As was the case last season, Texas Tech basketball fans hope that this year’s SEC Challenge can be a huge launching pad for the rest of the season.
It’s odd to think about how similar of a place we’ve found each of the last two Texas Tech basketball teams when the Big 12/SEC Challenge has arrived. Here’s hoping the rest of this season mirrors what we saw from the Red Raiders after they beat Arkansas in this event a year ago.
While Red Raider fans are rather frustrated with Tech’s 11-point loss at TCU on Tuesday, the mood around Lubbock doesn’t even come close this year to reaching the level of fret that we saw at this time in 2019.
Remember that last January, Tech played its worst basketball of the year in a three-game losing streak that dropped the team to 4-3 in Big 12 play and put the breaks on the best start to a league season we’ve seen in the Big 12 era of the program. And just like this year’s January struggles, that slide began at the free-throw line.
In last season’s 68-64 loss to Iowa State at home, the Red Raiders went just 6-15 at the line in a game in which they fell behind in early and never could pull back ahead. The same script played out a couple of weeks ago in a 57-52 loss to Baylor that saw Tech go just 5-12 at the line.
After losing to the Cyclones last year, Tech then laid an egg on the road at Baylor. In the 73-62 loss, the Red Raider defense was absent for the first time all year as Baylor hit 11 shots from deep.
This year’s first conference loss was followed by a road loss as well. Suffering a 66-54 defeat at West Virginia, Tech was dominated on the glass as the Mountaineers held an edge of 13 rebounds.
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While this year’s January Big 12 losing streak ended at two games, last year’s crept to three in the most unpleasant of ways. In what was the team’s worst showing of the year, the Red Raiders were embarrassed in a 58-45 defeat on the road at Kansas State. That game felt eerily similar to Tech’s loss at TCU on Tuesday in that the offense never got going and a purple-clad home team rode a wave of momentum from the home fans to a win.
Now, the question we wait to see is whether the Big 12/SEC Challenge will once again help Tech shake out of its Big 12 blues. That’s what happened last year against Arkansas.
When the Razorbacks came to Lubbock, Tech was in desperate need of a feel-good win and though the 67-64 triumph was far from pretty, it at least helped the Red Raiders find their center again.
The Hogs came into the game only 11-8 but brimming with talent, including future NBA pick Daniel Gafford, a 6-foot-10 forward who now plays for the Chicago Bulls. They also featured one of the best 3-point threats in the nation, freshman Isaiah Joe.
To win, Tech had to struggle. Turning the ball over 21 times and sending the Hogs to the line 26 times made life much more difficult on the home team than it needed to be.
But in the end, it was the defense that saved the day. Fittingly, it was Tech’s star who made the decisive play.
With his team up 65-62 in the final ten seconds of the game, Jarrett Culver disrupted Keyshawn Embery-Simpson’s dribble then dove for the ball causing the Razorback guard to kick the ball thus giving possession back to the Red Raiders. It was the type of gritty and all-out effort play that Beard has built his program on.
After that game, something clicked for the Red Raiders. They would beat TCU in Lubbock on Big Mondy before falling at Kansas. Then, they ran off nine-straight wins to end Big 12 play and earn a share of the regular-season title with Kansas State.
Including the postseason, the Red Raiders were 14-3 the rest of the year. That goes to show how even the ugliest of wins over a mediocre team can help get a season back on track.
This year, Tech will not be facing a mediocre team from the SEC. But Chris Beard needs his team to rediscover its gritty identity after playing without intensity and urgency in Fort Worth earlier this week.
What’s more, this game against Kentucky begins a three-game gauntlet against elite teams as Tech will then host West Virginia on Wednesday before traveling to Kansas next Saturday. In other words, business is about to pick up.
At this point in the season, we face a bit of a paradox. It’s too early to label any game as a must-win but it is not too soon to start thinking about building a resume for the Big Dance.
After this three-game stretch, the number of opportunities for truly impressive wins will start to dwindle with Tech likely facing only two more ranked teams (Kansas and Baylor) the rest of the regular season. Therefore the Kentucky game, which we’ve been eagerly anticipating all season, has an opportunity to be a catalyst for a strong finish in the same way the victory over Arkansas was one year ago. But to beat the Cats, Tech is going to have to play much better than it did against the Razorbacks.