Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, teams well aware of how competitive every game can be in one of college basketball's toughest leagues, get back to the Big 12 Conference grind on Saturday in Lubbock, Texas.
The 13th-ranked Red Raiders (8-2, 1-1 Big 12) have split two games decided by one possession, while the tough-luck Cowboys (6-2, 0-2) have suffered two losses in league play by a single possession.
That lays the foundation for another barn burner in a series that has been tight in recent years between teams with contrasting styles.
Oklahoma State features the league's highest-profile freshman in Cade Cunningham, who leads the Big 12 with 19.1 points a game and is tied for the team lead with 3.8 assists. He is also averaging 5.6 rebounds, but Cowboys' coach Mike Boynton is concerned that even his teammates like to watch the 6-foot-8 phenom play, which means they aren't getting the most from his ability.
"We're watching Cade too much as a team, and he can't be as good if the other guys aren't active participants offensively," said Boynton, whose team averages 76.8 points a game, but no other players are scoring more than 10.1 points a game.
Texas Tech will test how well Cunningham's teammates can pick up the slack. Cunningham is likely the focus of the game plan for a Red Raiders defense that is one of the best in the nation, the key for the Cowboys will be in developing other offensive options.
The Red Raiders lead the Big 12 in field-goal defense (36.5 percent) and scoring defense (53.7 points allowed per game). In two league games, Texas Tech has limited Kansas to 58 points and Oklahoma to 67.
Boynton noted that a big part of the Red Raiders defensive prowess is their toughness, which is apparent particularly on the backboards. Despite not starting a player taller than 6-foot-7, Texas Tech is outrebounding opponents 38-34 per game.
"They play five guards a lot, and you have to have a level of toughness to still be a really good rebounding team," Boynton said. "Those guys have embraced that it's not about size, it's about heart and tenacity."
And now the Red Raiders are at full strength.
Swingman Kevin McCullar got back in action Tuesday in a nonconference victory and immediately gave Texas Tech a spark with 11 points in 12 minutes. A projected starter, he missed the first nine games with an ankle injury, and his return is a boost.
"It just felt good just to be out there," McCullar said. "As soon as I stepped out there, the fans gave me big applause. I'm just thankful for that. I was just happy to be out there with my team, just trying to get a 'W.'"
With McCullar out, the Red Raiders leaned on Mac McClung and Terrence Shannon as primary scorers. McClung leads Texas Tech with 14.4 points a game, while Shannon supplies 13 a contest. Marcus Santos-Silva has been solid with 8.6 points and a team-high 6.9 rebounds per outing.
But McCullar, who started the final six games of his redshirt freshman season in 2019-20 and averaged 10 points and 6.8 boards in that stretch, could be a key that opens up a myriad of options for the Red Raiders.
"Kev knows how to play the game," Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. "I have very, very high expectations for Kev, and I thought (Tuesday) was a great first step."
Oklahoma State has claimed eight victories against Top 25 foes in Boynton's four seasons, the last vs. the Red Raiders last Feb. 15 -- 73-70 in Stillwater, Okla. That squared the series at 4-4 since Beard took over at Texas Tech.
--Field Level Media