Though Saturday's 75-72 loss to Cincinnati, the first home loss of the season, was tough for Texas Tech basketball fans to swallow, there was at least one bright spot for the Red Raiders, Robert Jennings. Now, the question is whether his breakout performance was a sign that he's ready to step forward as a contributor or just an anomalous shooting star streaking across the night sky.
Robert Jennings' performance came from out of nowhere for Texas Tech
To say that Jennings' career-high 14 points against the Bearcats was unexpected is putting it mildly. Prior to Saturday, the sophomore had played in 47 career games and had never scored in double figures. In fact, each time he did manage to put the ball in the basket, it was considered by most to be found money.
What's more, there had not been any signs this year that a big step forward from Jennings was imminent. Rather, his brief stints to give center Warren Washington a breather were nerve-wracking stretches of each game.
For instance, in the previous game, Tech's 85-78 loss to TCU, Jennings was called upon to play important minutes in the first half when Washington was saddled with two fouls. However, a turnover and missed layup quickly ended Jenning's run in the first half and helped cue a Horned Frog run that erased an 11-point Red Raider lead and gave control of the game to TCU for the rest of the night.
Performances like that have unfortunately been the norm for Jennings this year. Prior to Saturday, when he played 16 minutes and grabbed six boards while turning the ball over only once, his season-high for minutes was 14 and that came against both Vanderbilt and North Alabama, two woeful teams. In Big 12 play, he had yet to top the 12 minutes he logged against Texas in the conference opener on January 6th, the only conference game prior to Saturday in which he'd played more than eight minutes.
More was expected from the DeSoto, Texas native this year after an up-and-down true freshman season that saw him average 2.7 points and 1.9 rebounds in 8.7 minutes per game. Last season, he was playing behind a pair of 7-footers in Fardaws Aimaq and Daniel Batcho (though both were often injured), and that kept his minutes low.
The belief this year was that Jennings would see an increased role as the primary backup to Washington, Tech's only traditional post player. However, an offseason injury likely hampered his development and this year, Jennings has been essentially the same player as he was as a freshman.
He is averaging just 3.0 points and 2.2 boards in 8.1 minutes of action. Keep in mind though, that those numbers include his career night from Saturday. Thus, prior to the Cincy game, he was actually tracking below the numbers he put up a year ago.
Will Texas Tech be able to get more out of Robert Jennings moving forward?
What will be fascinating to see is whether or not Texas Tech has found a new and improved Jennings or whether Saturday's game was a one-off performance. Of course, everyone in scarlet and black is hoping for the former of those scenarios to come true.
Jennings was partially pressed into heavier action against Cincinnati because Washington appeared to be slowed by a back issue. In fact, Washington didn't start the second half because he remained in the locker room receiving treatment.
Of course, he did return to log 23 minutes and play most of the second half. The big man who leads Tech in minutes played during Big 12 action ended the night with 7 points and 5 rebounds, modest numbers given what we've seen from him in recent weeks, and he did appear to be slowed a bit by whatever was ailing his back.
If that issue continues tomorrow night against Baylor and on down the road (back problems often can be nagging and don't resolve without rest) then Jennings will have a critical role to play. Even if Washington proves to be a picture of health the rest of the way, seeing the type of Jennings that we saw on Saturday would be a blessing for the Red Raiders.
No one is expecting 14 points per night from Jennings. However, the confidence and assertiveness that was on display against the Bearcats needs to be a permanent part of his game.
In fact, Jennings' most confident moment was one that didn't even result in a basket. In the first half, he drove the ball from the top of the key all the way to the paint and rose for an attempted dunk, which he unfortunately missed giving the ball back to Cincinnati. While everyone wants to see him finish those plays, Tech fans had to be happy to see that type of aggression from a player who too often this year has been passive with the ball and who has had numerous shots at the rim rejected because he's chosen to try to lay the ball off the glass rather than flush it home.
Jennings has to enter each game with the mindset that he appeared to have on Saturday night. Even if he plays only a cameo role, he must do so with aggression and force, or else he is a liability.
What he showed this past weekend was that there is a tiger in him and that he can indeed be a positive force for his team. Still, Red Raiders fans aren't sure if we will see that type of player more often or if we need to continue watching his minutes with a feeling of trepidation.
The hope is that Jennings is starting to mature as we come down the stretch of his second season of college hoops. After all, he's on the verge of being a junior and now is the time when a player starts to figure out how to play at this level if indeed he's ever going to.
That's why Red Raider fans will be watching Jennings closely over the coming weeks to see if the player who came from out of nowhere to be second on his team in scoring the last time out is able to emerge as a reliable part of this team. If that is what comes to pass, it would do wonders for Grant McCasland and the Texas Tech basketball team as Big 12 play wraps up and March approaches.