Photo CC: Charlie Neibergall/ Daily Herald
The big story of the week for Texas Tech was the surprise departure of Nimari Burnett from the program. It was a big loss for the roster and brought with it immediate questions for a program that thus far hadn’t quite looked as elite as expected. How the team would respond to this potential turning point for the season was the major storyline heading into the road matchup against an Iowa State team that was hungry for its first Big XII win after a close loss against Texas. The result was a surprisingly decisive victory for the Red Raiders. It is worth noting that Nimari Burnett was well-liked in the locker room, but team chemistry can be an odd thing. Perhaps having one fewer player in the guard rotation was the jolt the roster needed for players to elevate their game and fill the void, but Tech’s performance was undeniably impressive.
This isn’t an Iowa State team that’s as strong as typical Cyclone teams, and the home-court advantage isn’t as much of a factor as COVID-19 continues to keep arenas mostly empty, but blowing out any team on the road in Big XII play is a significant accomplishment. Any coach in the league will say the same. Tech turned in their best offensive performance of the year, shooting a tremendous 58.9% from the floor. Red Raider fans were growing increasingly frustrated watching the shots not fall recently, as most know how talented this roster is. Witnessing this shooting performance was a relief, to say the least. It’s tempting to focus on this small sample size and claim the offensive explosion as some product of addition by subtraction, especially considering that Burnett’s offensive game hadn’t manifested yet in Lubbock, but the reality is that the law of shooting averages simply tilted in Tech’s favor against ISU, with a mentally tough roster responding to adversity in ways a Chris Beard team has been known to do.
This column has admittedly been harsh on Jamarius Burton in questioning his minutes compared to Peavy and the now-departed Burnett, but Burton similarly deserves credit where credit is due for stepping up with Nimari gone. Jamarius played his best game as a Red Raider and looked much more decisive against the Cyclones. He avoided getting himself into too much trouble in the lane, opting for pull-up jumpers when available and pulling the trigger on open looks that he did not against Kansas State. The result was 9 points on 4-8 shooting as he put in quality minutes on both sides of the ball. This looked like the Jamarius Burton that excelled at Wichita State, and it’s very promising to see him seize the opportunity and help take the sting out of the loss of Burnett.
Kevin McCullar’s play continues to be phenomenal, so apologies if things occasionally read like a McCullar fan club here. There was a very scary moment when Kevin hobbled off the floor wincing, which is a nightmare scenario for Texas Tech fans. Fortunately, McCullar would soon return and look no worse for the wear en route to a double-double. Kevin plays so tough inside and just wants it more than most. Santos-Silva and Tyreek Smith both continue to play well under the basket, but Kevin often does a great imitation of a power forward that makes the roster effectively have a third “big”. Coach Beard has mostly positionless players, but McCullar is the definition of it in being capable as a shooting guard and post.
Kyler Edwards shot on fire in this game. When Edwards can go 6-9 from the field and put up 19 points, it just makes the Red Raiders so much better. Kyler has been a streaky shooter, but this game was a reminder of how dangerous he can be. Edwards may have turned the Burnett situation into motivation. Having four guards scoring in double digits is a dream scenario for how Chris Beard ideally wants the motion offense to operate. While Kevin McCullar probably can’t be counted on to consistently score 15 points, it was a nice bonus to the core scoring of the offense. Terrence Shannon, Jr. continues to come off the bench, and so far, it’s working. It’s clear by now that Shannon, Jr., Mac McClung, and Kyler Edwards will do the bulk of the scoring for the Red Raiders, and they have been delivering in the past few games as they’ve combined for 49 and 48 points. They will face a much tougher test in Austin, but seeing this trio be more prolific of late is a very good sign, considering that the defense remains elite enough to give Tech a chance at winning every game they play.
Marcus Santos-Silva almost fell victim to the foul issues again but played smart minutes after a few early fouls. Santos-Silva and Tyreek Smith played well in this game, but neither was statistically outstanding because the guards were putting on a show and the game didn’t really require working it inside as much. Both players will need to play a good game against Texas, and Smith in particular may need to play a larger role to match up with the Longhorns’ athletic bigs. Micah Peavy was also quiet from a scoring standpoint but continues to contribute in many ways for the team as he posted three assists and two steals against ISU. Avery Benson, Clarence Nadolny, Chibuzo Agbo, and Vladislav Goldin all got minutes in this game, and Benson notably subbed in earlier than usual, well before the game got out of hand. It is entirely possible that he’ll see more meaningful minutes now that Burnett is gone, and there’s no question that he’s earned them.
This was a borderline flawless game of basketball for Texas Tech. The Red Raiders got hot offensively much earlier than usual and stayed that way. The lead just ballooned from there and the game was all-but-decided early into the second half. Tech struggled with the fast break against Kansas State but put on an absolute clinic there against the Cyclones. The game was an extremely encouraging offensive showcase of lights-out shooting for a group that had been anything but, and the sky’s the limit when this roster is putting the ball in the basket from the perimeter, from the paint, and at the free-throw line. Make no mistake, even against a sub-par ISU team, this was a performance that people took note of around the Big XII, and Tech has a chance to prove it belongs in the very top-tier of the nation’s best conference with a huge showdown against Texas on Wednesday.