"I ain't got no fear. No fear at all."
This was last season, on a Zoom press conference following the first double-double of his career. Fifteen points, 11 rebounds and a 27-point win at Iowa State brought Kevin McCullar to a makeshift press conference room in Hilton Coliseum to answer a few questions before heading back to Lubbock. Four games back after being sidelined for the first nine due to a preseason injury, McCullar had gone down in pain during the game but returned to finish off one of the best performances of his career. "Is there a fear level you have out there when you come down wrong?," a reporter asked.
"No fear at all. Just out there hoopin'," McCullar shot back.
That's the mentality Kevin McCullar has with everything. Doesn't matter if we're talking injuries, playing through a pandemic, coaching changes or seeing teammates make tough decisions on their futures. None of it's easy. He's not pretending it is. Some of his best friends are no longer on the team after entering the transfer portal and moving on to different programs. Injuries since high school have created setbacks. The head coach who recruited him and led the program he's been in for three seasons is now coaching an in-conference rival. It's all tough. No denying that.
"I really feel that the adversity I've gone through is making me a tougher person," McCullar says. "It's not fun while it's going on and you're going through everything to get back on the court, but you also see someone's true character during those times. Nothing about college basketball is easy. Those guys from my first three years here will always be my brothers. It doesn't matter to me where they are now. I'll always care about them and respect their decisions. You always wish that everyone could stick together forever and run it back, but it doesn't work like that. It has to be about us now."
Fighting through and overcoming adversity may be what McCullar is best at. That's saying something since he's coming off earning All-Big 12 Honorable Mention as a sophomore and is a two-time Academic All-Big 12 selection. But it's also true. In high school, McCullar would contribute on a team during his sophomore season that reached the Texas Class 6A State Championship before starring as a junior and attracting nationwide attention and college offers. His high school career ended though in the second round of the playoffs of his junior season when he fractured his tibia below his knee while going up for a transition layup. Six months later while progressing through rehab, the tibia broke. It was agonizing, but it can now be looked at as a foundation which built him into what he is today.
"Having injuries at an early age during high school was tough," McCullar says. "I leaned on my family during those challenges and they helped me through. I always knew that if I stayed focused and positive that I could get on the court and do the thing I love the most again."
"Kevin has been coached and raised to understand that life is a constant challenge," says his father, Kevin McCullar, Sr., who had 177 tackles as a linebacker at Texas Tech from 1996-98. "All people are created equally, but each will face many obstacles along the way. I am proud of him for learning that at an early age and continuing to grow and use it to his advantage daily. Nothing has ever been given to him and he has never backed down and continues to strive for greatness. To see him where he is today has been an amazing journey for our entire family."
Where he is today is entering his fourth year at Texas Tech, having redshirted during the program's run to the Final Four before playing in 49 games over the past two seasons. He's coming off a year where he missed nine games to begin his sophomore season but played the final 20 without interruption. After three years in the program, some fans see him as being the team's ‘glue guy' by having the ability to hold everything together with unique versatility. That works, and every team wants one, but McCullar is poised to take his game to another level.
"Glue guy has a ring to it, but I think it's more than that with him," Texas Tech head coach Mark Adams says. "He's a catalyst. Kevin can bring out the best in everyone on your team with the way he approaches the game. Your best players always have this skillset where they improve everyone else they're around. I see that in him. He has the ability and mindset to be a program-changer on and off the court."
"I see myself playing in a leadership role and continuing everything I can to help us win," McCullar says. "I can distribute the ball to my teammates and I can also get a bucket when I want. I'll always see myself as a player who competes nonstop on both sides of the court and never takes a play off. I just want to impact winning." None of this is easy.
For three weeks after the season ended there was nothing but uncertainty around the program. It went from wondering if coach Chris Beard would leave to him accepting the Texas job to who would be the new Texas Tech head coach. Social media evolved from basically every business in Lubbock making lifetime offers to keep Beard, quickly flipping on him when he took the job in Austin to speculating who would be lead the Red Raider program. Following drama on social media and message boards can be a guilty pleasure for some of us, but most the time it's about someone else and we can move on to something else. McCullar and his teammates were the ones directly impacted by it, saw it all and added to it by tweeting, "Well, decisions to be made…" on April 1. Overwhelming support was directed his way with a small mixture of hurt fan messages. Some of it was understandable. None of it was fun.
"The days were going as slow as they ever have for me when all the coaching changes were going on," McCullar says. "You don't really know what's going on and you don't control any of it. I was sitting there not knowing what my future was going to be like."
Through it all, McCullar stayed patient. Did thoughts of playing elsewhere creep in? Of course. How could they not? Almost everything he had signed up for at Texas Tech was changing. He stayed in close contact with his teammates, some knowing they were leaving and some undecided. The Texas Tech administration was doing its due diligence in selecting a new head coach to continue building on a program that had been ranked throughout the season and advanced to its third straight NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. It took a week. A very long week. But when coach Adams was offered the position and named the 18th head coach in TTU men's basketball history, it sealed McCullar's decision with him declaring it on twitter: "Texas Tech is in my blood. It has been so special to be part of a family like Red Raider Nation. I have been blessed with this opportunity and after talking with Coach Adams and my family, it's in my best interest to stay at Texas Tech. We have unfinished business."
As soon as he got the job I knew I was coming back," McCullar says. "Coach Adams always has a plan. I'm excited for him to have this opportunity and for me to be a big part of it. We are all going to work our butts off and compete every day for him. We're ready to send a statement that Texas Tech basketball isn't going anywhere."
McCullar's belief in Adams is matched by Adams' belief in McCullar.
"With his versatility, experience and leadership skills, Kevin is going to be the rock of this program," Adams says. "We needed him to come back. He's had a really strong year last year and I think he has the potential to be one of the best players in the Big 12. Kevin does a great job on defense anticipating what the other team is trying to do and is always willing to take a charge, come up with steals and block a shot. He's very competitive, brings toughness and can guard all five positions, even a big. He has developed the strength and size to be able to handle anything we need him to."
None of this was ever easy.
McCullar was a four-star recruit who opted to forgo his senior high school season, reclassified from a 2019 to a 2018 prospect, graduated early and enrolled at Tech at mid-year. He had already helped Converse Wagner, which also produced NBA players Andre Roberson and Jordan Clarkson, to the Class 6A state championship game (earning all-tournament honors after scoring 12 points in the finals) and then as a junior averaged 16.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. His production and potential had established himself as one the most prized recruits in the state despite the broken tibia in his left leg in a second-round playoff win to end his junior season.
"It was tough," McCullar told the San Antonio Express-News when he made the decision not to play his senior season following earning District 27-6A First Team. "Everybody wants to enjoy their senior year and do everything that comes with senior year. I just feel like this was the best decision for me to make."
While the decision was made to not play his senior season, committing to play at Texas Tech didn't come easy with powerhouse programs from throughout the country vying to sign him. He'd make official visits and forged relationships with coaching staffs from major programs who believed in him even with recruiting trips coming with him using crutches. There was always a pull towards Texas Tech with his parents Hether and Kevin meeting while students in Lubbock and his sister, Katelyn, finishing nursing school at Tech during his recruitment. That was important, but it was his decision. His future. After a lot of thought, he kept coming back to visualizing himself in a Red Raider uniform. The opportunity and fit were too much to ignore. On July 5, 2018 he made his commitment to the Red Raiders on social media, officially signed on Nov. 14, 2018 and graduated from Harland High School on Dec. 12, 2018.
Eight days later he was in Madison Square Garden. The Red Raiders were matched up against No. 2 Duke with coach Mike Krzyzewski roaming on the sidelines and future NBA Draft top-10 picks Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish on the court. He was a young kid who had just graduated from high school early and now was in the huddle with Tech legends Norense Odiase, Brandone Francis, Matt Mooney, Tariq Owens, Davide Moretti and future lottery pick Jarrett Culver. Dick Vitale and Holly Rowe were calling the game on ESPN. Doesn't get much bigger than that.
"It was eye-opening for sure," McCullar says. "Coming right up from being in high school a week before to being on that stage was crazy."
How do you handle being injected into a situation like that? Easy. You embrace your role, even if that means you will never see the court that season. You take coaching. You support your teammates. You learn. You grow. McCullar did all of that throughout the spring 2019 semester. "Those guys on that team took me in right away even though I wasn't able to play. I was their younger brother who had the opportunity to witness what they were doing every day. They were mature on and off the court, always working to get better throughout the season. It was a situation that has really helped me become the player that I am. It still helps me to this day."
McCullar's redshirt season turned out to be most historic one in Texas Tech's history. The Duke game was exciting, but the story got even better. Running off nine straight wins to end the season resulted in securing the program's first Big 12 Championship and ended on the final Monday night of the college basketball season. McCullar was there for it all. In Tulsa, Tech cruised to wins over Northern Kentucky and Buffalo. In Anaheim, Michigan went down in the Sweet 16 and Gonzaga fell in the Elite 8. In Minneapolis, the Final Four stage made the Red Raiders into stars with McCullar soaking it all in.
"When Mac was a freshman I saw a young kid determined to get back on the court," says Matt Mooney, who was a senior on the team and helped McCullar develop throughout the year. "I could tell how much he wanted to get back out there. I could also tell he had a swagger about him. He was confident. I saw him working every day to get healthy and do whatever he could on the court that he was allowed to."
Nothing great will come easily.
As fun as being a part of the 2019 Big 12 Championship team and run to the NCAA National Championship Final was, not being able to play killed McCullar. Sure, he was young, learning every day, and accumulating championship rings, but when you have his talent and competitiveness, sitting on the sidelines can get to you. Physically he had progressed through rehab and was getting stronger, while mentally he had always remained engaged. It was time to play.
McCullar would enter a game for the first time in the 2019-20 season opener against Eastern Illinois at the 7:23 mark of the first half. Two minutes later, he was back on the bench without much to show for it besides a feeling of relief of being back on the court doing what he loved. He'd return a couple minutes later, missed a shot and committed two fouls. Those were his first-half stats. A missed shot and two personal fouls in five minutes of play. He wasn't going to let himself get down though. Tech was up 15 at halftime and he knew his time would come.
His first basket as a Red Raider can now be looked at as a microcosm of who he is as a player. Thirteen minutes into the second half, his defensive prowess would lead to offense. It started with a steal and led to a fast break layup to put Tech up by 30. Two possessions later he hit a jumper for four straight points and gave everyone a glimpse into his future potential. He had formally introducing himself on the court, but realized that he had a long way to go.
His first double-digit scoring performance came in the fifth game of the season, dropping 10 points on Long Island with two 3-pointers before going for 10 in games against UTRGV, Kansas State and TCU. His season-high in scoring came with 15 points at Oklahoma State where he was 6-for-8 from the field and also contributed three steals and five rebounds. The impressive performance had been building throughout and would earn him a starting role in the next game. In the final six games of the season as a starter, McCullar averaged 10.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game including a career-high 11 rebounds at Iowa State and 13-point performances on the road at Oklahoma and Baylor.
"I felt like everything started coming together for me at the end of the year and that the hard work we had put in was working," McCullar says. "I was always confident it could happen but I knew I'd have to work for it. No doubt my confidence was building."
The strong finish to the season had McCullar positioned for a strong sophomore year where he was anticipated to be a starter and one of the top players on the team. After missing out on offseason workouts the past couple years, McCullar was healthy and ready to go. That would quickly change though in the final week of preseason practice when he went down again with another ankle issue when he went up to try and block a shot. This time it was a Grade III lateral ankle injury which ultimately cost him the first nine games of the 2020-21 season.
"I couldn't believe it was happening again," he said.
"As soon as we knew what we were dealing with, he gave me that look of ‘What is the plan Big Mike?'," recalled Texas Tech athletic trainer Mike Neal. "His mindset the entire time was what can I do to get back on the court as soon as I can. The kid competes in everything he does and approached this injury in the same way. It says a lot about his character and personality. Guys like him persevere through everything that comes their way in life because of the way they are wired. He's an athletic trainer's pride and joy because you know that he isn't going to hold back. He's going to give it everything possible to get back out there."
Once back on the court, McCullar quickly emerged as one of the most consistent players in the Big 12. He would average 10.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 2.1 assists and 0.8 blocks per game in a redshirt sophomore season where he earned All-Big 12 Honorable Mention that started with 11 points in 11 minutes against Incarnate Word in his first game back as a reserve before starting 19 straight games. McCullar ranked third in the league with 1.9 steals and eighth with 6.5 rebounds per game in conference games along with producing 10 double-figure scoring performances. He had two double-doubles, going off for 15 points and 11 rebounds at Iowa State and then for a 10/10 performance against Baylor. In the postseason, McCullar had a career-high six steals to go along with 11 points against Texas at the Big 12 Championship in Kansas City before going for 10 points, seven rebounds and three assists in the 65-53 win over Utah State in the NCAA Tournament First Round. The season would end though two days later in Hinkle Fieldhouse with McCullar contributing 15 points and eight rebounds in the second round loss to Arkansas.
The defeat to Arkansas hurt. Down two, Tech had an opportunity to tie the game in the final seconds but couldn't connect. McCullar immediately broke into tears on the sideline across from his team's bench and braced himself on a scorer's table for a moment. A trip to the program's third straight Sweet 16 was right there. The end didn't seem real. Tears continued in the locker room before overwhelming shock and disappointment permeated the airplane that night as the team flew back home. "Our team was connected from the start and had big goals. It hurt when we lost and it was all over," he says.
There was a lot of stress associated with last season. COVID-19 has stolen lives throughout the world and has disrupted our normal way of life. How it changed college basketball is somewhat trivial in the grand scheme of life, but for McCullar, his teammates and coaches, they had put everything they had into it. Sacrifices were made that no college athlete in history has ever had to go through. It was stressful and not fair, but to spin it into a positive it was also bonding.
"We were locked-in last year," he says. "Our team gave up almost everything to make the season work. We played for each other. Believed in each other."
April, 2021 was interesting to say the least for the Texas Tech basketball program. Coaching changes, player movement, signings, completion of the Womble Practice Facility. It had just about everything you'd want or can handle if you were a member of the program. McCullar, who was taking online classes, returned home to San Antonio for a while but returned once Adams was named head coach. Things were familiar, but also different. The team went through some practices together, but there were only five players back from the 12 who completed last year. Adams, Sean Sutton and a couple graduate assistants were there, but the calvary of coaches who had been on his collegiate ride since the first day were not. What never waivered though was the commitment and focus that McCullar and Adams share as Tech basketball progresses.
"I want to leave my legacy here," McCullar says. "That's important to me. I'm just getting started and I'm staying to help us get it done."
McCullar will go into his third season on the court and fourth at Texas Tech having scored 382 points, securing 218 rebounds and coming up with 69 steals through 49 games. Those are just numbers though that have come through perseverance. He's forged his way with toughness and determination, never being satisfied or just trying to get through. Now, as Adams and his new staff build a roster and establish their new culture, McCullar stands firmly ready for anything.
He fully knows that none of this is or will be easy. But more importantly, none of this is too much for Kevin McCullar.
"Every day I wake up I know I'm blessed to be able to play the game I love," he says. "There isn't one play in a game where I'm going to take it off. I'm not scared of anything and love to compete. I know how special it is to be in the situation I'm in here at Tech playing at this level of basketball. I never take it for granted."