AUSTIN — After a brief reprieve from the toughest conference in the country, Texas heads right back into the sandstorm when they face the No. 10 Texas Tech Red Raiders in Lubbock on Wednesday.
Chris Beard’s bunch is undefeated at United Supermarkets Arena this season, but they face a Longhorn squad that topped them in Austin only two weeks ago.
The team Shaka Smart faces is similar to the one he faced in Austin; without senior forward Zach Smith, out indefinitely with a foot injury. The Red Raiders will have Keenan Evans, who has 57 points over the last two games.
“I don’t think you can completely stop Evans just because he’s such a focal point of what they do,” Smart said Monday. “I do think you have to make things tough on him. You have to try to make him less efficient than he’s been in some of these games of late. The reality is that their team has gone as he has gone.”
Evans is part of a TTU lineup that operates with four and sometimes even five perimeter players on offense. Texas handled that offense and lineup well in the previous match-up holding the Red Raiders to just 58 points total and only 24 in the first half.
Texas played a variety of different zone defenses in Austin, but Smart admitted the points-per-possession allowed was higher when in zone than when in man. Texas was successful on when they consistently switched on screens from Tech’s motion offense. While that worked the first go-round, Smart knows the Red Raiders are looking for it.
“When the game got done on Saturday, (assistant coach) Mike (Morrell) and I were talking in the coaches locker room afterward and I said ‘well, I don’t know about switching because they know it’s coming. They know that we did it last time.’” Smart said. “He said ‘well, some of the things they’re going to do, they’re going to do regardless of whether you switch or not.’”
If Texas keeps the switch-heavy strategy, they have a counter to it they know to be mindful of.
“Regardless of whether you switch their off ball screens or not, you have to be very aware of them slipping their screens,” Smart said. “Going up to set a screen, maybe a flare screen, but then before the guy actually uses the screen, slipping into the lane. Zhaire Smith is really good at that. Justin Gray is really good at that. Keenan Evans is good at coming off those screens.”
Smart emphasized how focused Texas will have to be in defending those screens. He explained that in TTU’s smaller lineup, the player acting as the five will come up and set a screen for the ball-handler.
While Texas emphasized switching on other screens, Smart made sure to note that having freshmen Mohamed Bamba or Jericho Sims switch would not be as ideal.
“If you are switching the other guys and you’re not switching those screens, it takes a real level of mental toughness to understand what to do on those different types of situations,” he said.
As usual, Texas looks to run the floor and score in transition on offense. However, Texas only managed to put up four fast break points against Tech two weeks ago, while adding 32 points in the paint.
Despite those low transition numbers, Smart said on Monday that trying to score against the Red Raiders in the half-court is extremely challenging.
With that in mind, Texas needs to find scoring in a variety of ways.
“When you’re playing against teams that are really, really sound and don’t beat themselves in their half-court defense, there’s the areas of the game where you can — I don’t want to say steal points — but you can score in other ways,” Smart said. “Transition defense is number one. Offensive rebounding is a way you can go get extra points. Getting to the foul line in any way, in any shape or form is a way you can score extra points.”
Despite the challenge, the team enters Lubbock on a two game winning streak and has won four of the last six. Smart sees improvement in the team, but knows continuing the streak will be tough.
“We’re obviously going to have a heck of a challenge on our hands in Lubbock,” Smart said. “At the same time, our guys are excited about that opportunity and we really need to build on some of the good things that we did this past week. I think a lot of our guys are getting better.”