Texas Tech was picked to finish last in the Big 12 this season.
That’s the wildest thing about the Red Raiders’ recent surge up the conference standings and into national relevance. No one saw it coming.
Texas Tech (17-9, 7-7 Big 12) is among the hottest teams in the country, having won four consecutive games against a difficult schedule that included ranked opponents Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma. Behind coach Tubby Smith, the Red Raiders appear on the way to their first NCAA Tournament since 2007. Not bad for a team expected to finish behind TCU.
“Tubby is an icon in our profession,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Monday. “It is great to see all the good things that have happened to them. They are young, so they are going to continue to get better. They have so many different guys step up and make plays. When we start talking about coach of the year, I don’t think you have to look much further than Tubby.”
If Texas Tech completes its march toward the postseason — with home games remaining against TCU and Kansas State it is favored to do so — Smith will pull off one of the most unlikely turnarounds in recent Big 12 memory. Lubbock has been a basketball wasteland since the departure of Bob Knight in 2008. Knight’s son, Pat, went 50-61. Billy Gillispie lasted one disappointing season, and an interim coach struggled the following year.
When Smith was hired in 2013, attendance was way down. He regularly coached in front of empty seats. Now, even the upper deck is full.
It’s been a rewarding process, but he continues to push for more. Right now, the NCAA Tournament is the goal.
“It would mean an awful lot,” Smith said. “I don’t think we have been to one in a number of years. It would validate these young men, who stuck it out and who have been around for a while, that their commitment to Texas Tech was the right decision. That is what it is all about.”
Devaugntah Williams, Toddrick Gotcher and Aaron Ross have made the difference. They are Texas Tech’s top three scorers, but they are all team-first players. Williams leads the pack, averaging 11.1 points, and he is happy to spread the ball around. Seven different players average at least 8.7 points.
Together, they had Texas Tech on the cusp of success at the start of conference play, narrowly losing to Baylor, Kansas and West Virginia. Then a lineup change that gave more responsibilities to Norense Odiase and Justin Gray helped push the Red Raiders over the top. After losing close to Baylor at home, they won the rematch in Waco by 18.
Their rise is a solid example of the depth that exists in the Big 12. There used to be six slam-dunk teams for the NCAA Tournament. Now there are seven.
“Unless they just have a terrible finish, I don’t know how they cannot be in the tournament,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “Our league is so tough.”
Nothing is guaranteed. Smith is quick to point that out.
Texas Tech has proven it can exceed expectations. Now Smith wants it to handle success.
“You are only as good as your next win,” Smith said. “I think our team understands that. I know our kids are pretty hungry.”
1. Kansas (23-4, 11-3): Can clinch another league championship with two more wins.
2. Oklahoma (21-5, 9-5): Sooners got their swagger back in road victory against West Virginia.
3. Baylor (20-7, 9-5): Bears went from ice cold to red hot in the past week.
4. West Virginia (20-7, 9-5): Rough week for the Mountaineers. Barely competed against Texas and Oklahoma.
5. Texas Tech (17-9, 7-7): Hottest team in the league, after Kansas.
6. Iowa State (19-8, 8-6): Roller-coaster first season in Ames for Steve Prohm.
7. Texas (17-10, 8-6): Played its worst game of the season against Baylor.
8. Kansas State (15-12, 4-10): Late wins could lead to a spot in the NIT.
9. Oklahoma State (12-15, 3-11): Where have all the basketball fans gone in Stillwater?
10. TCU (11-16, 2-12): Is Trent Johnson on the hot seat?
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett