In sports, fans are often quick to declare that the program they love is "back". Over the next two weeks, that is something that Texas Tech basketball fans might proclaim if the Red Raiders rattle off two or three wins and play well in a four-game stretch against ranked opponents with three of those games being played away from Lubbock.
The trend of proclaiming that a program is "back" became popular in a mocking fashion after ESPN college football broadcaster Joe Tessitore enthusiastically proclaimed "Texas is back, folks" after the Longhorn football team secured a dramatic season-opening win over Notre Dame to open the 2016 season. The problem was that Texas would go on to go just 5-7 that year and the Fighting Irish would finish 4-8 making a mockery of Tessitore and causing his proclamation to become a running joke.
While it took until the 2023 football season for the Longhorn football program to actually return to prominence nationally, Red Raider basketball fans are hoping that their program takes a much faster route back to the upper echelon of the sport.
While that determination won't be officially made until the NCAA Tournament in March, the Red Raiders can take a huge step toward being considered a top-flight program over the next two weeks.
Thus far, Tech has opened some eyes by starting Big 12 play 3-0 to sit alone as the only undefeated team in league play ahead of Wednesday night's daunting road game against No. 5 Houston. That nice start has landed Grant McCasland's team in the top 25 for the first time this season.
However, there is no denying that Tech has yet to face one of the elite teams in the conference this year. While Texas was ranked No. 21 when the Red Raiders took them down in the Big 12 opener, none of the three teams that Tech has defeated thus far in Big 12 play are currently ranked.
In the NCAA NET Rankings, Texas is No. 59 while the other two opponents Tech has beaten in the Big 12, Kansas State and Oklahoma State are just No. 69 and No. 141 respectively. On the other hand, Tech's next four opponents, Houston, BYU, Oklahoma, and TCU sit at No. 1, No. 4, No. 22, and No. 32 respectively meaning that all four sit higher in the NET than Tech, which is currently No. 37.
Certainly, the Red Raiders will be tested over the next two weeks in a way that they have not experienced thus far in 2023-24. In fact, this is without question the most rugged stretch they will have to navigate this year.
In mid-February, Tech will face three consecutive games against teams currently ranked, Kansas, Iowa State, and TCU but two of those games will take place in Lubbock. Other than that, there are no other consecutive games against teams in the top 25 at this time.
If the Red Raiders want to prove they are "back", if they want to be taken seriously as a national contender, then they will have to play well over the next two weeks. If they can come out of this stretch with a pair of wins, it will be a great development. However, if they can notch three wins in the next four games, not only will people be talking about Tech as a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team, but people will have to consider Tech a realistic Big 12 regular season title contender.
Now, on the other hand, if Tech goes 1-3 or even 0-4, all will not be lost. Tech would then still be 4-3 or 3-4 in conference play with home games against Cincinnati and UCF on the horizon.
The ultimate goal for this team is to get into the NCAA Tournament. That will likely take 20 wins overall and a .500 record in Big 12 play. To do that, the Red Raiders need only to go 6-9 for the rest of the regular season. That's the benefit of a 3-0 start in league play.
However, along the way, they do need to rack up more eye-openeing wins. With home games against Kansas, Baylor, BYU, and TCU still on the slate, there will be opportunities to do just that.
Still, nothing would tell the nation that McCasland has built a contender in his first season more than taking down Houston tonight. That won't be easy, though, given that the Cougars will come into this game desperate to end a two-game losing streak.
This is the first time since February of 2022 that Houston has lost back to back games. What's more, that program hasn't dropped three in a row since January of 2017.
Thus, we can expect that the Red Raiders will get Houston's best effort tonight. How they respond to the challenge will be telling.
Back in 2018, the year that the Red Raiders made their presence known as a national factor by reaching the Elite 8, Tech made people take them seriously by going into Allen Fieldhouse and beating No. 10 Kansas 85-73 in Lawrence. That game signaled the arrival of Tech hoops under Chris Beard, a winning window that would stay open until last season when the Mark Adams era came to the most inglorious of endings.
Now, Tech has to force open a new window of contention and there's no better way to do that than by toppling Houston on its own home court. If that happens it could vault the Red Raiders into a new stratosphere and it could set this team up for a run at a Big 12 title.
Most importantly, though, playing well over the next four games will prove that this is a basketball program that is back to being one that deserves to be taken seriously as a threat come March. While none of us should be like Tessitore in 2016 and proclaim the Red Raiders are all the way "back" even if tonight's game goes the way we all hope, this is an opportunity for Tech to showcase what McCasland is building on the South Plains.