STILLWATER — Coming into Saturday, college basketball fans were focused on Oklahoma State sophomore guard Marcus Smart’s return to action after his three-game suspension for shoving a Texas Tech fan in the final seconds of the Red Raiders’ 65-61 win in Lubbock on Feb. 8.
He let his play speak for itself, scoring 16 points and dishing out 10 assists while also recording six steals and avoiding any controversy in the Cowboys’ rout of Tech in Stillwater.
While it wasn’t the best performance in Big 12 play by the Red Raiders, it was the first time since losing on the road to then-No. 2 Arizona to end a game down by 20.
After losing conference games by an average of 17.9 points in 2011-12 and 21.4 points last year, the Red Raiders have closed the gap to 7.4.
For true fans, nothing, not even a shove, can overshadow the improvement of Tech men’s basketball.
At 13-14 overall, Tech has recorded more wins this year than the past two seasons and has matched its win total from 2010-11, the last time Tech was in postseason play.
“We believe because we’re actually seeing it happen,” junior Jordan Tolbert said.
Tech also broke its 34-game losing streak to teams ranked in the AP top-25 with a victory over then-No. 12 Baylor, 82-72, on Jan. 15.
But why settle for one?
On Feb. 8, Tech defeated then-No. 19 Oklahoma State, 65-61.
“Last year, Baylor and Oklahoma State were the two toughest matchups for us and we lost by 20 every time to each of them,” senior Dejan Kravic said. “Beating both of them is big.”
It’s safe to say right now in the Big 12, Tech is arguably the team no one wants to face, even though its 5-9 conference record has the Red Raiders in the bottom half of the conference.
How has this program turned around so quickly?
In his 23rd year as a head coach, Smith has never had a losing season.
He got his start at Tulsa in 1991 and led the Hurricanes to back-to-back fourth-place finishes in the Missouri Valley Conference before leading them to the Sweet Sixteen in the next two years.
After that, he was hired at Georgia in 1995-96 and led the Bulldogs to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years in his first season.
Georgia finished 21-10 in that inaugural season and advanced to the Sweet 16, the furthest since 1983.
Smith compiled a 45-19 record over two seasons at Georgia before he was hired at Kentucky, where he led the Wildcats to a national championship in his inaugural season, becoming the first coach since Cincinnati’s Ed Jucker in 1961 to win a national title in his first year.
In 2000, Smith served as an assistant on the USA Olympic gold medal team.
During his 10 seasons in Lexington, Smith led the Wildcats to a national championship, four Elite Eight appearances, six Sweet Sixteen appearances, five SEC titles and five SEC Tournament titles.
Smith was inducted into the Kentucky Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013.
In 2007-08, he became the head coach at Minnesota and turned a nine-win Gopher team into a 20-win team in his first year.
The 11-game improvement marked the largest season turnaround in school history and tied for the second-best turnaround in Division I during that season.
Smith is one of seven active head coaches to have won 500 games and a national championship and is one of nine head coaches to take four different schools to the NCAA Tournament.
He looks to join Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger as the only head coaches to lead five different schools to the tournament after being hired in April as the head coach of Tech.
“I was real happy,” Kravic said. “Knowing that a legendary coach is coming to coach Texas Tech for my final year and Jaye’s, Kader’s and Jamal’s, we were real happy to hear about it.”
Turning things around
In true Smith fashion, he hasn’t waited to get things turned around in Lubbock.
With nine of the 14 Red Raiders on the roster returning, Smith has resurrected the program with the same talent that was on the court for the red and black last season.
“They have to overachieve because they think they’re getting the most out of themselves, as most of us anyways, until somebody points out, ‘Guess what. You can do a lot more. You can be a lot better.’ That’s what we’ve tried to bring to the table and bring here. ‘Look fellows. You want to be a winner and win championships.’ That’s what we’re trying to do is build a championship program,” Smith said.
Senior forward Jaye Crockett has played for four different head coaches at Tech but has stepped up as a leader for teammates who already believed in themselves but needed to believe in each other.
“You don’t make it to this level as an athlete unless you have a lot of self-confidence,” Smith said. “Spirits can be broken but for the most part we’ve had good leadership and that’s where it starts. Guys like Jaye Crockett who’s been here through some tough times over the last four years and other veteran players. They’ve been very receptive. That’s what I’m thankful for that we had good people and good players.”
Sophomore Toddrick Gotcher said the team’s mentality is great.
“In the locker room, we’re positive,” he said. “Everybody loves each other. We’re playing for each other.”
It’s the little things
For Smith, the gap between winning and losing is made up of doing the little things right.
Last year, Tech was last in the Big 12 at the free throw line, shooting .659.
This season, the Red Raiders lead the conference at the line at .739.
Sophomore guard Dusty Hannahs is on pace to become one of the best free throw shooters in Tech history.
His current percentage of 91.5, a .106 improvement from last year, is the best single-season free throw percentage by a Red Raider.
Four other Tech players have improved their accuracy from 15 feet: Tolbert, Crockett, Kravic and Gotcher.
Tech has also improved on the boards.
Last year the Red Raiders were outrebounded in 14 Big 12 contests by an average of 11.2.
So far this season in conference play, Tech has been outrebounded only five times, by an average of 3.2.
Tech is also more aggressive on the offensive glass, pulling down 11 offensive boards per game in comparison to last year’s 9.72 effort.
The Red Raiders are averaging 10.5 second-chance points this season, a 1.4 increase from last season.
With Smith’s methodical offense, the Red Raiders also are taking better care of the basketball.
Coming into this year, Tech only had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio 12 times over the prior two seasons (62 games).
Tech has already met that mark this year.
Led by Robert Turner with 73 assists, Tech is showing better ball movement than in years prior.
Gotcher has stepped into a starting role, and with more minutes than last season, has 54 assists, 35 more than last year.
Hannahs improved to 38 from 11, Crockett improved to 35 from 20 and Jordan Tolbert has doubled his 11 last year to 23 this year.
“It’s huge,” Kravic said. “That’s what he preaches. Fundamentals, making the extra pass rather than taking two or three dribbles, stuff like that. It’s been working for us a lot and we’re sticking with it.”
Not only has the program changed for the better, but the culture has improved with it.
The Red Raiders played in front of the first sellout crowd, since 2007, of 15,098 in United Spirit Arena on Feb. 18, tied for the third-largest crowd in the arena’s history.
For every player on Tech’s roster, that was the first time they had taken the floor in front of a sold-out home crowd, including fifth-year senior Crockett.
“We’re really getting the school into Texas Tech basketball,” Crockett said. “It’s really been focused on football here at Tech. The students are getting into it and the community’s coming, but you have to win. That’s what’s going to draw people. They bring so much energy, and that’s that sixth man on the court. It helps a lot.”
Most recently Tech lost at home by one to Kansas in front of 12,667 fans.
“I’m trying to remember, when we came down here when I first got here when Coach Knight was here, I remember it being good,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said. “And then since then it hasn’t been like this. I thought the crowd was good. I don’t know how many people were here or anything like that. If I was a basketball fan living in this part of the state, I would really latch on and buy into what Tubby and his staff are trying to do and support them. They’re going to get better. The guy knows how to win. He’s a proven winner and his team plays hard.”
Tech is 10-4 at home this season, the most victories at home since 2011.
“It’s a compliment to our fans and to our student body and to our administration, especially our marketing people,” Smith said. “They’ve done a good job of getting out and spreading the word and they’ve asked me to do some of those things. Our guys are playing well. They’re playing hard. That’s what people want to see.”
Follow Krista on Twitter