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The Rise: Vol. 2

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Chris Beard and Texas Tech rise to the occasion of a grueling four game stretch

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

After the domination of Abilene Christian, Texas Tech began preparing for the Baylor Bears to come to town. Baylor began to look like a competitor in the conference and were voted to finish 5th during the preseason coaches poll. The Bears had two quality wins against Wisconsin and Creighton, but also suffered two losses from No. 21 Xaiver and No. 6 Wichita State. They came into Lubbock on a 5 game win streak led by repetitive dominant performances from their three talented seniors. Coming into the game, G Manu Lecomte was the second leading scorer in Big 12 and the best three-point shooter in the conference. Nuni Omot had posted multiple double-digit games, and 7-footer Jo Acuil had six double-doubles in 12 games - but Acuil wasn’t present for this match up due to injury.

From the opening whistle the Red Raiders were blazing hot. The game had multiple deep scoring runs, including a stretch where Tech went 14-0. Baylor only had 9 points up to the 4-minute mark. By the time the buzzer sounded to end the first half, it would’ve been understandable for the refs to call the game then — Tech led 40-19 going into the break. In the second half, the foot was taken off the gas just a bit. Baylor was outscored by only 3 points in the second half, yet this was still enough for the Red Raiders to walk away with a 77-53 victory. This was the first time a ranked TTU team had beaten another ranked team since 2005.

Baylor was dominated on the glass; a direct attack on their identity. There were three Tech players with at least 5 boards. This was the game where this Tech defense began to look surreal. The Bears finished the game with only 3 assists as many of their players were forced onto islands they didn’t know how to get off of. They also shot only 25% from range, including the best shooter in the conference shooting 16% on threes. Despite an early injury that held Zach Smith to just 4 minutes, the offense ran very smoothly for Texas Tech. They shot a 40.9 3P%, an improvement something that had been struggling with all season. Seniors Niem Stevenson and Keenan Evans, along with the talented freshmen duo off the bench of Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver, were all in double figures. It was a beautiful game, but the work was far from over. Next up, the reigning conference champs in the toughest atmosphere in college basketball: the Kansas Jayhawks.

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Texas Tech
Baylor’s Manu Lecomte (20) tries to score over Texas Tech Red Raiders guard Zaire Smith (2)
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It feels redundant to say at this point, but this Kansas team was really good. Their leader, senior Devonte’ Graham, became exponentially better as every year of college passed. In the 13 games leading up to the Texas Tech matchup, he averaged 17.2 PPG, 1.8 STL, 3.9 REB, and 7.6 APG. In addition to the future Big 12 POTY, the Jayhawks had weapons everywhere. There was the sharpshooting Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, big man Udoka Azubuike, the defensive clamps of Marcus Garrett, and high scoring guards Malik Newman and Lagerald Vick. Beating this team would be difficult. Doing it in Allen Fieldhouse? Nearly impossible.

Well - not for this team.

Another hot start by the Red Raiders allowed them to gain momentum early; a key piece to winning. They once led by 16 in the first half, and wouldn’t trail the entire game. The staple no-middle defense forced Kansas to rely on the three-ball, which they responded to by shooting 23.1% from range. Tech capitalized on a panicky opponent, outscoring the Jayhawks 26-8 off turnovers. A true team win, no Red Raider had more than 15 points and the bench accounted for 42 points. Despite a 27 point showing from Devonte’ Graham (13 of which were earned from the line), Tech would beat Kansas 85-73, their first win ever in the Phog. 85 points would be the second most they scored in conference play that season.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Kansas
Texas Tech Red Raiders center Norense Odiase (32) dunks the ball as Kansas Jayhawks center Udoka Azubuike (35) looks on
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Next up, K-State would be heading to the USA. The Kansas State Wildcats were led by their two dominant juniors in G Barry Brown and F Dean Wade. The young duo of Cartier Diarra and Xaiver Sneed looked like the future of the program. Outside of these players, the Wildcats lacked a lot of depth and experience. This is something Texas Tech and its 10 (sometimes 11) man rotation would quickly exploit.

The Red Raiders got off to a hot start - seeing a pattern yet? Lock-down defense in combination with the explosive offense was impossible to stop when players were fresh at the start of the game. This allowed them, time and time again, to build an early lead that was colossal & impossible to overcome. This game would start with a whopping 20-4 run from Tech. Not only was the defense sharp, the offense was extremely efficient and was shooting at 70% when the first half ended. At halftime, the Red Raiders led 40-22. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, one of their best scorers - Kamau Stokes - went down with an injury in the first half and wouldn’t return to the game. This added to the doubt that any kind of comeback would be possible.

The Wildcats came out the break ready to play, led by Dean Wade who helped spark a 16-8 run for K-State. What once was an 18 point lead shrunk to single digits with a little over 11 minutes to go. When a game of basketball gets close: good coaching matters. Chris Beard’s defense quickly began to takeover. The team forced 3 straight turnovers that led to points, dumping a bucket of water on the Wildcats fire. Despite being outscored in the second half, Texas Tech won the game with ease 74-58. It was another impressive night for Keenan Evans who scored 27. The only other Red Raider in double digits was Zhaire Smith with 11. The team was now 3-0 to start conference play, which included two wins over Top 25 teams. More impressively, they hadn’t even trailed in a conference game yet. Those impressive starts were carrying them to the finish line. But the challenges were far from over. The next game, everything would need to click as they headed to Norman to face an offensive anomaly.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Texas Tech
Kansas State Wildcats forward Dean Wade (32) controls the ball against Texas Tech Red Raiders forward Zach Smith (11)
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Sooners were led by one of the most dominant players the Big 12 had ever seen - Trae Young. The first game of Trae’s career was bit rocky, scoring just 15 points on 30% shooting against Omaha. Yet Young quickly shifted into one of the best players in the nation. In the 13 games since his college debut and leading up to the Tech match up, he would average 30.5 PTS, 10.2 AST, and 1.8 STL all while shooting 47% from the field. These are video game type numbers; numbers that would end up giving him the highest PPG average in Big 12 history. The Red Raiders would have to find ways to stop Trae while also being without one of their best defenders in Zach Smith. To add some weight to the game, this would also be a Top 10 match-up. Oklahoma was ranked No. 9 and Texas Tech was also now in the AP Top 10 at No. 8, their first time back in the Top 10 since the 1995-96 season.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Oklahoma
Oklahoma Sooners guard Trae Young (11)
Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

The game plan looked really good to start the game. Texas Tech - now nationally a top 5 team in scoring defense - shut Oklahoma down early. The held the best scoring team in the nation to just 29 points on 31% shooting from the field. More importantly, the defensive plan for Young looked to be working perfectly. Trae was held to just 5 points and an egregious 8.3 shooting percentage. The two point halftime lead wasn’t enough for the Red Raiders to coast in the second half, but it was something for them to build upon.

It would quickly become clear that Trae Young wasn’t someone you could plan for. No matter what you did, he would adjust with you and find gaps in your defense. He knocked down his first three pointer just a few minutes into the second half, and for the rest of the game he was a human torch. The second half for the Sooners was a completely different story than the first. Their 31 FG% in the first half would become 56% in the second. Young was extremely more efficient at 54% shooting. The defense of Oklahoma was also sharp, holding the Red Raiders to 37% shooting and Evans was the only player to get into double digits. All the firepower of OU, along with 15 TTU turnovers, was too much for Tech to overcome. The Red Raiders had lost their first conference game, 75-65.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Tech at Oklahoma
Oklahoma Sooners guard Trae Young (11) looks to pass the ball while defended by Texas Tech Red Raiders guard Niem Stevenson (10)
Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

This loss proved one thing - the Red Raiders weren’t invincible. The team would need to find a way to rebound, and fast, as they only had 4 days to prepare for No. 2 West Virginia. Luckily for Tech, the Mountaineers would be heading into Lubbock.

As damn good as he was, it was becoming clear that this team needed more offense outside of Keenan Evans. Jarrett Culver started to look like a great option off the bench. Norense Odiase became reliable in the paint. Zhaire Smith had become a wildcard with a high ceiling. Would one of them help the team beat WVU? Would it be someone else? Would it not be enough - leading the Red Raiders to their second straight loss? Find out next week.