Through 20 games of the 2016 Texas Tech basketball season the program showed a glimmer of hope for the future, real promise to look forward to down the road.
Familiar phrases such as "The NIT would be a heck of an accomplishment for where this program has been." and "There's always next year, right?" with a wink and a grin were tossed around Lubbock by some ever hopeful Red Raider fans.
Then the calendar flipped to February and BAM! as assistant coach Joe Esposito likes to say, everything changed.
After beginning the season 12-8 overall, 2-6 in the Big 12, the Red Raiders have won 6-of-7 games, including five in a row and three consecutive upsets of ranked opponents this month against the gauntlet that is the Big 12. It hasn't just been impressive or eye opening, it's been downright historic.
It all started with Devaugntah Williams' last-second layup to beat Oklahoma State, 63-61, in overtime on Feb. 3. After blowing several late-game opportunities earlier in the season Tech finally won a close one, gritted it out so to speak.
Tech would fall 69-59, to a ranked UT squad in Austin the following game despite hanging close for much of the contest. Then the streak started with an 85-82 OT win over No. 14 Iowa State on Feb. 10, followed by an eye-popping schillacking of No. 21 Baylor in Waco and epic upset of No. 3 Oklahoma at the USA, in which students were literally shotgunning beer on the court after the game in celebration.
The trio of wins marked the first time in program history the Red Raiders defeated ranked opponents in three consecutive games.
Tech then hit the road for a Feb. 20 matchup against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, a place where the Red Raiders hadn't won since 2003, and handled the Cowboys by 10. It looked as if Tech had finally fallen back to Earth the following game as the last place Horned Frogs raced out to 14-point first half lead and 12-point cushion by halftime. Well, the Red Raiders erased that deficit in less than six minutes of gametime in the second half and went on to squeak by a game TCU squad to claim its fifth consecutive Big 12 win for the first time. Ever.
So who are these guys? How are Tubby, the staff and players pulling this off?
"You have to have talent to compete in this league or at any level and we've got some talented players that are playing to their potential. We always talk about overachieving, playing harder and playing smarter," said head coach Tubby Smith following the win over TCU. "So I think we have some players that are recognizing that if I don't play harder and if I don't play smarter, we're not going to win. It's just taken time, although we have stayed positive, I think that's been the key all season long, even when we had some tough losses early in conference play.
"I knew we just needed to catch a break and win some close games to give us that confidence, but our kids never lost faith, they never lost confidence and they kept working hard. They got in the gym more and got up some shots, just coming in in the morning for a lift... you just have to work harder and I think that's what our kids have done."
National pundits are singing Texas Tech's praises as one of the hottest teams in the nation. Joe Lunardi currently has the Red Raiders as an 8th seed in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament.
Jay Bilas recently named Tubby Smith as one of his leading candidates for national coach of the year.
CampusInsiders.com asked recently if junior forward Aaron Ross was the best sixth man in the country. The country.
Thousands of Red Raider fans must be pinching themselves as these recent events truly were hard to fathom even just a month ago.
It has been suggested in some corners of the Red Raider fanbase that national media and the country at-large has a bias against Texas Tech or even the university's PR department and athletic communications office should do more to establish the brand.
You know what helps the brand? Winning. Winning big and that's exactly what Tubby and his Techsters have done so far this month.
Now before we close the chapter on this monumental month there is one big, fat, juicy cherry of an opportunity on top of this February hardwood sundae otherwise known as a matchup with the Big 12 bullies on the block, NCAA hoops blueblood, No. 2 Kansas 11 a.m. (CT) Saturday at Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence.
But, there's no way Tech can beat Kansas at the Phog., right?
- The main statistical jump is in 3-point shooting percentage. Going from 30.9% in the previous 20 games to 41.5% over the past seven is obviously a HUGE jump.
- Another obvious main ingredient to Tech's recent success is its ability to get to the free throw line. The Red Raiders MADE over 10 more shots at the charity strip than their opponents during the seven-game stretch. That's a tremendous advantage.
- It should be noted that while the points for and points against stats above show little change between the first 20 games and last 7, when comparing just Tech's past five Big 12 games against the first eight, it's almost exactly a 10-point swing in favor of the Red Raiders.
Note: Evans scored a career-high in points with 22 and steals with four to go with five assists in Texas Tech's 84-66 landslide upset of Baylor in Waco back on Feb. 13.
Note: The four-time first team academic All-Big 12 member nailed five treys en route to a career-high 24 points in Tech's 71-61 win over Oklahoma State in Sillwater on Feb. 20.
Note: The other first team academic All-Big 12 member on the squad scored 15 and 17 points, respectively in consecutive upset wins over No. 14 Iowa State and No. 21 Baylor.
Note: Tech's sixth man has scored in double figures in eight-straight games including a career-high 25 on 12-for-12 from the charity stripe in a 83-79 win over TCU on Feb. 23.
Note: Smith leads Tech in rebounding (7.1 per game) and blocked shots (1.6) and is one of four Red Raiders who average double-digit scoring on the season.
Note: Temple tied his career-high in scoring with 11 points in Tech's 71-61 win at Oklahoma State on Feb. 20.
Note: Thomas scored four points, dished out two assists and dug out a pair of steals in 17 minutes of action off the bench in Tech's 83-79 comeback win over TCU.
Note: Williams scored 19 points, pulled down five rebounds and collected four steals to help Tech upset No. 14 Iowa State in OT back on Feb. 10.