MINNEAPOLIS — The architect of the best defense in college basketball knows better than anyone: You don’t make a lot of money playing minor league hockey.
That’s why Mark Adams turned a blind eye when his players would get paid $200 to drop their gloves on the ice and throw hands. The fans loved it and the players could use the money, and as a former Golden Gloves boxer himself, Adams knew a thing or two about fighting. “That’s one of the best things about the sport,” the Texas basketball lifer said, “they are so physical.”
Adams was a college basketball player turned college basketball coach that spent the first two decades of his professional life going from small school to small school in rugged West Texas before he ultimately found himself getting fired by UT Pan American. He wanted to be closer to his family in Lubbock, but he wasn’t sure if the coaching grind was still something that he wanted to do. So he and his twin brother, Matt, went in on a minor league hockey team.
And that’s how the Adams family became the proud owners of the Lubbock Cotton Kings.
“I knew not a thing about hockey when I got into it,” Adams said. “The first time I met our hocket coach, we were talking hockey and I drew the rink and he started laughing at me. ‘Coach, you can’t make it like a basketball court. The puck will be stuck in the corner.'”
It took Adams four or five years before the coaching itch kicked back in and another two years before he was able to get back into the game, and this is when the story of how Texas Tech’s defense was built begins. Adams was named head coach at Howard College, a JuCo in Big Spring, Tx., in 2004, and over the course of the next nine seasons, he won 223 games, three conference titles and, in 2006, a school-record 36 games thanks to the JuCo National Player of the Year, Charles Burgess. Burgess was recruited by Chris Beard, then an assistant coach with Texas Tech, and eventually became a Red Raider, but Beard was just as impressed with Adams and the teams that he consistently put on the floor as he was the players themselves despite the fact that he took a seven-year hiatus from the sport.
“Mark Adams isn’t a national name, but those of us in Texas and especially in small college, junior college, Division II circles, recognize Coach as one of the best guys that ever did it in our part of the country,” Beard said. He knew, early on in their friendship, that if there was ever a situation where he was given a chance to take over a Division I program, he would be hiring Adams.
What he might not have known was just how influential that decision would have on his program.
Mark Adams has always prided himself on the way his teams defend.
“He wants to win games 31-30,” his son, Luke, a former Texas Tech player and a current head coach in the JuCo ranks, said, and in this program, it is Adams that is in control of the defense. He is, for lack of a better term, the defensive coordinator, and the benefits for Texas Tech have been enormous.
The Red Raiders boast the nation’s best defense. Better than Virginia, according to the defensive efficiency metrics at KenPom. Better than Auburn, who leads the nation in forcing turnovers. And like the Wahoos and the Tigers, the concepts that Adams uses to build his defense are not all that unique. The execution is.
Everything Texas Tech does on that end of the floor is designed to do two things: They want to lock you into one side of the floor, preventing the ball from rotating, and they want to keep you from having any chance to run the offense you want to run.
“I’ve always preached keeping the ball out of the middle, but it’s evolved,” Adams said. “We’re now much more aggressive. My belief is that offense has so many advantages over the defense, and we don’t want to be a victim. So we try to be as aggressive as we can, and try to make them uncomfortable and attack and push them to the sideline and baseline.”
But talk to people around the Tech program, and they will, to a man, tell you that the strength of this Red Raider defense lies in two things: Adams’ unique ability to not only identify the thing that that a defense needs to do to take an opponent out of their flow, but the ability to communicate high-level concepts in a way that is easy to understand and digest, and the fact that he is abnormally prepared for every game and every opponent.
“The way they game-plan is unique,” Luke said. “The original game-plan may be to switch ball-screens, but they’ll have like back-up plans. If that doesn’t work, they’re going to side everything. Then they might trap it, and then they’ll go zone, all based on the adjustment that the other team makes.”
“And they are so well prepared. They know what the other team is going to do.”
Mark Adams says that his process for preparing for an opponent involves watching 20-30 hours of tape. He’ll pour over anywhere between seven and 15 games that their opponent has played, and he will know them as well as their own coaching staff does.
“Every day, he’ll come in and break down how he wants us to guard the post, the side, and it’s like, ‘Coach, we’ve been doing it all year,'” said Tariq Owens, the 6-foot-11 center that is the anchor of this Tech defense. “But if you have one play where you don’t do it right, he’ll stop everyone and break it all down again.”
The next step in the process is to bring this all to Beard, who has watched just as much film as Adams has, and that’s when the pushback starts.
“One good thing about Coach Beard is that he’ll question me about what I want to do, so I have to defend it,” Adams said, chuckling. “Sometimes it feels like it’s me against the whole staff. I pout quite a bit, so usually I’ll win them over. I have a strong will.”
Having the No. 1 defense in the country should be enough to get him some respect, right?
“You’d think so, but I have to remind those guys some times.”
Everyone seems to have a Mark Adams story, and getting one that can be put into the public realm is not always the easiest thing to do.
Take, for example, Texas Tech assistant coach Brian Burg, who will never forget the first day that he met Adams. It was the day that he got to Little Rock after accepting a spot on Beard’s staff back in 2015, and the first thing they were going to do was go recruit some West Texas JuCos. Because of course.
Beard, for whatever reason, couldn’t make the trip, so he linked Burg up with Adams, who would become colleagues for the first time that day.
“He’s like, ‘I have two errands to run, but I’ll make it quick,'” Burg recalled, huge smile creeping across his face. “I’m thinking this is no problem, I can ride along and we’ll talk and I get to know him. I didn’t realize I needed three seatbelts, because he started driving about 95 mph with a diet coke in one hand, a cell phone in the other while driving with his knee.”
“He was a mile-a-minute, excited and just wanted to talk about basketball, and we got those errands done in about nine minutes.”
Then there is the controversy surrounding the trips to the movie theaters.
Beard, Adams and the rest of the Texas Tech staff are night-owls. They study film deep into the night — when NBC Sports visited their hotel during Final Four week, it was 1 a.m., the second round of coffees had just arrived and they were diving into their yet another Michigan State film session — which has led to quite a few late-night trips to the Cinemark 16 for a late-night movie. There was even one trip where ‘Sex and the City’ was the only movie showing, which resulted in Beard and Adams watching Carrie Fisher on the big screen together well after midnight.
“That was the only time that we didn’t sit right next to each other at the 10:35 movie,” Beard said.
Adams has a bit of a habit of forgetting his wallet in the car for those movies.
“He usually does,” Burg says.
But to really understand Adams and what he means to this Texas Tech program, you need to know the story of Sugarfoot.
Adams is in charge of telling a pregame story to the team, and the one that has become particularly popular of late is about Sugarfoot. According to Adams, Sugarfoot is the name of the pitbull that he had growing up, and Sugarfoot was the nicest dog that you’ll ever meet … until another dog crossed her path.
One time, Sugarfoot jumped the fence in the backyard and chased down a dog that happened to walk by, clamping down on its neck and, eventually, killing it.
“You gotta understand, this is 15 minutes before the Buffalo game,” said Max Leferve, another Tech staff member.
“Sugarfoot reminds me of you guys,” Adams told the team. “We’re nice guys, but when it’s time to go fight, we fight. Let’s go grab them by the neck!!!” And with that, the entire locker room erupted, with everyone barking and woofing and working themselves into a frenzy.
“He’s kinda cheesy,” Leferve said, “but the guys buy into it.”
And it now has the Red Raiders two wins away from winning a national title.