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TULSA, Okla. — When Texas Tech’s players and coaches talk about playing “March basketball,” you first need to understand that they’ve been talking about it since November. And mostly playing it since then, too.
And that it’s not only about the NCAA tournament, it’s more a hoops philosophy: defensive grit, offensive grind, and on both ends treating every possession as if it’s your very last. But on Sunday, we clearly saw its full devastating effect on an opponent’s hoop dreams — and how the Red Raiders are built to wreak havoc in the bracket.
In a 78-58 throttling of No. 6 Buffalo, Texas Tech turned an anticipated second-round matchup into a rout. And it wasn’t so much a meltdown by the Bulls as a complete lockdown by the Red Raiders.
“I do believe that’s what coach (Chris Beard) is talking about when he says ‘March basketball,’” Texas Tech senior forward Tariq Owens said. “In my opinion, that was one of our toughest games of the season, especially considering how they guarded us. Really tough team. Really good team.”
And what does that make Texas Tech, which will face No. 2 Michigan on Thursday in the Sweet 16?
“I feel like on any given night, we can do that to teams,” Owens said.
During an 11-minute stretch — or 19 consecutive possessions, if you’d like a different gauge — the Bulls went without a field goal and scored only three points. Texas Tech scored 26, turning a 25-24 deficit into a 50-28 lead.
Those numbers are startling enough without this: Buffalo averaged 85 points. One of the nation’s most potent offenses was stifled, managing its fewest points and field goals (19) of the season.
“It wasn’t one thing in particular,” Buffalo guard CJ Massinburg said. “Just a credit to overall defense.”
He was right. It wasn’t so much one thing as everything. Afterward, Texas Tech senior forward Norense Odiase was asked the main defensive emphasis. He started with stopping the Bulls’ transition. Oh, and preventing open 3-point looks. And not allowing the Bulls’ guards to drive. There was also a focus on stuffing the middle. Forcing them into tough shots. And grabbing defensive rebounds. There was probably more, but the Red Raiders seemed more than adequate in every category.
“I’m glad we were able to do that for 40 minutes,” Odiase said.
It wasn’t anything new. Texas Tech ranks among the nation’s best defensive teams in several categories. But Sunday might have set the standard in, as Beard calls it, “playing each possession to win.” And that only takes more urgency in the NCAA tournament, when he says, “every possession has a life of itself.”
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“That’s March basketball,” Beard added.
What we saw Sunday certainly was. The Red Raiders squeezed off driving routes and cut off passing lanes and closed out on shooters — usually allowing only a very difficult shot, often in a thicket of defenders — and then crashed the glass, typically allowing Buffalo just one chance.
Just as important was what happened on the other end. They worked patiently deep into the shot clock, passing and cutting, passing and cutting, passing and then, sometime just before the shot clock expired, shooting. Led by sophomore guard Jarrett Culver (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Odiase (14 points, 15 rebounds), all five starters scored at least 10 points. They shot 55 percent from inside the 3-point line.
“Tempo was everything,” Beard said. “We had no agenda to run with Buffalo. … We had to grind it out. We wanted Buffalo to play defense tonight and not just fast-break it.”
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Going into the game, the Bulls seemed confident they could force the pace and score on anyone. After pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the NCAA tournament a year ago, beating No. 3 Arizona, the Bulls came back better. They earned a No. 6 seed this year and believed they were built for a deep run.
But against Texas Tech’s defense, the pace slowed to a crawl. The Red Raiders clamped down and squeezed, and gradually pulled away, leading by as many as 29 points and out-rebounding Buffalo 45-32. By midway through the second half, only the final score was in question.
“We’ve been the tougher team probably 34, 35 nights out of the year (in) 36 games,” Buffalo coach Nate Oats said. “To lose the last one on toughness hurts. It’s not really who we are, but it happens that way sometimes.”
But it’s who the Red Raiders are, and what they’ve done to most opponents. Not all of them, of course. A week ago, they were bounced from the Big 12 Tournament by bottom-feeder West Virginia, and they did not play anything resembling March basketball. Afterward, they were given stickers to affix to their phones:
March 14, 2019
Texas Tech 74
West Virginia 79
They were reminders about what happened when, as senior forward Tariq Owens put it, “we weren’t prepared to play, we didn’t come out ready and we lost.”
On Sunday night, Owens thanked a reporter for reminding him about the loss, then grabbed his iPhone from his locker and peeled off the sticker. Two games into the NCAA tournament, it appears the lesson was learned.
Texas Tech showed us some high-level March basketball on Sunday. And if the Red Raiders keep playing it, we might just see what it looks like in April.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ George Schroeder on Twitter @GeorgeSchroeder.