After two breezy wins, TTU’s first test comes with No. 17 Houston

Red Raider Nation

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard talks to Avery Benson (21) and Nimari Burnett (25) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 27, 2020, in Lubbock, Texas. (AP Photo/Brad Tollefson)

FORT WORTH, Texas — Chris Beard’s revamped roster executed flawlessly in its first two games of the 2020-21 season, notching two wins by a combined 75 points.

Of course, that’s what it’s supposed to do against Northwestern State and Sam Houston State.

Sunday brings a different test, when the No. 14 Red Raiders meet No. 17 Houston in Fort Worth.

Under Kelvin Sampson, Houston has emerged as the most consistent program in the American Athletic Conference and a perennial threat to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

In 2019, the Cougars lost a Sweet 16 nailbiter to Kentucky. The year before that, it took a buzzer-beating 3 by championship game-bound Michigan to knock Houston off.

The 2020-21 edition of the Cougars seems to be just as good as those squads, featuring a dynamic perimeter rotation of Marcus Sasser, Caleb Mills, Dejon Jarreau, and Quentin Grimes.

Grimes has Big 12 experience. The Houston native signed with Kansas before the 2018-19 season as the No. 8 recruit in the nation, per the ESPN100 recruiting board. He started every game for the Jayhawks as a freshman before transferring to Houston. In two matchups with Texas Tech, the freshman Grimes combined for just nine points.

At Houston, his backcourt mates include a deadeye shooter in Sasser, who nailed seven 3-pointers in Houston’s opener against Lamar, an aggressive scorer in Mills and a lanky, do-it-all wing in Jarreau.

Along with its talent, Houston brings an edge to the game, playing with toughness on both ends of the floor and dominating the glass. Last season, the Cougars had the best rebound margin in the nation.

“They’re gonna play defense. They’re gonna rebound. They’re gonna be physical. They’re gonna play the game the right way. They’re gonna use the 3-point shot,” Beard said of the Cougars. “You’ve got to match their physical toughness, you’ve got to match their mental toughness before the game ever starts.”

In a game that will require Tech players to get their hands dirty inside, transfer forward Marcus Santos-Silva is set up to thrive.

It’s what he does best: rebounding and physicality around the rim. Through two games, Santos-Silva is averaging an 11-point, 10.5-rebound double-double despite playing fewer than 20 minutes in both contests.

Santos-Silva’s wide frame makes him an expert at boxing out opponents, and clearing the defensive glass will be critical against a Cougar team that relies on second chance points. The former VCU Ram has also showed a soft touch on his lefty jump hook, giving the Red Raiders a scoring option on the block.

Offense has not been much of an issue for Texas Tech, who is shooting 52.5% from the field and 40.5% from beyond the 3-point line.

The ball has moved crisply across the floor, creating clean looks for just about everyone on the roster. All 12 healthy Red Raiders scored against Northwestern State, and everyone except Micah Peavy put up points against Sam Houston State.

“There’s a flow to the way we’re playing and a trust factor,” Beard said.

Georgetown transfer Mac McClung has taken center stage, pacing the team in scoring in both contests.

However McClung isn’t chucking wild shots, but playing within the flow of the offense. He’s stepped into open jumpers and made controlled drives to the basket, taking high-efficiency shots.

“Mac’s playing the game the right way,” Beard said. “He’s not forcing anything. He’s trusting the offense. He’s trusting his teammates. He’s trusting himself.”

Beard and Sampson are friends, and their teams share certain characteristics. They always play hard and never beat themselves with mistakes.

Both teams are set up to have big seasons, and Texas Tech can cement itself as a true title contender with a commanding win. The game tips off at 4:30 p.m. CT on ESPN2.

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