Following the disappointing 16-17 season, there was a lot of pessimism surrounding the Texas Tech Basketball program heading into a new season. The Red Raiders were voted to finish 7th (again) in the Big 12 Conference by the conference’s coaches. The AP Poll did not include them in their Preseason 25. A deep run in the tournament? Absolutely out of the question. The odds for a championship coming to Lubbock were +40000. For reference, Little Rock was given +42500 odds and Alabama State clocked in at +50000. Little Rock went on to go 7-25 and Alabama State finished at 8-23.
Yet only 3 weeks into the season, it was obvious how understated the talent of this team was.
The season opened in Lubbock against a non-power 5 opponent, as it always had in the Chris Beard Era. The Red Raiders made short work of South Alabama and Maine in their first 2 games. The freshman Zhaire Smith looked impressive off the bench, scoring 25 points on 82% shooting during that 2 game stretch. The competition would quickly become much more testing as the Red Raiders headed to Connecticut for the Basketball HOF Tip-Off Tournament. Against Boston College, the Eagles displayed some serious offensive firepower as their entire starting five scored in double-digits. This wasn’t enough to overpower Texas Tech, as Keenan Evans scored a (then) career-high 29 points and led the Red Raiders to an 11 point victory. The next day, the team would square off against #20 Northwestern. Tech entered as a 3 point favorite and was prepared for a battle to the final second. When that final second came, Tech had absolutely annihilated Northwestern and won by a whopping 36 points. Keenan Evans shined again, scoring 25 points and solidified the notion that he was this team’s leader.
Back home in the USA, the Red Raiders beat Wofford behind freshman Jarrett Culver’s 21 points off the bench. The next game was a routing of Savannah State led by Jarrett Culver, Zhaire Smith, and Brandone Francis Jr. who all scored in double-digits off the bench. Now 6-0 to start the season, Texas Tech came in at #22 in the third AP poll of the season, their first time in the AP Poll since December 2009. Yet with a new ranking comes some added pressure, and it doesn’t help that the team was headed back to the East Coast for their toughest game thus far - Seton Hall in Madison Square Garden.
This Seton Hall team was really good, led by a blossoming Myles Powell and the explosive veteran Desi Rodriguez, who’d be playing in his hometown of New York City. Texas Tech led the game at halftime, but as the second half started, the Pirates began making threes like they were layups. The hometown hero Desi Rodriguez scored 24 points, that in addition to Myles Powell’s 19 was too much for the Red Raiders as they fell 79-89. Despite a tough loss, there was a lot of hope. The young duo of Jarrett Culver and Zhaire Smith combined for 28 points off the bench and Keenan Evans had yet another night over 20 points. It was a good loss to a good team. The loss would bump them back down to unranked status, the last time this season they’d be out of the Top 25.
As the team headed back to Lubbock, they wouldn’t be returning for another cupcake game. Nevada would be in town, led by the absolutely dominant Martin twins. The Wolf Pack rolled into the USA ranked #22 and were an 8-0 team, including a quality win over Rhode Island.
The Martin twins were sharp all game for Nevada. They shot a combined 50 points on 68.5% shooting from the field. The Red Raiders didn’t lead in the game until the final minutes. The last-minute was full of theatrics. Keenan Evans missed a layup for the tie which was then rebounded by Justin Gray. As Gray went for the putback he was fouled, sending him to the line with 23 seconds left. He sunk both free throws and tied the game. Nevada’s Jordan Caroline had what seemed to be a great look from three to win it with 3 seconds left, but out of nowhere came Zach Smith who blocked the shot and sent the game into OT. Keenan Evans erupted in OT scoring eight more points, giving him a new career high of 32 for the game. The dominant performance led Tech to an 82-76 win.
The Red Raiders were back in the national rankings at #24 as they closed out their non-conference schedule. They had two well-rounded wins against Kennesaw State and Rice. The bench exploded against Florida Atlantic as 6 guys finished in double figures. In their final non-conference game, the defense took over, holding Abilene Christian to 47 points, no match for Texas Tech’s 74.
The next game the Red Raiders played would be against Baylor, a team that was becoming a favorite in the Big 12. Although their record was impressive at 11-1, there were some question marks around this Texas Tech team. The squad was really struggling to shoot the ball behind the arc. Outside of Keenan Evans, the freshmen Jarrett Culver and Davide Moretti looked like the top two shooters on the team. Unfortunately, these two were inexperienced and inconsistent. Zhaire Smith was looking like a very promising freshman as well, but his offense was only generated inside the paint.
Would these question marks be answered with confidence or show the weaknesses this team wouldn’t be able to fix?