Two weeks from the regular-season finish line, there are different levels of desperation around the Big 12 Conference.
Two teams hungry to create a foothold in the stretch run will get together twice in three days starting Tuesday when No. 15 Texas Tech hosts TCU in Lubbock, Texas.
The teams were initially slated to open the home-and-home set on Monday in Fort Worth and play in Lubbock on Wednesday but Texas Tech was unable to travel due to wintry conditions. The Big 12 changed the slate on Sunday night, calling for Tuesday’s game to be played in Lubbock and Thursday’s contest to be in Fort Worth.
For the Red Raiders, the urgency isn’t about securing an NCAA Tournament spot. That’s a relatively safe assumption for a team that last week climbed as high as it has been in the national rankings since 1995-96. Instead, the focus for Texas Tech (14-6, 6-5 Big 12) is staying in the hunt for second place in a rugged league that figures to send six or seven teams to the NCAA Tournament.
TCU is in a different boat after a 70-55 loss to No. 13 Texas on Saturday. The Horned Frogs (11-8, 4-6 Big 12) are running out of time and chances to nail down signature wins. TCU is 0-5 against ranked teams this season, and the two matchups versus the Red Raiders are perfect chances to end that drought, and securing one — if not two — wins could be a launchpad to a late-season push.
“We’ve still got eight more conference games (scheduled),” said RJ Nembhard, who leads his team with 16.9 points a game and 68 assists. “We’ve got to regroup and go into Monday confident and more focused.”
There was reason for TCU to be confident Saturday against the No. 13 Texas Longhorns after Taryn Todd’s two free throws pulled the Horned Frogs within 49-46 midway through the second half. But four turnovers and 3-of-9 shooting the rest of the day doomed TCU.
“We had our opportunities but eventually the poor play just continued, and it wore us down,” Horned Frogs coach Jamie Dixon said.
“They pulled away down the stretch on us. We’ve got to find a way to execute better throughout.”
Texas Tech has encountered similar up-and-down play in its last two games, a grind-it-out 73-62 victory at Kansas State and an 82-71 home loss to 14th-ranked West Virginia last Tuesday.
The Red Raiders took a brief and narrow lead on WVU with 8:26 to go and clawed back within 71-69 with 1:55 on the clock, but never got over the hump when the Mountaineers finished strong by connecting on 11-of-14 free throw attempts in the final 1:20.
Falling to WVU for the second time this season dropped Texas Tech into sixth place in the Big 12, but just 1 1/2 games behind second-place Oklahoma.
Now the unique back-to-back matchups vs. the Horned Frogs — a byproduct of COVID-19 pauses around the league — puts the Red Raiders in a spot to make up ground. But Texas Tech coach Chris Beard knows that won’t be easy. He lauded TCU for the progress it has made this season and noted that a few different bounces and the Horned Frogs would in the middle of the bottleneck in the Big 12 standings behind No. 2 Baylor.
“It’s a unique situation, no doubt, but COVID-19 in the 2020-21 season has been anything but normal,” Beard said. “We have to play 80 great minutes against TCU to have a shot to win these games.”
To gain the head of steam they are seeking, the Red Raiders need more consistency from Marcus Santos-Silva, their blue-collar big man. He has scuffled the last four games, grappling with foul trouble and bigger foes in the paint. He has averaged only 5.5 points in those four outings and was held without a rebound by WVU before fouling out in crunch time.
“Some of it is just discipline — not being patient on defense,” Beard said after praising Santos-Silva for his desire to be better. “There are some plays he can make where sometimes you have to gauge risk versus reward.”
–Field Level Media