Texas Tech’s Chris Beard: My players have made me better

Texas Tech freshman Zhaire Smith throws down a dunk off a rebound to fire up the home crowd in Lubbock.

With second-year coach Chris Beard at the helm, the Texas Tech Red Raiders have started to assert themselves as a potential threat in the Big 12 Conference. This is something of a surprise considering that Tech was picked seventh in the conference’s preseason poll.

But since the season started, the Red Raiders have been much better than advertised. They’ve forged a 7-1 record with victories at home over two ranked opponents. Two weeks ago, Tech emerged as a Top 25 team itself, showing up at No. 22 in the Associated Press poll.

After a 10-point loss to Seton Hall, the Red Raiders fell out of the rankings for a week, only to re-appear on Monday at No. 24. Now, it’s starting to look like they might be a fixture in the national spotlight.

Buoyed by an energized fan base and by a group of talented athletes playing hard for him, Beard could be poised for a big season. Tech’s latest triumph came last Tuesday when it rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit to beat Nevada, 82-76, in overtime.

More than 9,000 fans at United Supermarkets Arena roared as Keenan Evans scored 25 of his career-high 32 points after intermission. Beard credited the fans, his players and his staff for making it happen.

“You got to give the players a lot of credit,” he said. “These guys have made me a better coach. I’m kind of a competitive, fiery guy. Patience isn’t one of my strengths. But I think with these guys, I’ve really tried to learn to try to keep the culture positive during the game. Now, we still tell the truth. If we’re not playing well, I’ll be the first to tell ‘em.

“But I think overall, as a coach, you try to give your team a chance to win the game. I give our staff a lot of credit. We didn’t have any panicked timeouts. We didn’t get negative. We stayed positive. I’m proud of our staff for doing that. We gave our players a chance to win the game tonight. Give our players all the credit. They’re the ones that did it.”

Tech clearly has more going on this season than in Beard’s first, when the Red Raiders finished 18-14. The Red Raiders started 11-1 through the non-conference phase of the schedule last year, but they did it against a weaker schedule.

This year, the Red Raiders have defeated two Top 25 opponents (Northwestern and Nevada), and they also knocked off Boston College. The Eagles aren’t ranked but they did beat previously undefeated and No. 1 Duke last weekend.

Tech’s only loss came on Nov. 30 in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Seton Hall of the Big East hit 11 three-pointers and scored 50 points during the second half. Asked after the victory over Nevada whether his team learned a few lessons in defeat, Beard said they did.

“Just like every team in the country, we’re a work in progress,” he said. “We’re trying to get better. The Seton Hall game, we didn’t think we were the most aggressive team. Tonight (against Nevada), I think we were. And even if we lose this game tonight to a really good Nevada team, I still think the same thing. I thought we were aggressive enough down the stretch to give ourselves a chance.”

Beard said the Red Raiders did a better job of keeping their composure against the Wolf Pack.

“Against Seton Hall, it turned into a 6-7 minute game (and) we made too many mistakes. We didn’t make enough plays,” he said. “Tonight, when it turned into a 6-7 minute game, we’re still making mistakes. But I thought we were making plays. You know, victory favors the more aggressive team. Sometimes, you got to go make a play, especially at this level. I thought we did that tonight.”