Wednesday night’s game between the Texas Tech Red Raiders and the Oklahoma Sooners wasn’t a classic in the sense of being the best basketball you’ve ever seen.
This was not a remarkable showcase of hoops at the highest level, with Buddy Hield struggling (he’s human, ya know) and Texas Tech making only 10 of 17 foul shots. Combined, the two teams hit roughly 40 percent of their field goals, under one-third of their threes, and under 70 percent of their foul shots. Two determined defenses locked horns in a consistently close game before a loud crowd with a lot on the line — it was superb theater, but hardly a basketball Rembrandt.
This game wasn’t a classic in the artistic sense. It was a classic in that it embodied why college basketball can and does mean so much to its participating teams before the month of March.
If you follow the sport closely, you know that every game matters, and that seasons can often be (and are) defined well before March arrives. Sure, the teams striving for national titles and Final Fours arrive at their moments of truth next month, but for the teams living on the edge — teams which just want to get into the darn Dance hall — January and February frequently provide the snapshot which turns into an immortal memory.
Such was likely the case for Texas Tech on Wednesday in Lubbock.
Casual college basketball fans — those who are just reorienting themselves with the sport after the NFL season and the NBA All-Star Weekend — should know this about Texas Tech: While other opportunities existed for the Red Raiders in the attempt to bolster their NCAA tournament resume, Wednesday’s game was the last best chance to make a statement.
In the coming weeks, Texas Tech plays Oklahoma State (this Saturday), TCU and Kansas State, three inferior opponents. Winning those games doesn’t improve a resume so much as it prevents the resume from being worse. Bubble teams don’t “gain” anything when they win those kinds of contests; they merely “avoid losing ground” in competition with other bubble teams.
Texas Tech also plays Kansas and West Virginia in the coming weeks. Those are two opportunities for huge resume-enhancing victories. However, they both came on the road. Wednesday’s game versus Oklahoma was the last home game against a profile-improving foe. Being realistic, Texas Tech isn’t going to win in Phog Allen Fieldhouse or in Morgantown. If the Red Raiders really wanted to make the NCAAs this year, they needed to beat the Sooners. To the sports fan who is shifting his or her attention to college hoops after focusing on other sports, the idea that Texas Tech faced a “do-or-die” moment probably did not emerge on the radar screen.
The Red Raiders threaded the needle against OU.
It was — and is — the classic mid-February bubble experience for a team with a thorny schedule leading into its conference tournament.
With fellow bubblers Saint Bonaventure, Florida State, and LSU all losing Wednesday night, Texas Tech didn’t merely gain in isolation; the Red Raiders gained even more bubble leverage relative to several competitors jostling for the final few spots in the field of 68. This Saturday’s game at Oklahoma State screams for a letdown, and if the Red Raiders lose it, they’ll be in some trouble. However, if any bubble team bought itself a cushion on Wednesday, Texas Tech is it. You’re not likely to see a bigger bubble win in college basketball this week.
One final point about Texas Tech’s bubble candidacy: The always-worth-reading Basketball Predictions website explained how Red Raider coach Tubby Smith did his job (as every power-conference coach should do, no excuses…) by gaming the RPI system. That display of responsible scheduling lends even more weight to the claim that Texas Tech is not merely “in the hunt” for an at-large berth, but in very strong position… as long as it wins all the games it’s supposed to. Texas Tech is in good shape to make the field because of proper RPI manipulation, much as Georgia did in 2015, a story we also wrote about here at TSS.
March is great. March is awesome. March is everything you always thought it was.
Nights like Wednesday night remind us that February and other months can define a college basketball season as well. Just ask the good people of Lubbock, Texas.