ANAHEIM, Calif. – It’s called “Kill Drill,” and the grueling premise lives up to its billing.
“There’s 90 seconds on the clock, and sometimes it’s full-court, sometimes it’s half-court,” Texas Tech center Malik Ondigo said of the defensive practice drill the Red Raiders’ head coach Chris Beard runs. “If [the offensive players] score, they get the middle, they get an offensive rebound, the clock starts over. You can be in that pit for about 40 minutes straight of just going. They have no mercy with it.”
“There are times I think, ‘Why?’” Ondigo said.
Questioning the value of a drill that demands a defense get a stop, deny the boards, even keep the ball out of the middle for triple the length of the collegiate shot clock is understandable. The practice might seem especially outlandish in the offseason months.
But Ondigo and his Texas Tech teammates experienced the answer to why firsthand, earning their way to the program’s first-ever Final Four behind the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense. Tech next faces Michigan State, a Final Four regular in coach Tom Izzo’s career, and one of the most efficient offensive teams in college basketball this season.
Facing an elite offensive opponent fits in with the theme of Texas Tech’s history-making NCAA Tournament. The Spartans are the fourth-straight team Texas Tech draws this postseason ranked in the top 20 of adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com metrics.
All the Red Raiders accomplished in that stretch was holding 20th-ranked offense Buffalo to 58 points in the Round of 32; 19th-ranked offense Michigan to an NCAA-low 44 points; and perhaps the most impressive coming in a 75-69 win over Gonzaga in the West Regional final.
Gonzaga boasted the nation’s No. 1 offense coming into the Elite Eight showdown, both in points per game (88.8) and adjusted offensive.
“[Our defensive prowess] was harder to tell tonight [than in the Sweet 16], but we separated it at the end and we were getting rebounds and stops when we needed to,” guard Matt Mooney said. “[Gonzaga’s] a really high-powered offensive team.”
With a pair of likely NBA first-round draft picks—forwards Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura—the Zags were destined to generate some points. Hachimura scored 22, a game-high, and Clarke managed 18. But Texas Tech’s outstanding, turnover-generating defense forced Clarke into six giveaways.
A sea of red jerseys immediately swarmed on him each time the ball entered the post, assuming post-entry passes even got that far.
“Post defense isn’t the big guy guarding the post,” said Beard. “It’s perimeter deflection, making it hard on the passer.”
As for Hachimura, the versatile forward exceeded his season-long scoring average just under 20 points per game. But the Red Raiders held him to 50 percent shooting from the floor, almost 11 percent worse than his average.
Speaking to the roster-wide embrace of a defense-first identity, Hachimura faced some of his greatest difficulty getting looks at the basket with Texas Tech’s own future first-rounder, Jarrett Culver, manning him up.
“He’s hard to stop,” Culver said. “We did the best we can. He’s a great player. He doesn’t miss a lot.”
Culver plays on the wing on offense, and he’s critical to the Red Raiders on that side of the floor. He comes into the Final Four ranking 28th in all of college basketball in possession percentage. But against Gonzaga, he banged in the post defensively with one of the nation’s most effective low-block scorers.
Against Michigan State, Culver could guard explosive Xavier Tillman, all-around weapon Kenny Goins, slashing guard Matt McQuaid, even dangerous combo guard Cassius Winston. The Spartans’ balanced look manifests in the nation’s fifth-overall adjusted efficiency offense. Its full capability proved critical in their Elite Eight win over Duke, with all four of the aforementioned players scoring at least nine points and getting clutch baskets down the stretch.
Michigan State’s offensive style mirrors Texas Tech’s defensive approach. A key to Tech’s intensity on that end is that any player on the court, no matter if it’s the All-American Culver or a reserve, needs to be able to guard any position one through five.
Couple that top-to-bottom philosophy with Culver and Mooney’s unrelenting harassment of ball-handlers—both garnered three steals against Gonzaga—and Tariq Owens’ rim protection—he blocked three shots in the Elite Eight, including a crucial 3-point attempt in the corner—and Texas Tech has enough to ride defense all the way to the national championship.
“We’re a talented team, but there’s a lot of really talented teams out there,” Ondigo said. “We can’t just go talent-for-talent, offense-for-offense.”
The 90-second chunks of Kill Drills in the offseason may be taxing, but they’ve added up to make the grind all worth it.