As Texas Tech made it through the first two weeks of Big 12 action as the only undefeated team in the conference, the question crossed my mind: how did they get here?
Not that winning four Big 12 games in a row was an unexpected achievement, nor is the Big 12 race anywhere close to finished.
No, the question was more of an examination of the last few years that brought the question to mind.
And I gradually came to an answer. Norense Odiase.
As a senior this season, Odiase is averaging 4.3 points and 4.9 rebounds in 16.4 minutes per game. Those aren’t all-conference stats, though Red Raiders coach Chris Beard has always been quick to give credit to Odiase as a leader and an important voice in the locker room.
But when considering Texas Tech’s success this season, following the departure of Keenan Evans, Zhaire Smith, Justin Gray, Zach Smith, Niem Stevenson and Tommy Hamilton from last season’s Elite Eight squad, the logical explanation is the Red Raiders’ culture.
And while Beard deserves a huge amount of credit for cultivating that culture, it might actually predate Texas Tech’s head coach.
Remember, Odiase came to Texas Tech with Evans, Gray and Zach Smith as freshmen during the 2014-15 season, when Tubby Smith was starting to rebuild the program from scratch. Odiase actually posted a double-double in his first college game as he scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
That year, the Red Raiders slogged through a 13-19 season, including 3-15 in Big 12 play. But the freshmen got valuable playing time and learned to grind in conference action. Texas Tech defeated No. 9 Iowa State and had a couple of close battles with ranked Baylor teams (by the way, the Cyclones and Bears are the two teams on the Red Raiders’ schedule this week).
The next season, Texas Tech surged to 19 wins, 9-9 in conference and earned an NCAA Tournament berth. The Red Raiders really learned to win that season, which featured a three-game run of victories over ranked opponents (No. 14 Iowa State, No. 21 Baylor and No. 3 Oklahoma).
Then came a bit of a shock that April as Tubby Smith left for Memphis. Red Raider fans didn’t know it at the time, but it was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to Texas Tech’s basketball program as it opened the door for Beard to come back to Lubbock.
When he walked in the door, the first thing he did was convince Odiase, Gray, Evans and Smith to stay.
Beard’s success in his first two seasons was built on the experience and toughness of that bunch that were freshman in 2014-15. Tubby Smith insisted on tough defense and Beard and assistant coach Mark Adams turned that ability up to 11.
That’s how the Red Raiders current culture came to be. Texas Tech senior Brandone Francis and sophomores Jarrett Culver and Davide Moretti have carried it on as handed down from Evans, Gray and Zach Smith.
And, of course, thanks to a medical redshirt from the 2016-17 season, Odiase is still here.
When Beard talks about the Red Raiders’ 4:1 theme — toughness being four parts mental to one part physical – that quality has been hard earned during the past five seasons and no one knows that better than Texas Tech’s fifth-year senior forward.