Texas Tech basketball faces tough opening to Big 12 play

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - APRIL 06: Head coach Chris Beard of the Texas Tech Red Raiders looks on prior to the 2019 NCAA Final Four semifinal against the Michigan State Spartans at U.S. Bank Stadium on April 6, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - APRIL 06: Head coach Chris Beard of the Texas Tech Red Raiders looks on prior to the 2019 NCAA Final Four semifinal against the Michigan State Spartans at U.S. Bank Stadium on April 6, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

Business is going to pick up for the Texas Tech basketball team right off the bat in Big 12 play thanks to a though 3-game stretch to begin the conference season.

Put your boxing gloves on and get ready to get back into the ring because the two-and-a-half-month slugfest that is the round-robin Big 12 basketball season is upon us.  No more will we find on the schedule teams with two directions in their school name or with five letters in the abbreviation of that name.  And the Texas Tech basketball team will not have the luxury of easing into the conference portion of the year.

Greeting the eight Big 12 newcomers and the six freshmen on the roster will be a trio of games that range on the scale of difficulty from tricky to daunting.  It’s going to be a true baptism by fire for this reworked team.  Thankfully, it begins with a pair of home games.

This Saturday, Tech will host 9-3 Oklahoma State.  Remember that last time we saw the Cowboys?  Back in February, they scared the hell out of everyone in Scarlet in Black by taking Tech to OT before falling 84-80 inside the U.S.A.

Don’t sleep on the Pokes this year because they have virtually everyone back from that team, including the two sharpshooters that nearly carried them to the massive upset, Lindy Waters and Thomas Dziagwa.  That backcourt duo combined for 46 points and hit 13-19 shots from deep as OSU nailed 17 three-pointers on the night.

This year, the Cowboys have picked up wins against Syracuse and Ole Miss on a neutral court and against Houston on their own home floor, a tough place to play.  Their losses have come at home to 10-3 Georgetown and 11-1 Wichita State in back-to-back games and to a 7-5 Minnesota team that took them to the woodshed in a 20-point beating in Tulsa.

In that latest NCAA NET rankings, which is the ranking system that the selection committee uses to pick the NCAA Tournament field, OSU sits at No. 29.  That’s nine spots higher than Tech ranks.  Don’t sleep on the Cowboys Saturday.

What makes the OSU game a bit tricky is that it comes right before Tech hosts Baylor, currently the No. 4 team in the nation according to the Coaches Poll.  It’s hard to say that the Big 12 opener could be a trap game but don’t think that the showdown with the Bears isn’t on the players’ radar.

No. 7 in the NET rankings, Scott Drew’s team might have the best resume in the league this year with wins over Villanova, Arizona, and Butler (all of which were ranked at the time they fell to Baylor).  Meanwhile, their lone loss came at the hands of a Washington squad that has been ranked for most of this year in the second game of the year.

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Sophomore Jared Butler has taken his game to a new level and is averaging 17.6 points per game.  That’s second in the Big 12.  What’s more, Baylor is second in the conference behind Kansas in margin of victory.  The 2-3 zone that Drew deploys has helped his team to an average margin of 16 points per game.

What scares Tech fans about that matchup is that Baylor’s zone might entice this Red Raider team, which is not very good as a unit from behind the arc, to get into an outside shooting contest.  Thankfully, the Bears don’t have their version of Davide Moretti, Makai Mason, who graduated after last season.

They will be the best zone team Tech sees all year and thus far, the Red Raiders have only faced the zone in spurts, not for an entire game.  That’s worrisome for a team full of freshmen.

The final hurdle in this conference schedule opening trio got a lot more daunting on Sunday.  That’s because West Virginia went into Cleveland and beat No. 2 Ohio State in its own backyard.

Moving to 11-1 on the year and No. 16 in this week’s rankings, the team that finished last in the Big 12 last year appears to be a force to be reckoned with this season and is at No.  9 in the NET.  Oh, and remember the last time Tech saw Bob Huggins’ team?

That was in the Big 12 tournament’s second round last spring when the Mountaineers took down the second-seeded Red Raiders 79-74.  Of course, Tech has won only once in Morgantown, where the first meeting between these two teams will take place, and that came last year against what could have been the worst team of Huggins’ career.

The size the Mountaineers will throw at Tech is a massive concern (no pun intended).  6-foot-9 freshman Oscar Tshiebwe leads them in scoring at 11.9 points per game while 6-foot-10 sophomore Derek Culver is grabbing 9.4 rebounds and blocking 0.7 shots per game in addition to scoring 11 points per game.

Huggins can also throw 6-foot-11 Logan Routt on the floor for stretches to protect the rim if needed.  And don’t forget guard Emmitt Matthews Jr. who dropped 28 on the Red Raiders las year in Kansas City.  This year, he’s almost doubled his scoring to average 9.4 points per game as he leads his team in minutes played.

Ultimately, the Big 12 has made life tougher on its members than any other conference by implementing a true round-robin regular season.  While that’s a source of pride for fans and conference administrators alike, it can also take a toll on a team over the course of a season.

We still don’t know how the Red Raiders are going to handle the nation’s toughest path to March.  Yes, the win over Louisville proved that this team can beat any opponent it will face. But since then, Beard’s team hasn’t looked impressive since then when playing three mid-major teams with upsets on the brain.  And against major-conference foes this year Tech is just 1-3.

For perhaps the first time ever, Tech will be a trophy that every Big 12 team wants to hang on the wall this year.  After last season’s run to the National Title Game, the Red Raiders will sneak up on no one in this conference.  Can this young roster rise to that challenge or will this league chew up and spit out another team that has begun the year with lofty aspirations as it has done to so many before?

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We will not know those answers for another couple of months but after this tough set of games to begin league play, we will know what type of team Beard has on his hands.  Buckle up Red Raider fans, it’s going to be a wild ride.