Year 2 of Tubby Ball Tips Off Friday

Texas Tech opens the basketball season against Loyola (Md.) 8 p.m. Friday at United Supermarkets Arena in Lubbock, TX.

Tubby Smith begins his

2014-15 schedule:
11/14: Loyola (Md.)
11/18: at LSU
11/22: Northwestern St.
11/30: Air Force
12/03: Auburn
12/10: Fresno St.
12/14: Prairie View A&M
12/17: South Carolina St.
12/19: Arkansas-PB
12/22 Loyola (Ill.)
12/23: Boise St./Hou.
12/29: North Texas
1/03: Texas
1/5: West Virginia
1/10: at Kansas
1/14: at K-State
1/17: TCU
1/21: at Oklahoma State
1/24: Iowa State
1/28: at OU
1/31: at WVU
2/04: K-State
2/07: Iowa State
2/10: Kansas
2/14: at Texas
2/17: Baylor
2/21: Oklahoma
2/25: at TCU
2/28: Oklahoma State
3/06: at Baylor
3/11-14: Big 12 Tourney
2013-14 Record: 14-18, 6-12 in Big 12
Returning Starters: Robert Turner (6-3, senior, guard), Toddrick Gotcher (6-4, junior, guard)

second season as head coach of Texas Tech with a team generally predicted to finish in the Big 12 cellar. That dire prophecy is based upon the fact that Tech returns only two starters from a team that finished ninth in the conference last season. It also stems from the reality that the majority of Big 12 teams should be improved from a year ago.

Regardless of whether or not the Red Raiders actually finish last, however, there is little real doubt that the current group has more overall talent and athleticism than its predecessor. Smith and his staff brought in a recruiting class generally regarded as one of the best in recent school history, and early returns (based upon reports from practice and play in two exhibition games) suggest that the class may be even better than advertised.

But first a bit about the returnees.

Senior Robert Turner was a pleasant surprise last season as a JUCO signee who received no recruiting interest from any other D1 team. Turner, not a true point guard, was nevertheless pressed into duty in the tough Big 12 at that position and acquitted himself credibly if inconsistently. He averaged nine points and 2.6 assists per game while committing 28 fewer turnovers than the number of his assists. Turner’s shooting is streaky, but he’s a good penetrator who can create his own shot. If those sound like traits that could be more valuable to an off guard, that is because they are. More about that directly.

Toddrick Gotcher is the other returning starter. He’s a burly shooting guard who plays solid defense. He also shot 33 percent from three-point range last season, which is not great, but is good enough to set him up as one of Tech’s outside threats. Unfortunately, in two exhibition games Gotcher was ice cold and made few substantive contributions. Given the caliber of the new arrivals, he will have to step up his game considerably or be relegated to duty as a spot defender.

Among the newcomers, the one who could solve the most problems is freshman Keenan Evans. More than any player Tech has had, perhaps since Jason Martin nearly 20 years ago, Evans has the look of a true point guard. He handles the ball with ease, demonstrates good court awareness and vision, and appears to be unselfish. If he develops these traits, look for him to move into the starting lineup at the point and for Turner to slide over to his natural position at off guard.

Justin Gray, perhaps the most highly regarded of Tech’s new recruits, looks like potentially a special player. He’s a 6-foot-6 wing player who can play the two or the three, but since Tech’s needs are greater at the latter, that is where he’ll see the most action. Based upon observations from one scrimmage, Gray shows as a physically strong player who is in complete command of his game. He should be able to contribute in all aspects of the game.

And incidentally, his follow-up dunk against Texas A&M Commerce was a mirror image of Darvin Ham’s slightly more famous effort against North Carolina in the 1995 NCAA tourney. The chief difference is that Gray’s dunk resulted in a technical rather than shattered glass and a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Other youngsters who look like real finds are post Norense Odiase and forward Zach Smith.

Odiase is brute-strong and physical. But despite his offensive tackle frame and mentality, he has a baby-soft touch around the basket, and plays the game patiently and with poise. Stamina and running the court well are issues at this juncture, but when Odiase rounds fully into shape, he will be a headache for the opposition. Tech hasn’t had a player of his ilk since Clarence Swannegan in the very early 80s.

Smith is slender, swift and athletic. He also shows signs of being an excellent interior defender who has the ability to step out and hit jumpers on the offensive end. Most surprisingly, however, Smith appears far more polished than expected. He is ready to contribute right now.

Throw in sophomore guard Randy Onwuasor, who is dramatically improved over last season, 6-foot-10 freshman Isaiah Manderson, and soft-shooting forward Aaron Ross who should return from injury in January, and the makings are there for a very competitive team. But because almost half of the roster has never played a possession of D1 basketball, there will certainly be growing pains. Nevertheless, the foundation is in place for the resurgence of Texas Tech basketball.

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