The top team in the Big 12 wears red.
On a day of upsets and craziness in the conference, Texas Tech went statement victory Saturday on Kansas State 66-47 to take control of the league race.
The Red Raiders stand 9-3, not an overwhelming record — their three losses match the most of any of the 32 conference leaders through Saturday’s games.
There is also a matter of the team directly behind Tech in the standings, Kansas (8-4), paying a visit to Lubbock later this month.
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But on a bizarre Saturday in the Big 12, when three ranked teams fell to the unranked, Tech visited Bramlage Coliseum and did what teams with designs on a championship do. The Red Raiders took early blows in a hostile environment, then imposed their will to put a second-half beatdown on a team with NCAA Tournament aspirations.
As for first place and the-team-to-beat target, Tech coach Chris Beard hasn’t checked the utility closet for a ladder and net-cutting scissors.
“February is just a grind,” Beard said. “The Big 12, it’s like prince today, frog tomorrow. A two-game winning streak in this league gets you right back where you’re in the fight. A two-game losing streak and you feel like your life is over. We’ve experienced both.”
Currently, Tech’s on a six-game winning streak, five of them Big 12 games. In the same six-game run, Kansas is 3-3, and if the Red Raiders dethrone the Jayhawks, this is could be the pivotal stretch.
Not often this late into the season has Kansas’ superiority been threatened, and even when it was, the Jayhawks found a way to finish first. Their streak of 13 straight conference championships stands as one of college basketball’s great achievements.
Getting No. 14 doesn’t seem possible without KU beating Tech on Feb. 24. The teams both have three games to play before that showdown.
Entering the year, calling Tech a candidate to challenge Kansas’ streak would have drawn stifled laughter. A better guess would have been West Virginia, which has finished second the last two years. Or Baylor, which always seems to come up with athletic teams. Or, pick two or three more.
Tech? The Red Raiders haven’t finished higher than seventh in the Big 12 since 2007. They’ve played on the first day of the Big 12 Tournament as one of the bottom four seeds in all six years of the 10-team league.
Tech was the league’s preseason seventh choice.
“It’s Texas Tech, it’s Lubbock; nobody really talks about us that much,” said senior guard Keenan Evans.
Not since the Bob Knight era, anyway.
The NCAA Tournament committee may need a little more convincing. The group gave a sneak peak of its top 16 teams on Sunday and had the Red Raiders seeded third. Kansas was a No. 2 seed.
But if Tech becomes the first Big 12 to sweep a regular-season series from KU since 2001, those positions likely would flip.
Beard, in his second season, inherited a team from Tubby Smith that had played in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The Red Raiders finished 18-14 last season with plenty of near misses. Add a talented recruiting class to nice returning pieces like Evans, who just about hit his average with 19 points Saturday, and Tech deserved more preseason love.
Not that it mattered.
“It wasn’t really a factor for us,” Evans said. “We’re just trying to shock the world.”
The Red Raiders defied expectations early with non-conference success, but their first week of conference play dropped jaws. Tech followed a 24-point walloping of Baylor by becoming the first Bill Self opponent to never trail in Lawrence.
Then, senior forward Zach Smith, a heart-and-soul player, suffered a broken bone in his foot and the Red Raiders soon after dropped three of four. That’s it. Nice run. Still a NCAA team but not a conference contender.
But Tech didn’t stop playing defense or smart basketball, and the winning resumed. Beard called Saturday’s game his team’s best defensive effort of the season, and Kansas State, held to its lowest point total at home since 2006, would agree as open looks closed quickly, as did driving lanes.
The Red Raiders aren’t a well-oiled machine on offense but seldom take bad shots. From a halftime deadlock, Tech was fantastic down the stretch.
If that’s how the conference season plays out, the Big 12 will have a new champion.
Oh, and here’s the aforementioned men’s basketball committee’s sneak peak of the top four teams in each region.
South (Atlanta): (1) Virginia, (2) Cincinnati, (3) Michigan St., (4) Tennessee
East (Boston): (1) Villanova, (2) Duke, (3) Texas Tech, (4) Ohio State
Midwest (Omaha): (1) Xavier, (2) Auburn, (3) Clemson, (4) Oklahoma
West (Los Angeles): (1) Purdue, (2) Kansas, (3) North Carolina, (4) Arizona