Improvement Could Come in a New York Minute

Despite the recent struggle by the Texas Tech men's basketball squad, brighter days could be ahead sooner than one might think.

In periods of dark despair, it is often impossible to imagine better days ahead. Tubby Smith’s Texas Tech basketball team is mired in just such a slough of despond.

The Red Raiders now stand at 10-8 for the season and 0-5 in Big 12 play. Tech has lost five in a row and seven of their last eight. What’s more the average margin of defeat during this stretch has been 16 points. Honestly, the Red Raiders haven’t even been close.

And the final minor chord in this hoops threnody was a 20-point home loss to a TCU team that had gone winless in its 23 previous Big 12 games. The 42 points scored against the Frogs was Tech’s lowest output since putting up just 38 against Texas A&M on February 14, 2012. Texas Tech, no great shakes last year, at least managed to beat the Horned Frogs twice.

So then, very little to be happy about, and to all appearances, not much to look forward to from the Red Raider basketball program, right?

Well, granted, the situation looks pretty sad. But a check of Tech’s not too distant basketball history suggests that dramatic improvement could come, even if it doesn’t happen this season.

In 2000-01, James Dickey’s last season at the helm of the Tech basketball program, the Red Raiders, despite having some good talent and playing in a weak Big 12 conference, had a dreadful campaign.

Dickey’s roster included junior Andy Ellis and a couple of freshmen named Mikey Marshall and Andre Emmett. The Big 12 sent six teams to the 2001 NCAA tournament, but four of them (Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas) were one and done. Missouri managed to win one game before bowing out, and Kansas, a number four seed, was the conference’s lone success story, managing to reach the Sweet 16.

Despite possessing some talent and playing in a poor conference, however, the Red Raiders limped home with an overall mark of 9-18, 3-13 in Big 12 play, and 6-5 in non-conference action. Non-conference defeats included home losses to Alabama-Birmingham (89-71) and Texas A&M Corpus Christi (92-78), a 91-71 neutral site loss to Ball State, and a 92-78 road loss to TCU. After 18 games—Tech’s current juncture—the Red Raiders stood at 8-10.

During those gloomy days, folks in Lubbock were feeling much like they do right about now. But, my how quickly things turned around.

Bob Knight—a Hall of Fame coach, not unlike Tubby Smith—appeared on the scene and Tech’s fortunes took an immediate turn for the better. For the 2001-02 season, the Red Raiders went 23-9, 10-6 in Big 12 play and 13-3 in non-conference action. They also scored an NCAA tourney invite but were bounced in the first round by Southern Illinois. Still, a remarkable turnaround, and one foreseen by virtually nobody.

What’s more, Tech got 10 conference wins in a truly brutal Big 12. The conference again sent six teams to the Big Dance, but Oklahoma and Kansas reached the final four, Missouri made the Elite Eight, and Texas made it to the Sweet 16. And the Red Raiders pounded the Sooners in Lubbock, incidentally.

Aside from Knight’s masterful coaching, what made the difference? Experience, and the addition of a key player.

The 2001-02 Red Raiders were led by Tech’s version of Arkansas’ Triplets. The aforementioned Ellis and Emmett carried the Red Raiders, along with an unheralded JUCO recruit by the name of Kasib Powell.

In that season, Ellis was a senior and Emmett was a sophomore, as was key role player Mikey Marshall. Yet, a year’s additional experience made Emmett and Marshall much better players, Ellis developed into a senior leader, and Powell provided another scoring option as well as the ability to homogenize Tech’s offense with his high post play. Put it all together and the Red Raiders developed into a fine basketball team, one much better than people expected.

The current Tech team bears some resemblance to the team that transitioned from poor in 2000-01 to very good in 2001-02.

The Red Raiders are young, but appear also to have some talent. Freshman forward Zach Smith was described by Tubby Smith as being Tech’s most productive and consistent player. Big post players Norense Odiase and Isaiah Manderson are raw but have some skills. Point guard Keenan Evans shows flashes, and will benefit tremendously from a year in Tech’s strength and conditioning program. And forward Justin Gray, probably the most talented of all the freshmen, has had his freshman year wiped out by knee tendonitis.

Is it possible that one of these freshmen will develop into a player of Andre Emmett’s caliber? Will one of them make himself into a critical role player the way Mikey Marshall did? The odds are good that the answer to both questions is yes.

Then there’s JUCO transfer Devaugntah Williams. Could he step up and have a terrific senior season as Andy Ellis did? It’s entirely possible.

And then, in incoming freshmen Jordan Jackson and C.J. Williamson, it is feasible that Tubby Smith could find another scoring option, just as Bob Knight found one in Kasib Powell.

So, as tempting as it may be to succumb to negativity and to write off Tubby Smith as a coach who no longer has his mojo, the wise approach is to grit your teeth and soldier through what looks to be an extremely difficult season, safe in the likelihood that much brighter days are ahead. TCU coach Trent Johnson said that the Red Raiders will be “scary good, and sooner rather than later.” If history is any indicator, the Horned Frog boss may well be right.

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