By Norm Elrod

(CBS DFW/CBS Local) — Jarrett Culver and the Texas Tech Red Raiders were expected to run roughshod through the Big 12 Tournament. Instead they rolled over in the first round against the West Virginia Mountaineers. Along with a three-game mid-season losing streak, it was one of the few slip-ups in an otherwise strong season. As the third seed in the NCAA Tournament’s West Region, they’ll likely bounce back in Friday’s game against 14-seed Northern Kentucky.

Culver is a Texas product through and through. Born and raised in Lubbock, home of Texas Tech, the young guard played his high school basketball at nearby Coronado High School. He put up 20 points per game his junior year (2015-16) and 30 his senior year (2016-17). As a three-star recruit, who was among the top players in the state, he was heavily recruited locally. Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and TCU all expressed interest, but Culver eventually committed to Texas Tech right down the road.

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The young guard was a regular contributor in his freshman season, logging 11.2 points and 4.8 rebounds in his 26.4 minutes on the court. Those minutes increased as Culver transitioned into a starting role about halfway through the season. However, the additional time didn’t necessarily translate to improved stat lines. He did show flashes though, like late-season double-doubles against West Virginia and Texas. And his defensive effort doesn’t always show up in the box score.

Culver was less of an offensive factor in Texas Tech’s 2018 NCAA Tournament run, which saw the Red Raiders reach the Elite Eight for the first time ever in Chris Beard’s second season as head coach. Strong defense was a big part of their approach last season, and helped Texas Tech rise up through the rankings. But one of college basketball’s better defensive units couldn’t hold off one of its better offensive units. Villanova shot past Texas Tech en route to their second NCAA Tournament title in three years.

With Zhaire Smith and Keenan Evans now finding their way in the NBA, Culver would have to step up in his sophomore season for Texas Tech to do anything. Many expected it would be his last. And given how it’s transpired so far, they’re probably right. The Big 12 Player of the Year and Wooden Award finalist, who plays like a combination point guard and power forward, is averaging 18.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, with four double-doubles. Earlier this season he put up 20 points and pulled down 16 rebounds against Big 12 foe Iowa State.

There’s another reason for his improved skills and for his likely departure. Culver has shot up in height and, as a result, shot up the NBA Draft board. He left high school as a 6’5″ guard, and is believed to now be about 6’8″. In addition to his varied skill set, the three-inch difference — not to mention the possibility that he could still be growing — is big deal to NBA teams. As his body and game develop, Culver has become a legitimate first-round pick, who could find himself taken in the top half of the NBA Draft.

For now, his eyes are focused on Texas Tech’s NCAA Tournament first-round game with Northern Kentucky. A win could set them up to face Buffalo and possibly Michigan after that. Culver’s performance could be integral to how the West region plays out.