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January 11, 2014

Preview: Raiders head to ATX

Something has to give. In a battle between two 0-2 Big 12 teams, either Texas Tech (8-7) or Texas (11-4) will leave the Frank Erwin Center tonight with its first win in conference play.

WHEN: Saturday, Jan. 10 at 7 p.m.
WHERE: Austin, Texas (Frank Erwin Center)
RADIO/TV
: Texas Tech Sports Network (affiliates) / Longhorn Network
SERIES: Texas leads the series 79-53. Tubby Smith is 0-1 all-time against Texas.

TECH TRENDS: Santa Claus has delivered on at least one item on Tubby Smith's Christmas wish list: increased perimeter scoring. Toddrick Gotcher and Dusty Hannahs combined for 31 points against West Virginia, with a career-high 17 of them coming from Gotcher. Hannahs has now posted 30 points in his last two games and is scoring both inside and out. The ascension of both has been a welcomed sight for the Red Raiders and takes some of the scoring pressure -- as well as collapsing defenses -- off of the bigs inside.

Free throw shooting remains a strength -- Tech hit 22-of-26 free throws against the 'Eers -- and the Red Raiders continue to pace the league at 75.4 percent from the stripe. Smith's team out-rebounded West Virginia by nine, holding the Mountaineers to just 26 boards. Tech is currently second in the Big 12 in rebound defense, allowing a hair more than 30 per game. In terms of rebound margin, the Red Raiders check in fourth, two spots back of Texas, as we'll discuss below.

Three point shooting is coming around for Texas Tech. The Red Raiders' eight makes versus the the 'Eers were their most since swishing 12 threes against Northern Arizona in the third game of the season. Through two league games, Tech is shooting 34 percent from downtown, a 4 percent climb from it's non-con totals.

OPPONENT STRENGTHS: Texas' size and length inside is perhaps its biggest strength and it shows up in the league stats where they pace the Big 12 in rebounding (42.5 per game) and blocks (6.9 per game) and are second in rebound margin (7.3). UT's scoring balance is also impressive with five players averaging in double-figures: Jonathan Holmes (13.0), Isaiah Taylor (11.1), Javan Felix (11.1), Cameron Ridley (10.7) and Demarcus Holland (10.1).

Overall scoring is up dramatically from a year ago (78.5 points per game) even though Texas is eighth-best in the Big 12 in shooting percentage (44.2). This is in part due to second chances, as UT is the league's top offensive rebounding team at 14.5 per. The Longhorns have gotten to the stripe more than any other team in the conference besides Oklahoma State, and yet shoot an ugly 63 percent from the line, worst in the league.

Texas' team chemistry is reportedly better than its been in a while after a few defections paved the way for a tighter knit group.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Rob Turner versus Isaiah Taylor. It goes without saying that the strength on strength matchup in the paint will be one of the biggest highlights of this game. Both teams boast a bevy of talented bigs and have controlled the glass all season -- the Longhorns' rebound margin is plus-7.3, the Red Raiders' is plus-5. Watching how Dejan Kravic and company handle 6-foot-9, 285-pound Cameron Ridley, a former McDonald's All-American, will be worth the price of admission.

Having established that, Tech's fate in this game and its hopes of snapping a 17-year skid in Austin could fall on the shoulders of Rob Turner and his matchup with freshman Isaiah Taylor. Turner's struggles in recent weeks against Jahii Carson, DeAndre Kane and, most recently, Juwan Staten, have been well documented but Smith remains confident that Turner will eventually turn the corner. After a rough first half Monday, Turner showed some strides in the second half before an errant pass -- his lone turnover in a 7-1 assist-to-turnover line -- led to a key West Virginia break-away bucket in overtime.

The bigger issue is Turner's scoring struggles. In the last three games against major conference foes -- so not including the game against Mount St. Mary's -- Turner is a combined 2-of-22 from the floor. Tech needs him to be more of a threat to score and needs more frequent finishes on his dribble penetration.

Taylor has been one of the surprise rookies in a Big 12 in which freshman like Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid cast a larger shadow. He averages 11.1 points per game and just under four assists but is a far cry from the last three point guard foes that Turner has faced in terms of experience and accomplishments. Perhaps this is the game Turner gets it going again for Texas Tech -- a Red Raider victory could depend on it.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Tech doesn't have to win the battle on the boards versus Texas -- Oklahoma State had 12 fewer boards on Wednesday but won by 13 -- but the Red Raiders can't afford to give the Longhorns extra possessions by allowing them to dominate the offensive glass. As highlighted above, UT is the best offensive rebounding team in the league, so limiting second chance points will be key.

Tubby Smith has not been pleased with his team's defense of late and is quick to point out that through two league games, Tech's opponents are shooting almost 50 percent from the floor. Texas doesn't have the caliber of three-point weapons that Tech has faced in recent weeks -- UT averages 34 percent from distance -- but freshman Damarcus Croaker has been coming on of late from downtown and is 7-of-14 from three in league play. Finding him in transition defense and limiting his looks will be critical.

Finally, though Texas is one of the top 10 teams in the country in blocking shots, it would be great to see Tech continue to feed the post well -- something that was much improved against WVU -- and force UT to make some plays defensively in the paint. Though 6.9 blocks per game is impressive, the Red Raiders have the caliber of bigs that will force the Horns to rack up some fouls in defending the rim, which will play to Tech's strength given the team's prowess at the free throw line.

Continued progress in scoring from the perimeter will ensure enough room to room in the paint for Jordan Tolbert, Jaye Crockett and Dejan Kravic and hopefully lead to some of those deep touches. Though you certainly don't want to see foul trouble from any of the Texas Tech bigs, if this game comes down to free throw shooting, it will feature the league's best (TTU) and worst (UT) charity stripe teams.


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