This weekend will mark the one-year anniversary of the game that changed Texas Tech basketball’s season. On Dec. 3, 2009, 12th-ranked Washington arrived in Lubbock with boosters in tow for what it likely expected to be an easy road win. Instead the Red Raiders took the game to overtime, won, and moved into the AP Top 25.
A year later, Tech isn’t worried about becoming ranked; it’s worried about getting better.
Saturday’s loss to South Florida dropped Tech to 4-3 on the season, its worst start since James Dickey was coach. But current head coach Pat Knight says he’s not as worried about winning as improving enough to produce a strong Big 12 Conference record.
“Last year we had a great preseason and a bad Big 12,” Knight said. “You can have a bad preseason and a good Big 12 and still get to the tournament.”
Solidifying a spot in the NCAA tournament remains Tech’s top priority. Knight learned last season that finishing conference 0-7 was a great way to lose hold of that opportunity. So this year, rather than scheduling a flakey nonconference lineup of games punctuated by one or two marquee matchups, Tech is facing tougher competition across the board.
Two of Tech’s three losses came against teams that played in the NCAA tournament last season. The third—against South Florida on Saturday—was a last-minute loss on free-throws to a team that also played in the 2010 NIT.
The question remains, though, whether Tech is capable of winning more this season than it did last year.
“I don’t care about the preseason record; I think this is a lot better team,” Knight said. “I still say we’re going to the NCAA tournament. This team is getting better. I’d take this team over any of the teams I’ve had. This is just a more talented team that can defend and do more things.”
It’s tough to judge the accuracy of that statement considering starting forward D’Walyn Roberts has missed all but the season opener because of back spasms and highly anticipated center Paul Cooper has not played a game for the Raiders since undergoing ankle surgery last month.
Tech’s frontcourt has struggled without them and fellow forward Theron Jenkins, who also had surgery in October.
“Missing those big guys is hurting us a lot,” point guard John Roberson said. “We have to play small and that can get you beat on the boards, which gives them second-chance points.”
After losing at North Texas, Tech had three home games to correct its mistakes and build confidence. It won’t be so lucky this week. The Raiders host Oral Roberts on Tuesday, then head to Seattle this weekend for a rematch with now-No. 13 Washington.
Still, once those post players get healthy and the rest correct certain small mistakes, Knight thinks things will turn around.
“We’ve got to buckle down,” Knight said. “I think these games both helped us. It didn’t help us record-wise, but it helped us as a team. Once we get a couple guys back and keep things going, it’s a long season.”