaged 19.75 made free throws a game while shooting at an 83% clip from the line.
Conversely, in the four losses this season, the story has been different. The Red Raiders are shooting 65% in the same category while making five fewer per game.
Senior Marcus Santos-Silva pointed out Tech’s zero trips to the line in the first half of the game against Baylor as a reason for the loss.
“When our shots weren’t falling in the first half, instead of keep on shooting the threes, we should’ve kept on driving in,” Santos-Silva said, “and like Beard says, ‘Demand the foul.’”