When just one week after being axed by Minnesota in 2013 Tubby Smith agreed to be the head coach at Texas Tech, more than a few people in the college basketball world were left shaking their heads.
What was Tubby thinking? Why so soon? Didn’t the then-61-year-old coach want to take some time off after 22 consecutive seasons as head coach? And why on Earth Texas Tech? Wasn’t that an impossible job at a remote spot in a ridiculously difficult hoops conference?
Three years later, Smith is turning heads.
Tuesday night, the Red Raiders rallied from a 12-point halftime deficit to beat TCU 83-79 for their fifth consecutive league win, a first in the school’s 20 years of Big 12 basketball.
Better still, the win improved Texas Tech’s record to 18-9 overall and 8-7 in league play. The Red Raiders are ranked 24th by the RPI and are a solid bet to earn the school’s first NCAA Tournament invitation since 2007.
Said Kansas Coach Bill Self recently, “When we start talking about Big 12 coach of the year, I don’t think you have to look much further than Tubby.”
Of course, Self is a friend of the former Kentucky coach. Nearly everyone in the profession is a friend of one of the more well-liked and genuine people in the sport. Just recently, Smith and his wife, Donna, were in Lexington to attend the funeral visitation for Van Florence, the former head of the Committee of 101 who also ran Smith’s charitable foundation. It was like old home week, with Smith catching up with friends from his UK days, a sight that would have had Florence grinning.
Smith, now 64, can coach, too. He proved that at Tulsa, at Georgia, at UK (where he won a national title in 1998) and at Minnesota. Now he’s proving it at Lubbock, where Smith landed after his sudden firing at Minnesota after having taken the Golden Gophers to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Smith’s third appearance during his six-year tenure.
It bears mention that Minnesota has struggled since. Smith’s successor, young Richard Pitino, son of Smith’s former boss at Kentucky, is 69-61 in his third season. This year, the Gophers have cratered to 8-19 overall and 2-13 in the Big Ten.
Meanwhile, in the Lone Star State, Smith needed time to clean up the mess he inherited from Billy Gillispie — ironically, Smith’s successor at UK — and get the Raiders on track. After a 14-18 debut season, Smith went 13-19 overall and a cellar-dwelling 3-15 in the Big 12 last year.
He did so, however, while playing a group of talented freshmen in Keenan Evans, Justin Gray, Norense Odiase and Zach Smith. “Those guys have developed,” Smith said during Monday’s Big 12 teleconference. “We have four sophomores that we thought would be the backbone of our program. They have lived up to expectations.”
The Red Raiders started this year 11-1, the lone loss to then No. 16 Utah. Then, after a rough 2-6 start in league play, the fruits of Smith’s labor started paying off. Those around the program cite the team’s confidence and togetherness, instilled in part by a drill Smith implemented in which the players are required to root for one another.
That unselfishness has helped the Red Raiders pull out close games. The roll started with an 85-82 overtime win over No. 14 Iowa State on Feb. 10. Tech followed that with an 84-66 win at No. 21 Baylor on Feb. 13, then set off alarms with a 65-63 victory over No. 3 Oklahoma on Feb. 17.
Wins over Oklahoma State and TCU have followed. Zach Smith (23 points) and fellow guard Aaron Ross (25) scored career highs in the win over TCU. Texas Tech has six top-50 RPI wins against a schedule rated as the fourth-toughest in the nation.
Assuming Texas Tech makes the Big Dance — it visits league leader Kansas on Saturday — this would be the 18th NCAA Tournament appearance in 25 seasons for Smith. It also would make him just the second coach in history, joining Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger, to take five schools to the NCAA Tournament.
Now there’s something to shake your head about.