When Tubby Smith was fired after the Gophers’ second-round loss to Florida in the NCAA tournament, one of the major complaints among fans and administration was that in his six years at Minnesota, the legendary coach was never able to take the program to the next level.
Now, in his first season at Texas Tech, the 62-year-old coach appears on the verge of doing just that.
After wins over TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma to start the month (I guess it’s not Smith to blame for the Gophers’ perennial February dives), the Red Raiders are 5-8 in the Big 12 — perhaps the best conference in college basketball right now.
Texas Tech also threatened to pull off huge upsets in its past two games.
None of this would be so stunning — Tech is still just tied for seventh in the 10-team conference, after all — if it wasn’t for the fact that the Red Raiders have been SO bad in recent years. Tech hasn’t won more than five conference games since 2008 and has managed a total of just four wins in the previous two seasons. With five more games left on the regular-season schedule, the Raiders even have a shot to dance for the first time since 2007.
And no such spark was expected this season. The Raiders returned some experience but were expected by most to finish near the Big 12 basement.
Suddenly Smith — who coached Kentucky to a national championship in 1998 but won just one NCAA tournament game during his tenure in Minneapolis — is looking like a great hire for a team unworthy even of the term “rebuilding.”
And the sense of hope seems to be palpable. Tech sold out the normally echo-filled United Spirit Arena for its game against Oklahoma State, only the 11th sellout in the 15-year-old building’s history, last occurring in 2007.
“It is wonderful,” Smith told the Dallas Morning News. “It shows the hard work of a lot of people to make this happen. We hope that we can play to the level of support that we have gotten. I am excited, and our players are excited. It also gives validation that we are moving in the right direction with the program.”
Perhaps the most telling improvement can be seen in the Raiders’ recent losses.
At No. 17 Iowa State on Saturday, Tech — which Smith has made into a very sound offensive rebounding team, just as he did with the Gophers — grabbed 14 offensive boards and slowed the pace enough to keep it close with the Cyclones. Tech lost by just six in one of the toughest road environments there is.
Then, against Kansas in Lubbock on Tuesday, the Raiders shot 50 percent from three-point range and had five players score in double digits only to lose on a last-second layup by Andrew Wiggins, nearly upsetting the No. 8 Jayhawks.
Regardless of what the Raiders do down the stretch, it seems obvious that Texas Tech, led by Smith in what most likely will be his final coaching job, is better than we thought it would be. Significantly better.
There weren’t many times at Minnesota people could say that about Smith’s teams.
College basketball short takes
• With Syracuse finally falling, just one undefeated remains: Wichita State. Just how shocking was that Orange loss at home to Boston College, which was 6-17 coming in? ESPN Stats & Info tells us that BPI, ESPN’s version of the Ratings Percentage Index, gave BC just a 1.2 percent shot at beating Syracuse, far worse than last season’s biggest upset.
In that one — TCU’s win over Kansas in February — BPI handed the Horned Frogs a 4.5 percent chance at victory.