– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
NEW YORK — The first thing that Texas Tech coach Chris Beard mentioned after his team’s close loss at Madison Square Garden on Thursday was that his opponent is what his team strives to emulate on a consistent basis. Not too long afterward, the opposing coach paid Beard a compliment like no other, comparing the Red Raiders squad to a team coached by Beard’s Hall-of-Fame mentor.
Though the 12th-ranked Red Raiders fell from the ranks of the unbeaten, losing 68-59 to No. 2 Duke in a nationally-televised primetime game that arguably had more electricity inside “The World’s Most Famous Arena” than any New York Knicks game this season, Texas Tech continued to display to the country that its meteoric ascent in college basketball is far from ephemeral. Tonight, however, was Texas Tech’s first-ever meeting with one of college basketball’s blue bloods, and Beard, in defeat, saw across the court what he hopes his teams will evolve into during his time as head coach in the South Plains.
“In a lot of ways, [Duke] has the kind of program we’re trying to build in Lubbock,” Beard said. “This is just our third year. I was really proud of our guys tonight.
“I thought we competed — we just have to play better,” Beard continued.
Just over 365 days ago, Texas Tech played in the same venue and as a ranked team, but the then-No. 22 Red Raiders lost to Seton Hall in a half-filled Madison Square Garden that, mostly, was made up of Seton Hall fans coming from nearby New Jersey. Tonight, red-clad Red Raider fans almost outnumbered Blue Devil fans in Duke’s home away from home (MSG), creating an atmosphere more akin to a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight matchup than a contest just before the New Year.
“I’d like to recognize our crowd. We brought the 806 to New York City and got ‘Raider Power’ going at Madison Square Garden,” Beard said. “We have some of the best fans in college basketball. I want to recognize all the people who came out and supported us.”
Those same fans who have supported Texas Tech football during their prolific and trend-setting “Air Raid Offense” era over the past two decades are now the same fans who are agog over suffocating defense…at least when it comes to the hardwood. Against the talents of freshmen phenoms Zion Williams, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones for Duke, Texas Tech held the Blue Devils to under 40 percent shooting in each half, including forcing Duke to shoot only 3-for-20 from beyond the arc. The Red Raiders, who ranked in the top 10 in field goal percentage defense and points per game allowed last season, came into tonight leading D-1 in scoring defense, allowing just 51.2 points per game.
Beard spent 10 years as an assistant with the Red Raiders, the first seven under Bob Knight, who coached Texas Tech from 2001 until his retirement in February of 2008. Knight’s most-prized pupil, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, experienced firsthand the influence and imprint of Coach Knight, who mentored Coach K while at West Point, in Beard’s Red Raiders.
“They play beautiful defense. They play a lot like, I’m telling you, when I played 50 years ago at Army for [Coach] Knight,” said Krzyzewski. “It was tough to score in the middle against us, and there was no three-point shot. We didn’t block any shots, but we took a lot of charges…It’s old-school, really good defense.”
Texas Tech’s run to its first-ever Elite Eight last season was on the back of a stingy defense, but it also had talented offensive players such as Keenan Evans, Zach Smith and Zhaire Smith. All three departed Lubbock after last season, though that has allowed sophomore guard and Lubbock native Jarrett Culver to emerge into an offensive leader and future star. Against the Blue Devils, Culver led all scorers with 25 points as he displayed a versatile skill set that saw him hit NBA-range three-pointers while finishing drives to the basket with dunks against an opponent chockfull of NBA talent.
“The guy is like an old school student of the game,” Beard said of Culver. “He’s that fine balance between confident and killer, but he’s also the nicest guy in the world. He’s going to kill you in one-on-one at 10:30 AM on Sunday, then he’s going to help you go to church at 11:15. He’s special.”
Count Krzyzewski as a fan of Culver also, calling him “the real deal” in the postgame press conference.
“Smooth. Really smooth,” was part of Krzyzewski’s assessment of Culver.
Texas Tech came up short in its highest-profile game of the season, but everything outside of the final score points to the Red Raiders moving ever closer to mirroring the program that shared the floor with them.