In the game of football, victory usually goes to the team that wins the war in the trenches. In basketball, it is the team that controls the paint and plays the best defense that usually wins.
After arriving at Texas Tech, amid what may charitably be termed a lukewarm reception, Tubby Smith did not bring in a bevy of McDonalds All Americans and five-star recruits, much to the poorly concealed glee of his doubters. But what Smith did bring was a tough, hard-nosed mentality, and an ability to coach up the interior game like few in the business can. As a result, the startling Red Raiders are playing suffocating defense, hammering the boards like miners in the Comstock lode, and beating teams nobody thought they belonged on the court with a couple of months ago.
In preseason polls, Tech was roundly predicted to finish ninth in the 10-team Big 12, just as they did a year ago. Only TCU was seen as a team more cellar-worthy. And yet, with seven games remaining on their conference slate, the Red Raiders are 5-6 in conference play, a mere game away from .500, and are riding the program's first three-game conference win streak since January of 2011.
Another significant milestone: Tech has won five of their first 11 conference games for the first time since the 2007-08 season in which the Red Raiders were helmed by both Bob and Pat Knight. That team finished the season 15-16, 7-9 in Big 12 play.
Nobody can say for certain where the current team will finish. The remaining schedule is extremely tough. Tech has road games at Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Kansas, to go along with home tilts against Kansas, Kansas State and Texas. Of those opponents, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Texas are surefire NCAA tourney teams, and Baylor and Oklahoma State have as much raw talent as any team in the conference not named Kansas.
But although the road ahead is stony and treacherous, Tubby's boys may just be up to the task of giving as good as they'll get. Unlike certain teams that are currently headed south at exactly the wrong portion of the season, the Red Raiders are coalescing, and building momentum like a typhoon over warm water. What's more, they have shown repeatedly throughout conference play, that they are as mentally tough as a special forces unit slugging it out with the Taliban in the Swat Valley.
Again and again these Red Raiders have taken teams' best shot, but they don't go down. They keep battling and they bounce back from big deficits. And lately, they've made winning plays in tight games down the stretch, and thwarted a huge run by a very good Oklahoma team on the road. The mental toughness is now producing wins.
And then there's that defense and rebounding I mentioned. Last season Tech was ninth in the conference in scoring defense. This year they are No. 1. Last season Tech was ninth in field goal percentage defense. This year they've improved to fifth. Last season the Red Raiders were dead last in defending the 3-point shot. They are currently No. 1 in the conference. In 2012-13 Tech was the worst in the Big 12 in rebounding margin. Right now they are No. 4.
Why the stark improvement? Is it because Smith brought in Randy Onwuasor, Robert Turner and Alex Foster, and because Aaron Ross has healed up? Not to slight the contributions of those players, but the answer is a resounding no.
Tubby Smith and his assistants simply know the game of basketball inside and out, and they understand how to build a team from the inside out and with defense. And credit the players for accepting Smith's no-nonsense ways, and believing in what he has taught them.
Now that the Red Raiders appear to be over the proverbial hump, and have proved they can hang with the conference's big boys, the question becomes, what can this team reasonably expect to accomplish?
Before the season began, any hopes of postseason play would have been considered pipe dreams. Now, with Tech 13-11 overall, and pushing .500 in the toughest basketball conference in America, an NIT berth seems not only possible but probable. Should the Red Raiders end the year at .500 or better, it is hard to imagine the NIT turning them down.
But why not think big? Why not shoot for the once unthinkable, an NCAA tourney berth? Why not indeed.
Outside of the Tech basketball camp, this goal would likely meet with scorn and derision. Yet you can be certain that the coaches and players are not merely hoping for an NCAA appearance, but are banking on it.
And again, why not? The Red Raiders handled OU on the road, which means they are capable of doing the same with ISU, OSU and Baylor. So let's say Tech wins two of the three.
Then there are the home games with Kansas, Kansas State and Texas. Fifteen thousand will be in attendance for all three of those games and the feeling here is that Tech will sweep. That would put the Red Raiders at 10-8 in Big 12 play, 18-13 overall with the Big 12 tourney yet to play. Such an outcome would boost Tech's RPI well into the fifties, and probably into the forties. And with that, the Red Raiders are likely on the right side of the bubble.
Crazy? Two months ago people would have said the same if you said Texas Tech would be 5-6 in Big 12 play. It is time to stop underestimating this team.
Tubby Toughens Up Texas Tech
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