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Texas Tech basketball: A season in review

Looking back at the year that defied expectation and broke the historic ceiling

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Villanova vs Texas Tech Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Again and again you’ll read how thankful Red Raider fans have been for the way this team has battled throughout the year. From being picked to finish seventh in the Big Twelve, losing players, and ultimately climbing the ladder of the conference/tournament - this team was anything but mediocre. Let’s take some time to look at what made this season special.

WHERE WE STARTED

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Media Day Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It was on October 24, 2017 that the Big 12 had its media day and fans from all corners of the conference tuned in to hear what their coaches had to say about the upcoming season. For Texas Tech, a new take on a familiar face rose to the podium. Coach Chris Beard entered his second season with Texas Tech after having a not-so-flashy year prior finishing 18-14 with a 6-12 conference record.

Coach Beard was convinced that the 2017-2018 year was going to be special for the Big 12 as a whole. “It has a chance to be a special year... especially for Texas Tech because of our seniors,” stated Beard. He mentioned that Texas Tech was in a unique position with five seniors and seven freshman, most notably Keenan Evans and Zach Smith. Coach Beard highlighted their off-season focus on conditioning as well as honing the defensive presence versus various offensive schemes. Before the season kicked off, Texas Tech had been picked to finish at no. 7 in the Big 12 (per coach voting).

Non-Con

The non-conference slate for the Red Raiders was filled with a variety of opponents. Some of the more notable opponents came in the form of Boston College, Northwestern, Seton Hall and Nevada. Texas Tech didn’t reach its first loss until they crossed paths with the Seton Hall Pirates - a game where the Red Raiders lead at the half but were outscored in the second for their first loss of the season. Despite the loss, they returned to Lubbock and were victorious against a very good Nevada team after battling through overtime. The Nevada game is probably where we were first introduced to the second-half Keenan Evans (he scored 25 of his 32 points in the second half).

Going 11-1 in the non-conference with wins against quality teams like Nevada gave the Red Raiders confidence moving forward.

Conference (+SEC week)

Opening up conference play, Texas Tech played Baylor in what could have been one of their best first-half defensive performances of the season. Holding Baylor to just 19 points and scoring 40 points after one half of play, the Red Raiders looked to be worth the hype. The game ended well in the Raiders’ favor with a stout score of 77-53. A notable issue in such a great win, however, was Zach Smith going down with a (seeming) ankle injury.

The next game was the big one. The largest test of the season; a date with the Kansas Jayhawks in Lawrence, Kansas. The Red Raiders were locked in. Not only did Texas Tech hold Kansas to its lowest first half production of the season (32 points, until they played Oklahoma State in March) but the team saw five different players in double digits. Texas Tech came out of the Phog with the program’s first ever victory in the Allen Field House.

Texas Tech didn’t let off of the pedal when it faced off against Kansas State, winning 74-58, but it did run into some trouble against Oklahoma. Zach Smith did not suit up for the Oklahoma game. It was disclosed that Smith had a broken foot (dating back to the Baylor game) and would likely be out for the foreseeable future. The Sooners would win the day and hand the Red Raiders their second loss of the season. In the immediate wake of Smith’s injury the Red Raiders squeaked by West Virginia but lost two games against Iowa State then Texas.

The Red Raiders regained some confidence after coming back from a 15 point deficit against Oklahoma State to stop their losing steak. Evans put on his superhero cape again to put up 22 points in the second half (26 total). This was just the boost that the team needed going into the annual Big 12 versus SEC basketball weekend. Texas Tech was matched up against South Carolina - a team that played serious defense and was known to disrupt good teams.

The Red Raiders and Gamecocks battled it out the entire game. Throughout the second half, South Carolina was able to gain a lead that (at the rate the game was going) looked like it may very well meant curtains for Coach Beard and team. Instead, the validation of Texas Tech’s ability to stay mentally tough in difficult situations triumphed. The Red Raiders took the lead after Evans nailed a three pointer, and never let up until the final buzzer put a 70-63 game to bed. The victory over an SEC team in such a manner put Texas Tech on the war path.

The next five games were straight vengeance. Texas, TCU, Iowa State, Kansas State and Oklahoma all fell to a Red Raider’s team that was hell bent on showing the nation they meant business. The two to highlight here are Texas then Oklahoma. The game against Texas on January 31st was insane. There were plenty of highlights to be had but the star of the night was Keenan Evans. Not only did Evans hang 38 points of his own on the Longhorns but he delivered the legendary buzzer-beater in overtime to seal the game 73-71.

Then Oklahoma came to town. This game was special for its own reasons but ultimately it came down to stalling Oklahoma’s offensive production and claiming much desired revenge for their previous meeting. For most this game became something of a match-up between Trae Young and Keenan Evans (classic). A freshman sensation versus a gritty senior in the United Supermarkets Arena? Who wouldn’t pay to see that. Fortune favored the experienced and Evans ended up having a terrific night putting up 26 points overall. The game ended well in Texas Tech’s favor, 88-78.

The following games marked a skid for the Red Raiders that challenged our ability to clinch or share the title of the Big 12. Against Baylor (who was heating up tremendously), Evans went down before the half with some sort of foot injury that kept him from being able to play further. The game was left in the capable hands of the rest of the team but unfortunately Baylor was able to sneak away with a big victory against Tech. Then the team had to play an incredibly awkward game against Oklahoma State where their stadium was fairly empty due to winter weather. Evans was back on the court but despite 25 minutes of playing time he only managed 2 points. Something was clearly off. Texas Tech fell to the Cowboys 79-71 and the home crowd that was present rushed the court.

Then it came. Gameday.

We were waiting throughout the season as the Red Raiders kept winning to see if ESPN College Gameday would consider the Texas Tech/Kansas match up to be worth the price of admission (spoiler alert: it was). After a wild morning of theatrics, it came to game time and there was a special return on the lineup for Texas Tech: Zach Smith. Serious rehab and determination by the 6’8 forward enabled him to get back into form over a month before doctors predicted. The game tipped off and before a minute passed, Justin Gray was given a concussion by Udoka Azubuike’s massive boulder-shoulder.

Missing Gray’s defensive ability, Kansas was able to capitalize on making big points off of transition plays. Texas Tech battled back in the second half, but Gray’s absence, Zach Smith’s first game back and Evans’ shaky foot - the Red Raiders were unable to close out against a talented Jayhawks team. All things considered, Tech only lost by two points. The next game against West Virginia then became an opportunity to rest key players. Coach Beard kept the three previous players off the court for the match up against the Mountaineers in preparation for the two tournaments coming up.

The final game against TCU went well enough to put some confidence back in the team, and wrapped up the conference play placing Texas Tech firmly in second place in front of West Virginia. Five places ahead of the preseason prediction in the toughest conference is something worth remembering as we look back onto the 2017-18 season.

WHAT WENT WELL

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

1. We might not have deserved Keenan, but he deserved this season.

You know it. I know it. The world knows it. Keenan Evans is one heck of a ball player. This season for Evans culminated a tough four years of working hard under both Coach Smith and then Coach Beard. Each year both his position as leader of this team as well as his personal numbers raised game by game. Texas Tech hasn’t known for being a one and done university like some other power programs, but it certainly sees its fair share of dedicated and elite athletes like Evans. A number of games in the 2017-2018 season seemed out of reach after the half but there always was a flicker of hope that Keenan “second half” Evans would make an appearance. As the season went on, it became more like a flame of hope and then we became expectant. Not out of greed; but in respect to Evans’ game and his athletic ability to flip the switch. No. 12 thank you for battling for everything this year. Not even a broken foot stopped your passion for Texas Tech.

2. Jarret Culver and Zhaire Smith stepped up big time.

Two freshman, two relatively unknown names at the beginning of the season. These two athletes worked their way into the rotation in no time. Jarret Culver, a hometown recruit, might undoubtedly take the torch of leadership going forward. Culver averaged about eleven points during the season and, at times, looked to be in total control of the floor. Culver has plenty more to learn and plenty of confidence to build, but his presence on the floor this year certainly changed the outcome of a few games.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Villanova vs Texas Tech Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Zhaire Smith, on a similar note, could shift the momentum of an opponent’s run into their downfall with a single dunk. Smith could be crowned the most athletic player in the Big 12 for this season. The ability to lock down on defense, sniff out the ball on a layup and of course the ultimate power to dunk really, really well all leads to this off season’s biggest question: will the freshman Smith go to the NBA? No doubt a unique problem for Texas Tech to have a one and done player, but it is completely warranted with Smith’s performance this season on both sides of the ball.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Oklahoma Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

3. Our non-conference then conference records were stunning

Coach Beard has instilled a belief, a system, into the Red Raiders that every game is the most important game of their season. The story where a team has incredible success then tries to prepare for an important game after their upcoming ‘cupcake’ game happens all too often in sports. Lack of respect for your opponent will often times go unnoticed, but there are certain occasions where a team gets outplayed from their lack of preparation/drive. Texas Tech did not really see that this year. From the pressers to the paint, Texas Tech always had the most respect for their opponent and their opponent’s ability to win (whoever they played).

As a result, this Red Raider basketball team was able to withstand momentum swings, All Americans, ESPN favorites, blue chips, raucous crowds - you name it. This year’s team was possibly the most in tune and conditioned team in the existence of Texas Tech basketball and it showed in the record. Going forward, more teams are going to have to respect Tech’s ability to play and it’s all owed to this year’s production.

WHAT DIDN’T GO WELL

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

1. Injuries.

Coach Beard said it best, “it’s not about if you face adversity it’s when.” Adversity struck this team in a number of ways throughout the season but none more pronounced than injuries. The most notable of these was Zach Smith’s broken foot he received in Tech’s first game against Baylor. As a big guy on our defense, Smith’s wingspan was a difficulty for opponents. On the offensive side of the ball he made an easy target with his hand outstretched above his defender’s. The immediate repercussion of his absence (starting against Oklahoma) led to a small losing streak.

Another important injury was Keenan Evans’ “turf toe” he acquired during the second match up against Baylor. Like I mentioned earlier in the article, Evans came back for the next game against Oklahoma State. Yet despite his 25 minutes of playing time the only thing to come from that was two points. During the Kansas game, he played for over 30 minutes and contributed 6 points. It was unlike the Evans that Red Raider fans knew. After being benched against West Virginia he came roaring back to life against TCU scoring 23 points. Evans continued to progress with an injury we were all convinced was a “pain-tolerance” injury - but it wasn’t until after Texas Tech finished its season that we were illuminated to the reality of his broken toe. There will be speculation until the end of time about where this team could have gone had he not had an injury that was hindering his game, but it is what it is.

Another injury that may go under people’s radar is Justin Gray’s collision against Azubuike’s shoulder. In the first minute of the Kansas game, Gray was shifting along with Kansas’ offense but became unaware of a massive boulder-shoulder that was screen-ing its way to his temple. After going absolutely limp, Gray was taken off of the court and kept out for the remainder of the game. The defensive ability and rigidity that the 6’6 forward contributes is no small matter. After leaving the game, the Jayhawks were able to find more open looks or points in transition than was the norm for the Red Raider’s defense. Despite just being a one game injury, I would make the case that Gray’s presence in that game might have given Tech a sweep of Kansas and real momentum to take the Big 12 throne. But you know, speculation.

2. Losing conference games we should have won*

This one somewhat ties in with the issues of injury, but there’s also some games that need to be acknowledged for what they were. Losses against Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa State, and Baylor were all equally detrimental to Texas Tech’s chances at taking the Big 12 crown from Kansas. Omitting the West Virginia game, because it felt like a strategic loss, the other match ups seemed to be in the Red Raider’s favor. Faulty offensive production, playing away, weather, whatever you want to blame it on - they ended in losses.

*”should have won,” is never as sure as it sounds. The Big 12 is deceptively difficult so we’re never guaranteed a win.

HOW WE FINISHED

This year the post-season tournament wasn’t even a question. The NCAA tournament became a guaranteed thing somewhere in January. Despite the injuries, the team went into the NCAA tournament as healthy as they had been earlier in the season. A lot of sports pundits had claimed throughout the year that this Texas Tech team was built for the post-season but until the post-season came around it was just talk.

Tech was placed as a three seed and would face off with Stephen F. Austin in the round of 64. Known for their ability to upset the higher seeded teams, the Lumberjacks gave no rest to the Red Raiders in the first round. Their aggressive defensive style kept key players for Tech off the board for a good while. Up by three at the half, the Lumberjacks had all of the momentum to stop the Red Raiders dead in their tracks. The one thing they didn’t have though was Keenan Evans. His ability to put on the super hero cape and close games came roaring back to life against SFA, blitzing Tech past to a 70-60 win.

Then it was the round of 32. Florida had left St. Bonaventure in the dust for their first round and were looking to keep the run going against Texas Tech. Unlike the last game, this matchup proved to be much tighter for each team. As one scored a bucket, the other retaliated - so on and so forth. The Florida game epitomized Coach Beard’s “4 to 1” motto so well that in the last minute you could tell which team had been conditioning for that and who hadn’t. Florida let victory slip through their hands as a couple of baskets went Tech’s way and then an iconic dunk from Zhaire Smith put the game 6 feet under. Texas Tech was headed to a Sweet Sixteen match up after a confident 69-66 win in Dallas.

Then it was the Sweet Sixteen. Purdue had taken care of business against Butler and moved their sights towards Texas Tech. Their big issue? The big man himself. The 7’2 Isaac Haas was ruled out with a broken elbow, and pushed Matt Haarms into the starting role. Texas Tech would start a little sluggish against a larger Purdue team, getting outscored in the first several minutes. Yet at a beautiful point right over 11 minutes in the first half, Justin Gray went up for something we had not seen him do in a very long time: a dunk. His momentous act sparked a fire in the Red Raiders that had them on the gas the rest of the game. Tech played complete basketball and it showed in the box score as the Red Raiders dominated the Boilermakers 78-65. This would mark the first time that Texas Tech men’s basketball program had ever been in the Elite Eight.

Then it was the Elite Eight. Villanova. The undisputed No. 1. The team that had averaged over 80 points a game in the NCAA tournament and just steamrolled a West Virginia defense 90-78. The very same team that millions of people had put going all the way in their fantasy brackets. The Red Raiders were fighting frantically the whole first half but racked up fouls like it was their job. Villanova appeared to be back in cruise control and looking forward to a Final Four spot. The second half proved troublesome for the Wildcats, though, who were outscored by a voracious Red Raider’s team.

Ultimately time became Texas Tech’s greatest enemy and Villanova’s saving grace. The Wildcats defeated the Red Raiders a solid 71-59 points. There are some highlights from this game though (foul disparity aside): Villanova’s overall shooting percentage was 33.3% - their worst in 106 games. The last time they had a worse shooting percentage was in 2015 against Oklahoma. Villanova was also kept to a 16.7% three point percentage, the very part of their game that they had built an identity on. Texas Tech absolutely made them fight for the Final Four berth - and fight they did.

IN CLOSING

This 2017-2018 Texas Tech team is probably the best one we have ever had. They were fighters, they were athletes, they were dreamers but most importantly they were a team. Coach Beard has formed from the ashes of coaches past a culture in Lubbock, Texas. It is a culture of comradarie. It is a culture of winning. It is a culture of mental toughness. We are at a beautiful moment in Texas Tech men’s basketball history where no matter WHO they step out onto the court against - we know that they can beat them. See you next season.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports