ANAHEIM, Calif. — Texas Tech forward Tariq Owens leaned back and craned his neck, peering behind the black curtain adjacent to the lectern. Once. Then twice. Three times — and a fourth time. Five seats at the lectern were filled. A sixth remained empty, awaiting the arrival of the Red Raiders' most important player: Jarrett Culver.
Shortly thereafter, the 2018-19 Big 12 Player of the Year and a future top-10 NBA Draft pick strolled up to the stage, a white ball cap marked with Texas Tech's logo perched atop his head, casting a deep shadow over the bridge of his nose.
Culver, a 6-foot-6 wing, is the Red Raiders' offensive engine. Texas Tech leads the nation in defensive efficiency but only ranks 31st in offensive efficiency, per KenPom. After playing a complementary role on last year's team, averaging 11.2 points and 4.8 rebounds, he exploded this season.
He posted 18.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game on 48.4 percent shooting, often catalyzing offensive possessions for his team and adding balance to its menacing defense. Through three NCAA Tournament games, he's averaging 22.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocks.
"I've watched him play lots of games this year and he has a quick first step. He can shoot it pretty well and obviously, he's pretty bouncy, too," GU forward Brandon Clarke said. "So [he's] definitely going to demand the best out of our bigs in the paint. It's going to be a fun team effort playing against him tomorrow."
Red Raiders head coach Chris Beard said Culver's emergence stemmed from three primary factors. He's sculpted his body into an NBA-ready frame through strength and conditioning work. He fast-tracked his skill development, blossoming as a facilitator (1.8 assists per game last year, 3.8 this year), improving as a rebounder and crafting an all-around game that often presses defenses into lose-lose situations. He rolls through hours of film on his computer, digesting clips of opponents to prime himself for each game.
"That's what great players do, right? ... [Michael] Jordan comes into the league a slasher, leaves the league, best 3-point shooter. Kobe [Bryant], LeBron [James], great passers, not just shooters," Beard said. "Culver has done that ... He studies the game ... Wouldn't surprise me if he's seen Gonzaga play on his laptop 10 or 15 times this year. He loves the game, loves it."
Culver said that he studies former and current NBA players — singling out guys like Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving — to help mold his skills. Over the past year, he improved his midrange game, post-up scoring and footwork, crediting Jordan, Bryant and Jayson Tatum. Because of silky ball-handling and a poised demeanor, Jamal Crawford is one of his favorite players.
On Saturday, Zach Norvell Jr. gets the first crack at slowing down Culver, head coach Mark Few said, adding that other guys will guard him based on lineup configurations. Few praised the Texas Tech sophomore's versatile skill set — paralleling him to Duke's R.J. Barrett — with the talent to score at all three levels and create for others.
"Culver is hard to guard one-on-one," Few said. "Zach's a bigger guard. He's moving his feet better. He became so much better at attention to detail with scouting reports and our coverages. That's why we trust him so much on guarding so many of these good players."
During the offseason, Culver's shooting mechanics underwent a facelift. As a freshman, he shot 38.2 percent beyond the arc but his release was rooted in a slow windup that vaguely resembled Lonzo Ball's slingshot technique. While his new mechanics are still a bit slow with a slight hitch, they're much more fluid.
"[I] just [wanted] to be more efficient on my shot. The coaching staff, a lot of the [graduate assistant coaches] and people have helped me come a long way with my shot," Culver said. "I just got to work with it over the summer. I started way back in the summer, just working on technique and just to be a better shooter. There's always ways you can improve on your game and that was one of the ways I improved."
That first year, fellow freshman Davide Moretti, a career 41 percent 3-point shooter, regularly bested Culver in shooting drills — Owens backed this claim — helping to fuel his drive for improvement. Culver isn't winning all of those contests with Moretti but it's no longer a one-sided affair, either. But the leap from supporting cast member of an Elite Eight team to the starring role of one is easily explained.
"Culver's just great. He puts in a lot of work," Owens said. "All the accolades he's getting now, he's earned every bit of it."