One of the most impressive aspects of Kansas’ 14-year reign atop the Big 12 was the parade of accomplished coaches and exemplary prospects the Jayhawks annually overcame.
Rick Barnes, Bob Huggins, Frank Martin, Lon Kruger and Fred Hoiberg each did their best to assemble teams capable of dethroning the perennial champs but always came up short. Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Marcus Smart, Buddy Hield and Trae Young each also took cracks at overthrowing the Big 12’s kings but never were able to it.
It got to the point where it felt like Kansas’ conference title streak might never end unless the Golden State Warriors joined the Big 12. Then along came an unassuming, quick-witted Texan who made the impossible look easy, and he did it while coaching at a school considered to be perhaps the toughest job in the conference.
Chris Beard is the best choice among a loaded field of national coach of the year candidates after leading Texas Tech to a 26-5 record, a No. 8 national ranking and a share of the Big 12 title. The Red Raiders closed the regular season with nine straight victories, leaving them tied atop the conference with Kansas State and two games clear of third-place Kansas.
While Kansas State returned the core of an Elite Eight team and was supposed to challenge Kansas this season, Texas Tech opened practice amid much more modest expectations. The Red Raiders were projected seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll after losing five of their top six scorers from a 27-win team that might have overthrown Kansas last year were it not for an ill-timed late-season injury to leading scorer Keenan Evans.
You’re not supposed to produce back-to-back top-tier seasons like this at Texas Tech. You’re especially not supposed to do it when you lose an All-American (Evans) to graduation and a surprise one-and-done (Zhaire Smith) to the NBA draft.
Beard reloaded by molding a collection of transfers and underclassmen into a stifling defense and relying on that to buy him time to tinker with his offense.
Texas Tech boasts the nation’s premier statistical defense this season, one that compensates for fouling a little too frequently by generating the 14th most turnovers in the country yet also surrendering almost nothing easy at the rim. The Red Raiders wall off the middle of the floor, funnel dribble penetration to the sideline and baseline and rotate and communicate on help defense like they’ve played together for years, not months.
The foundation for Texas Tech’s defensive mentality comes from an unforgiving exercise Beard calls the Kill Drill. Beard splits his team into three groups and the fivesome on defense stays on the floor until it achieves a “Kill” by stringing together three stops in a row.
The mindset fostered by that drill during preseason practices becomes ingrained in the Red Raiders once the season arrives. Deflected passes are celebrated. Lazy closeouts aren’t tolerated. Floor burns are treated like badges of honor.
Smothering defense alone carried Texas Tech over the first two-thirds of the season, but the Red Raiders have started to make some major strides offensively over the past six weeks. An offense ranked outside the top 100 nationally entering February is now on the verge of cracking the top 30 thanks to the development of Jarrett Culver’s supporting cast.
Culver has evolved from a promising role player to a bonafide star as a sophomore, showcasing a tighter handle, a knack for getting defenders off balance and an improved pull-up jump shot. He’s averaging 18.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists, making him the leading contender for Big 12 player of the year and a potential lottery pick in June.
For awhile, Culver was Texas Tech’s only consistent source of offense. Now sharpshooting sophomore Davide Moretti and graduate transfer Matt Mooney are contributing consistently. The result is that the Red Raiders have eclipsed 80 points in five of their past six games and appear more capable of winning games when their defense is merely good, not suffocating.
The only remotely disappointing part of Texas Tech’s co-Big 12 championship with Kansas State was that the Red Raiders and Wildcats didn’t topple a vintage Kansas team. Udoka Azubuike’s midseason season-ending injury, Silvio DeSousa’s NCAA eligibility issues and Quentin Grimes’ underachievement limited the Jayhawks’ upside and contributed to their 3-6 road record in Big 12 play.
Credit Texas Tech and Kansas State for being good enough to take advantage though. There won’t be any asterisks when the Red Raiders and Wildcats raise Big 12 title banners. Nor should there be any disapproval if Beard receives strong consideration for national coach of the year.
You can argue for Rick Barnes after he built Tennessee into a top-five team without the benefit of a single top 100 recruit.
You can argue for Kelvin Sampson after he elevated Houston to a level the Cougars have not approached since the days of Phi Slamma Jamma.
You can argue for Matt Painter or Roy Williams for winning shares of unexpected conference titles. Or for Nate Oats or Mike Young for building surefire at-large-caliber teams at mid-major programs.
None of them accomplished more than Beard, though.
Three years after he arrived at maybe the Big 12’s worst basketball job, he replaced five of his top six scorers and still managed to do what none of the league’s past coaching greats or future NBA standouts could. He aimed his slingshot at the forehead of the Big 12’s immovable giant and delivered a knockout blow.