Mississippi State and South Carolina upset the status quo over the weekend.
The Bulldogs knocked off UConn, breaking its 111-game winning streak Friday and South Carolina won the national championship Sunday.
But, their road to these accomplishments wasn’t easy.
Four years ago, Mississippi State was coming off three straight losing seasons. They had little former glory — unlike Texas Tech, which will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its national title under Marsha Sharp next season.
South Carolina had three straight NITs before Dawn Staley took over the program. Then the Gamecocks had two straight losing seasons before slowly working their way into a national powerhouse.
Before Candi Whitaker came to Texas Tech, the Lady Raiders made two NITs and were bounced from the first round of the NCAA twice under Kristy Curry. But there was a reason Curry bolted for Alabama, the cupboard was bare and in Whitaker’s first season, Tech went 0-18 in conference.
In the four years since, Whitaker’s focus has been on rebuilding the once great Lady Raider program. But, as South Carolina and Mississippi State proved this season, rebuilding takes time.
After three straight losing seasons, the Lady Raiders were a sleeper pick this season to make the NCAA tournament, they had six new players, including highly sought after transfers in Recee’ Caldwell, Larryn Brooks and Jada Terry and heralded freshman like Britany Brewer, Arella Guirantes and Grayson Bright.
“It was excitement for sure,” Texas Tech coach Candi Whitaker said. “We felt like we had gotten more size and gotten more talent and more players that could make plays and score the basketball.
“But, when I sat down I still didn’t know what that meant in Big 12. What does that mean with so many new players that have to mesh together. For us internally it was exciting, but there were a lot of question marks.”
After the Lady Raiders’ finished the 2016-17 season 14-17, there still are.
Two games into the season — and after a breakout performance where they took Texas A&M to overtime — the Lady Raiders were dealt a stiff blow.
Japreece Dean, who was the team’s second-leading scorer as a freshman, was transferring.
“The adversity of losing Japreece, that was not anticipated,” Whitaker said. “It added adversity and it added a lack of depth at the guard and really a lack of competition at the guard spots and I think that effected us. Now, I thought they battled through that pretty well.
“But we needed that competition. When you have it within your team it is a very good thing because you are pushing each other to go to another level. I think that hurt our team more than anything else.”
The void was even larger simply due to the number of players that were still trying to figure out their role on the court.
“Jelling a team together you have to understand, everyone has to really accept your role,” Whitaker said. “I think everyone understood their role, but accepting and understanding it in situations is a challenge when you have players who have been the best player at their school or where ever they have been at it is a new thing to understand that know I am going up against better defense or a scouting report and now I have better players around me.”
Part of that was finding shots for players who were used to being the No. 1 option on their teams. Caldwell was one of the top recruits in the country coming out of San Antonio FEAST, Brooks led Indiana in scoring in her freshman and sophomore campaigns and Guirantes went to prestigious IMG Academy to hone her game.
“We have a lot of players with a scorers mentality and we had to find ways to co-exist with each other and at times I think we struggled with that,” Whitaker said. “By the end of the season I think we fixed that in a lot of ways. but now it is trying to find the right combination on the floor at the right time. … This generation and how they communicate with one another is something we worked on the whole year. It is something this generation struggles with in general because of all the ways they communicate but they are not person to person. So it is not a real strength.
“When we were better as a team all of that is on sync on the floor.”
That just didn’t happen when the Lady Raiders had to play on the road.
The hard road
Texas Tech’s struggles this season mostly centered on its inability to win road games.
It was 12-4 at home, but was 0-12 on the road. The worst loss, was a 66-60 loss to Kansas, which finished last in the conference, in Lawrence.At United Supermarkets Arena, the Lady Raiders defeated the Jayhawks with ease, 75-60. TCU, another swing game that Tech needed to win on the road to make the NIT or even the NCAA tournament, ended in a 76-62 loss.
Again, at home the Lady Raiders beat the Frogs by 15. Iowa State? Nine-point win at home and an 11-point loss on the road. Oklahoma State? Five-point win at home and seven-point loss on the road.
The same team that went 5-4 during Big 12 play at home and had a scoring margin of (-0.5) — thanks to a pair of lopsided losses to Texas and Baylor — was 0-9 on the road and was outscored by 16.3 points per game.
“You have to go win on the road in this league to be able to compete for a spot in the NCAA tournament,” Whitaker said. “Texas and Baylor have really separated themselves. Everyone else, if you are going to get to nine wins, you have to steal some on the road. The only ones at home (I felt we gave away) was against K-State and OU and we have to find ways to win those, too. But, we have to win on the road.”
With three freshmen and three transfers in the rotation, Whitaker attributes much of that to her team’s inexperience in the Big 12.
“We showed our youth and experience on the road and didn’t have the level of energy and attention to detail you have to have be really good on the road,” she said. “I felt like our young team tried to navigate that and failed a lot on those terms and I think they learned a lot from that.”
However, with a 76-58 win in the Big 12 tournament over TCU, Whitaker hopes the Lady Raiders showed they took those lessons to heart.
“First and foremost our players have a better understanding of how tough this league is and how you have to fight through the fatigue,” she said. “You cannot overlook one game, you cannot project and you are going against really good players.
“Watching it (like our transfers did the year before) and doing it are two different things.”