It's pretty easy to see why. Texas Tech is an experienced, physical team with some very good guards that beat some heavyweights this season, particularly at the end of the season.
The Red Raiders beat then-#-16 ranked Oklahoma in the semi-finals of the Big 12 tournament, 69-63, last weekend. They beat then-#2 Kansas, 80-79 earlier in the season. They beat Texas twice. Last Sunday they had every right to beat #8 Oklahoma State in the Big 12 conference tourney final, but lost a close one, 72-68.
It makes that Bruin win against Notre Dame look quite a bit more insignificant, doesn't it?
The pundits are basing their longshot odds for UCLA on many things – such as these Tech wins, their experience and UCLA's inexperience.
Many aren't even probably taking into consideration taht Texas Tech is also simply a tough matchup for the Bruins. UCLA has done better this season against less-disciplined, run-and-gun teams, which is the antithesis of what Bobby Knight's Red Raiders are. As many have pointed out, Texas Tech most closely resembles Washington State among UCLA's opponents this season in its deliberate and disciplined style. They're Washington State, but with talent.
The Red Raiders are led by 6-2 senior shooting guard Ronald Ross, a tough, strong, experienced All-Big-12 first-teamer that averaged 17 points a game on the season and 34 minutes per game. If you're a coach, you'd ideally design it that every player peaks in his last few games as a senior, and that's exactly what's happening with Ross. He really took the team on his shoulders during the Big 12 tournament to lead them to the championship game, getting a career high 28 points in the semi-final against Oklahoma. He's been playing 40 minutes per game toward the end of the season and doesn't seem to wilt at all. He's not only the heart of the team, but probably its most skilled player, with a great shooting touch and very good quickness on the bounce. He's shooting 53% from the field and 45% from three. And amazingly, the former walkon is second on the team in rebounds, averaging 5.3 per game.
It definitely is a three-headed guard monster for Texas Tech. Playing alongside Ross is their lead guard, 6-1 sophomore Jarrius Jackson, who, like Ross, is a well-built, powerful player. And like Ross, he's skilled, with a very nice, quick outside jumper and a strong ability to take defenders off the dribble. He mind remind UCLA's point guard, Jordan Farmar, of Stanford's Chris Hernandez. Jackson is second on the team in scoring, averaging 15.4 points per game, and is shooting 46% from three, having made the most on the team for the season. Like Ross, Jackson also never seems to come out of the game.
The third starting guard is one of the best young athletes in the Big 12, 6-5 freshman wing Martin Zeno. When Tech lost its #1 scorer a season ago with Andre Emmett graduating, the worry was who would pick up the slack behind Ross and Jackson. Zeno stepping into the role of Tech's #3 scorer has really been a primary reason why they've succeeded this year. He's averaging 13.2 points per game, mostly on his athleticism, getting putbacks and scoring with his strength in the lane.
For Texas Tech offensively, it's mostly about Tech running a very disciplined motion offense that emphasizes strong screening, to get these three open to either shoot or drive to the hoop.
But also having a good offensive year has been 6-8 senior forward Devonne Giles, who's averaging 11.2 points per game and leads the team in rebounding with 6.5. Giles is a good, tough athlete who likes to pop out high and catch the ball 10-12 feet from the basket and then turn and shoot or muscle his way into the block. Giles has generally been considered inconsistent, until very recently when he's been posting double-doubles. Another senior peaking at the right time.
Lately, in its last few games, Tech has switched up its lineup and moved 6-8 freshman post Damir Suljagic into the starting lineup. He's only getting about 22 minutes per game since he's been starting, but Suljagic, who weighs about 235, sets the physical tone for the game with his tough screens. Suljagic isn't much with his hands on the ball, but he doesn't tend to touch it much, used primarily as a big pick for Knight's ever-active and ever-screening motion offense.
Darryl Dora, the 6-9, 235-pound sophomore forward, picks up most of the rest of the minutes in the front court. Dora is more of the scoring answer for Suljagic, and gives Tech its back-to-the-basket scoring, even though he likes to also step out and shoot. The frontline rotation also includes6-9, 250-pound bruising senior Joey Hawkins.
Curtis Marshall, the 6-5 senior, spells the wings, and he's another good shooter, able to get off a three-pointer quickly if given just a little room.
Tech is similar to Washington State in how they'll not rush their offense, set many, many screens and wait patiently deep into the shot clock for a good look. They love to move their big men far away from the basket to set high screens to free up their guards for shots or drives, which might mean UCLA utilizes Ryan Hollins more, since he's more able to guard bigs away from the basket. They make opponents play defense, and with their physical play, look to wear down their opponents. The motion enables them to take advantages of mismatches, and they tend to have some because of how physical their guards are. Like predators that hunt a herd, they wait for a weaker animal to pick off, either exploiting mismatches or waiting for a defender to break down and give them an opportunity. They also have the athletes to get out and run if they have a chance.
While the Red Raiders play tough offensively, their defense can't necessarily be described similarly. For a Bobby Knight-coached team, this year's Red Raider squad is just adequate defensively. They've been susceptible to other teams that have been patient and utilized good shot selection, and have been vulnerable to good inside scoring teams. As UCLA Head Coach Ben Howland has pointed out throughout the season, it's vital for UCLA's offense to get Michael Fey touches inside, and it's particularly important in this game. Also, Tech might have some problems matching up with Dijon Thompson, without anyone really quick enough to stay with him. Farmar could also be a problem for them since they haven't done a great job of hedging on those ball screens that Farmar loves to use to get open to score.
Probably the best thing Tech does defensively is make you play a half-court game. They don't make many mistakes, don't turn the ball over, and then they don't go after offensive rebounds to get back and limit the opposition's transition scoring.
The key to the game will probably be UCLA's defense. Tech isn't a great inside scoring team. Their best inside scorer, Giles, can be shaky, and they tend to rely on the scoring capabilities of their perimeter players. When Tech's guards are struggling offensively, Tech tanks, which explains why they've had some pretty lop-sided losses to go along with those impressive wins. UCLA's defense on the three-headed guard monster of Ross, Jackson and Zeno will determine the game. It will be a good test of toughness for the young Bruins, whether they can physically match up against Tech's wave of screens. It will be a big defensive test for Farmar, who can sometimes play lax defense, to guard Jackson, having to push through and around screens to close out on him for 35 minutes. UCLA is a better rebounding team than Tech, so if they can limit those three with good perimeter defense and own the boards, UCLA could surprise the pundits.