The Texas Tech 2015-2016 basketball season came to a close yesterday, as the #8 seed Red Raiders fell to #9 seed Butler 71-61. It was the first NCAA tournament appearance for the program since 2007. By all accounts, Texas Tech outperformed preseason expectations. Many fans believe with good reason that this was just the tip of the iceberg.
Let’s start with the overwhelming positives going forward:
1. Tubby Smith
By now you have surely read all the great things anybody and everybody has to say about coach Tubby Smith. The man is a national champion who has taken five different teams to the NCAA tournament, and as quickly as year three in Lubbock we have seen him work his magic before our eyes. Texas Tech has gone from a doormat to a tournament team with the potential to play with almost anybody in the country during his tenure. As long as he’s in Lubbock, the program is in good hands.
2. Big game experience
It’s difficult to overstate how valuable the NCAA tournament appearance is for all the returning players. Even if they simply sat on the bench for 40 minutes yesterday, being immersed in that kind of atmosphere is a legitimate maturation process.
But even more than that, this year’s team knocked off Oklahoma in a nail biter, won in overtime against Oklahoma State and Iowa State, beat Texas, and blew out Baylor in Waco. In the non-conference, they wound up playing four tournament teams in Utah, South Dakota State, Hawaii, and Arkansas-Little Rock.
Next year’s Red Raider squad shouldn't be intimidated by a big game atmosphere. They’ve been there, and in a lot of cases, succeeded. Composure in big games is invaluable during conference play and postseason tournaments. For the first time in a long time, this program has that experience.
3. Young core of talent
The core of this team is still pretty young, and has a lot returning next season. Sophomores Zach Smith, Justin Gray, and Norense Odiase will be the anchors of next year’s team, and the trio should be among the best the program has had in a while.
Zach Smith has been praised by Tubby as the most athletic player he’s ever coached. A lanky shot blocker who can finish strong at the rim, he adds a lot to both ends of the floor. Justin Gray seemed to get better and better as the season wore on, especially improving as a scorer during stretches of conference play. Odiase missed a large portion of the season with a foot injury, but has proven to be a potent force inside the paint.
Also returning are big men Matt Temple, who was once in a fraternity intramural league, and Aaron Ross, each of whom improved as the season went along as well. Throw in the talented but raw Jordan Jackson and C.J. Williamson, and it’s easy to see the potential this team will have over the next couple of years.
4. Home court advantage
A funny thing happens when you beat Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa State at home and reach the NCAA tournament: the fans start paying attention. They also start paying money for tickets to come watch you play. The excitement among the fan base in Lubbock for next season’s squad should be at level we haven’t seen in a long time. A loud home crowd translates into even more home wins.
5. Clear expectations
Now that we know what this team is capable of, and they have the talent to keep up with some of the best teams in the country, expectations for next year should be crystal clear. To take the next step as a program, I think the goal should be to finish in the top half of the Big 12 and to win a game in the NCAA tournament. Some may view expectations as a burdensome pressure, but I believe they’re more of a motivating factor.
The only glaring negative I see is that two senior leaders in Toddrick Gotcher and Devaugntah Williams will be exiting the program. Of course, every team deals with seniors leaving every year, but these two stood out as the two go-to guys when the team really needed a shot.
Gotcher made huge plays in the second half against Oklahoma to help secure a win, while "DWill hit Dshot to win Dgame" against Oklahoma State. And when the pair struggled at times against Butler, the impact on the team was noticeable.
I have full confidence that next year’s core of juniors will step up and be great leaders, but that doesn’t mean this pair of guards won’t be missed, especially in clutch situations.
While I was ultimately disappointed in yesterday’s result, I am thrilled at how well the season turned out considering preseason conceptions, or misconceptions, about how successful Texas Tech would be. And I can’t wait until next year, when I think the Red Raiders will be even better.