In the hyper-competitive world of Division I college basketball, rebuilding a ramshackle program that has known little other than misery for the better part of a decade, is an extremely difficult thing to do.
The difficulty is compounded when the program in question is rather isolated from prime basketball recruiting grounds. And to restore such a program by recruiting only players with strong academic habits and high moral character is trebly daunting.
But now, after a season that saw the Texas Tech Red Raiders go 19-13 and make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006-07, we can safely say that Tubby Smith has accomplish the task with flying colors. Smith has not only restored Tech basketball to its winning ways, he has done so in a manner with which every Red Raider alumnus and fan can be proud.
The media and Big 12 coaches shared the same opinion as both groups projected the 2015-16 Red Raiders to yet again bring up the conference’s hindmost. And only the most optimistic homer picked Texas Tech to make it even to the NIT.
Clearly then, Tech’s quantum leap to the NCAA tournament took almost everybody by surprise, and that is why Tubby Smith won the Big 12’s Coach of the Year award, and the Sporting News’ National Coach of the Year honor.
Tech’s surprising season materialized through four distinct cycles. The first of these was comprised of Tech’s non-conference slate and the Big 12 opener against Texas. During that period the Red Raiders went 11-1, including a rare victory over the Longhorns.
Prior to the season, the non-conference schedule may not have looked too difficult. But the devil is in the details. For while the casual fan might have thought the obstacles were “Power 7” conference teams Minnesota, Mississippi State and Utah, the reality was that mid-majors High Point, Hawaii, South Dakota State, and Arkansas-Little Rock presented the real stumbling blocks.
Utah, which was indeed a very good team, along with that quartet of mid-majors, all made it to postseason play, and every team except High Point appeared in the NCAA tournament. Consequently, this deceptively difficult non-conference slate, combined with the Big 12 gauntlet, vaulted Tech’s strength of schedule-rating into the top five for most of the season.
But Tech not only played a tough non-conference schedule, they beat that collection of cobras and mambas lying in the weeds. The Red Raiders took out High Point, Hawaii, South Dakota State and UALR. And after Tech knocked off Texas in the Big 12 opener, one began to get an inkling that these Red Raiders might be just a little bit better than expected.
From Jan. 6 through Jan. 30, Texas Tech won just one game and dropped seven others. Particular lowlights were a 13-point loss at Kansas State and a 24-point defeat at Oklahoma. Painful in a different way were extremely close home losses to Baylor and West Virginia, and an overtime loss at Arkansas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. The combination of heartbreakers and bloodbaths could have killed Tech’s will, but the Red Raiders were not done with the season quite yet.
Phase three was Texas Tech’s breakthrough. It began with a gritty overtime win over Oklahoma State on Feb. 3, reached a crescendo with consecutive wins over the ranked Cyclones of Iowa State, a ranked Baylor squad in Waco by 18 points, and the No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners on Feb. 17. The Red Raiders concluded this period by beating Oklahoma State again, and TCU, and losing by only nine points to No. 1 Kansas in Lawrence.
When the dust settled following Texas Tech’s incendiary stretch, the Red Raiders had a firm place in virtually every NCAA tournament bracket in captivity. It was a borderline hardwood miracle.
Tech would, of course, justify the confidence of the bracketologists by making the field of 68 as a No. 8 seed pitted against Butler. But unfortunately, the Red Raiders entered a fourth phase before doing battle with the Bulldogs in the Big Dance.
Warning bells sounded when West Virginia mopped the floor with the Red Raiders in Morgantown. This was the only game of the entire season in which Texas Tech was never even in it, never remotely competitive. The Red Raiders lost by 22 but it felt more like 44.
Tech rebounded somewhat, but a nine-point victory over Kansas State on Senior Day in Lubbock was workmanlike rather than inspired, and did little to diminish the unease stemming from the loss in Morgantown. Though it did all but cement the Red Raiders' spot in the tournament and produced a memorable day for the team and many Tech fans.
TCU confirmed the suspicion that the Red Raiders were in a funk, when the last place Horned Frogs summarily bounced Tech from the Big 12 tourney in the first round.
The Red Raiders capped off phase four, and their impressive season, by dropping a 10-point decision to Butler in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Despite a finish that saw Tech lose four of its last five game, the season was an unqualified success. Making the season all the more exciting was the fact that the team lost only two players—Toddrick Gotcher and Devaugntah Williams. The season gives every indication of being only the beginning, a prelude to greater glory ahead. We will look to that future in part two of this piece.