Nearly five years ago, the Texas Tech Red Raiders Basketball team was in Lubbock. They were coming off of their best season in almost a decade and yet, something was off. Rumors were swirling about then Head Coach Tubby Smith leaving to go to Memphis, a program which at that point was looked at with more respect than Texas Tech, who hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in nearly 11 years.
Just two weeks before that April day, Coach Chris Beard left his first Division One job at Arkansas-Little Rock to take the helm at another blue blood gone bad UNLV. Beard’s abrupt departure to Lubbock is still bitterly talked about in Las Vegas to this day. It is, in many peoples’ opinion, the very reason Joel Ntambwe wasn’t allowed to suit up for the Red Raiders in the COVID-19-shortened 2019-2020 season.
The program at the very moment that Chris Beard accepted the Head Coaching job was in limbo. The program had a very young core that included future All-Big 12 First-Teamer Keenan Evans, high-flying Zach Smith, and often-injured but incredibly talented Norense Odiase. They had great success in their first season as full-time starters, making the NCAA Tournament, losing in the first round.
That first season was not great as it was full of ups and downs that ultimately led the Red Raiders to no postseason appearance. There were no sophomores or freshmen on that team. It was a veteran group that had little success in the Big 12. Going into the 2017-2018 season, expectations were not high. A bunch of negative fans were even talking about moving on from Chris Beard. This was another veteran group of players that had added a solid group of freshmen.
This group included two NBA First-Round Draft Picks and one of the best shooters in Red Raider history. Jarrett Culver was Lubbock’s own and one of Coach Beard’s first calls when he got the job in Lubbock. Zhaire Smith was a high-flying guard that ended up playing forward most of the season. Davide Moretti was a little-known guard out of Italy that could shoot the lights out. These three brought this program to what it is now.
Going into that season, I was in college at Tech and was looking to get more involved in sports. I lucked into a writing gig and in my first article, I made a huge splash by predicting that the Red Raiders could make a deep Tournament run.
I was ultimately ignored and laughed at by some of the same negative fans that had already given up on Coach Beard. It showed to me at the time where the expectations were for the program. This was at a time where the expectations for the football program were high as Patrick Mahomes was lighting up college football.
The Red Raiders made it to the Elite 8 that season and would have most likely made it further if Villanova would have been in a different Region. That team was led by Keenan Evans, Zhaire Smith, and Jarrett Culver. Smith and Culver originally started the season off as reserves but became starters during Big 12 play.
The next season, more people were excited but the team was unranked in preseason polls and got very few votes from anyone to break the Top 25. The team was going to be a very different one from the year before as seniors Keenan Evans, Zach Smith, Justin Gray, Tommy Hamilton, and Niem Stevenson, who were all rotational players, had all graduated and moved on to pro basketball. Zhaire Smith moved on to the NBA and became a first-round pick.
They were going to be led by Jarrett Culver, Davide Moretti, and a couple of graduate transfers. Others were coming back from the Elite 8 team. Oft-injured Norense Odiase had completely changed his body with the help of program Strength and Conditioning coach John Reilly. Brandone Francis, another good shooter, was back after having a decent season. The Red Raiders were also bringing in another stud freshman in Kyler Edwards.
The team thrived as those two graduate transfers ended up exceeding expectations as Matt Mooney, known for his scoring, turned into one of the best on-ball defenders in the Big 12. Tariq Owens came in and set the program record for blocks in a single season. Jarrett Culver led the team with 18.5 points per game and was named Big 12 Player of the Year.
This team was special. They made it all the way to the National Championship before losing in a heartbreaker to Virginia.
Coach Beard revived this program. The expectations were high for the 2019-2020 season. The program was ranked in the preseason poll as they were bringing back sharpshooter Davide Moretti, now sophmore playmaker Kyler Edwards. They also added the best recruit in program history in Jahmi’us Ramsey.
This was the first example of high expectations from most people outside of the program. The last two seasons, most thought of the program as underdogs. With the successes in the 2018 and 2019 NCAA Tournament, there was a target on the back of the Red Raiders. People were talking about signing Coach Beard away from the program including a certain bovine team in Central Texas.
The COVID-19 Pandemic took away the NCAA Tournament for the Red Raiders. Well, it most likely took it away. The Red Raiders were a bubble team at best and they were most likely going to take on a higher seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
That brings us to this season and where we are now. Expectations are at an all-time high for the program. The Red Raiders are a 6-Seed in this Tournament and based on seeding, they should be bounced in the second round. I asked Tuesday on Twitter what everyone thought. Here were the results:
It is incredible the expectations the fan base now has for the team. This is the first team in program history to be ranked in every AP Poll this year and your expectations are out of this world compared to just five years ago. Coach has done something few have done, he’s turned this program around, and done it in a hurry.
Let’s hope the Red Raiders live up to expectations!
How far do you think the Red Raiders will go in this year’s NCAA Tournament? Let us know in the comments below!