Just a few minutes after Texas Tech dispatched of Jackson State earlier this week, Chris Walker finally addressed the big, hairy Wildcat in the room.
“Now we can talk about Arizona!” Walker shouted inside the Tech locker room.
The Red Raiders were still catching their breaths from their fourth consecutive win, but they couldn’t help riding the enthusiasm of their first-year coach, smiling and clapping as they turned their attention to a game they’ve had circled for months. They couldn’t help but be pumped about an opportunity rarely presented to the Tech program.
When Tech (4-0) hosts No. 9 Arizona (4-0) at 7 p.m. today inside United Spirit Arena, it will mark just the second time since the Reagan administration that the Red Raiders have hosted a top-10 non-conference opponent.
Throw in a national television audience and what the Red Raiders hope will be a raucous crowd decked out in all white, and this young Tech team is faced with a chance to show the college basketball world what it’s all about.
“Competition brings out the best in everybody,” sophomore forward Jordan Tolbert said. “To be playing the No. 9 team in the country, of course it will (light our fire).”
This Tech program has been in the headlines plenty the past few months for reasons that have nothing to do with their play on the court. The Red Raiders have talked since Chris Walker moved over one chair to replace Billy Gillispie on Oct. 4 about “changing the narrative” and forcing people to take notice because of their relentless, up-tempo attack rather than any perceived turmoil surrounding a coaching change.
Today’s game would be a good place to start.
“We’re looking forward to having the chance to compete against a storied program of Arizona’s magnitude,” Walker said. “We’re going to be fired up.”
The Red Raiders insisted, though, they aren’t simply excited to play on the same court as the powerhouse Pac-12 program. Their eagerness to tip off against the Wildcats, they said this week, shouldn’t be mistaken as Tech being in awe of its opponent.
“You’re not going out there and playing the Lakers,” Crockett said. “They’re college players just like you are.”
Talented ones, to be sure. Two years removed from an Elite Eight run, Arizona boasts one of the nation’s highest-rated freshmen classes. Three of those first-year players who are a part of the regular rotation — Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett — are all at least 6-foot-8. That young group has blended well with a corps of veterans that includes senior leaders Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons.
“They’ve got guys who will be playing at the next level someday,” Walker said, “so it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
After surrendering 23 offensive rebounds against Jackson State on Monday, the Red Raiders will have to shore up their efforts on the glass to give themselves their best shot at an upset. Walkers said the rebound battle won’t be left solely in the hands of Tech’s big men. The guards will have to contribute on the glass, as well.
“We’ve really been emphasizing that the last couple of days,” Walker said. “The bottom line is you have to pursue the ball. ... We need all five guys to get in there and get physical.”
On offense, the Red Raiders want to keep pushing the tempo. Tech is averaging 90.3 points per game, good for third-best in the country.
Key for Tech against a more stout defense like Arizona’s will be reducing turnovers. The Red Raiders have coughed it up at least 13 times in three of their first four games.
“You can tell they play very hard,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said of Tech. “They play fast as well. You can see they’ve really embraced Coach Walker’s style.”
It’s a style the Red Raiders hope to show off on a big basketball stage Saturday in Lubbock.
“It’s a great opportunity for us,” said Crockett, who leads Tech in scoring (16 points per game) and rebounding (nine). “It’s a test for us to play high competition before we get to the Big 12. And just to show people that we can play at this level and that we’re not the stepchild of the Big 12.”
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