Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard isn’t one to single out a player.
But, in this special case, the second-year Red Raiders coaches made an exception to tell a story which showed the growth and maturation of one of his talented freshmen.
Zhaire Smith, who finished with six points, seven rebounds, three blocks and two steals in a loss to No. 9 Oklahoma earlier in the week, let the rest of his teammates know how much the defeat hurt him in the locker room on Tuesday.
“One thing I did like, I haven’t really seen this in many times in my career: there was some major ownership by those young guys,” Beard said Thursday during a media press conference. “Normally, you’re a young player: let’s take Zhaire for example. Didn’t play his best game at Oklahoma. You’ve gotta give them credit.
“But in the locker room, it wasn’t a Z just looking around like ‘I wish the seniors would have played better.’ … It was basically a Z that was emotionally attached to that game and disappointed.”
Zhaire Smith earned his first start as he replaced senior forward Zach Smith in the starting lineup. He filled up the stat sheet, but ended his streak of consecutive games with double figures at 10.
But, more important to Beard, was the fact Zhaire Smith did not point any fingers following the No. 8 Red Raiders first loss in Big 12 play.
“I’ve never seen a guy more emotionally invested in a loss early in his career than him,” Beard said. “Hopefully that’s a sign of good things to come.”
Texas Tech is looking to bounce back, in a big way, as it continues Big 12 competition by hosting No. 2 West Virginia in a 1 p.m. Saturday contest at United Supermarkets Arena. The game is slated to be televised on ESPN.
“Biggest problem in the Oklahoma game was just turnovers,” said Beard. whose Red Raiders (14-2 overall, 3-1 in the Big 12) will be hosting their first Top 10 matchup in Lubbock. “If you took out the turnovers and looked at the possessions that were left, we did a lot of good things. We simply just gotta give ourselves a chance each possession by getting a shot up.
“It’s a lot simpler to talk about then do, especially when you’re playing against the best press in college basketball. It’s a big challenge for us, but I’m confident we’ll be ready.”
After dropping their season opener to Texas A&M in Germany, the Mountaineers (15-1, 4-0) rattled off 15 straight wins and vaulted to second place in the AP Top 25 men’s college basketball poll. It marked the highest WVU has been ranked since Dec. 29, 1959 — Jerry West’s senior season.
While the extra attention has been good for tickets sales, Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins has done his best to temper his player’s expectations considering there are plenty of conference games left to be played.
“Well, the first time we were No. 1 in the country at Cincinnati (March 9, 200), one of my friends called me and and said ‘Never forget the dog with the bone is always in danger,’” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said Thursday in a Big 12 media teleconference. “I tell our guys that all the time. We’re gonna have a bulls-eye on our back. I mean, that’s what you play for. You work like crazy to get to the point where everybody is excited about playing you. … I think the hard thing is: it’s easier to get there than it is to stay there. It’s hard to stay there. And that’s why you admire what Bill’s (Self) done at Kansas for all of these years because they not only got there, they stayed there.”
West Virginia has a chance to make a special run, like the Jayhawks, if it can continue to win games.
The Mountaineers chances to do that increased as Esa Ahmad is expected to be back in uniform for Saturday’s top-10 matchup against the Red Raiders. Ahmad, who has practiced with the team during his abscence, was forced to sit out the first 16 contest due to an NCAA-imposed suspension.
His void didn’t seem to hurt as the Mountaineers have forged a 15-game winning streak, but his return will certainly help from a depth standpoint. Last season, he averaged 11.3 points and 4.3 rebounds. He also was aggressive on defense, notching 31 steals and 21 blocks.
“He’s just 40 minutes of defense, 40 minutes of intense pressure,” Texas Tech senior guard Keenan Evans said when asked to describe what Carter brings to the floor. “he has great hands. He’s fast with poking the ball loose and just being physical. Also, on the offensive end, he’s a great attacker and a scorer and just finds his teammates.”
Another key player to watch will be Jevon Carter, a two-way threat at the guard position for the Mountaineers. The senior leads the country in steals (58) and played a major part in hounding Oklahoma’s freshman standout Trae Young on the way to an 89-76 win in Morgantown, W. Va. earlier this month.
Carter, who averages 16.1 points per game, is ranked fourth in the conference with 6.8 assists per contest.
“Carter is an NBA point guard,” Beard said. “He’s a guy that can run your team, he can score, he’s tough, he’s a great passer. He’s an all-conference player in the Big 12 for a reason. And I can say same thing about several more of their players. … We’re going to have to play well.”
Texas Tech will also have to play smart knowing they may be without the services of seniors Zach Smith and Justin Gray.
After not playing in Tuesday’s loss to the No. 9 Sooners, Zach Smith — who rolled his ankle against Baylor — ended a 38-game play streak. He was a on a knee scooter with a boot on his right foot during the Red Raiders shootaround in Norman, Okla.
If Gray is unable to suit up, it would mark the first time he’s not played in a game since a neutral-site contest against Mississippi State as part of the Puerto Rico Tipoff back on Nov. 20, 2015. Since then, he’s has played in 77 games — starting in 54.
Beard said both players were considered “day-to-day.”
With that in mind, the freshmen class of Zhaire Smith, Jarrett Culver and Davide Moretti may be tasked with absorbing some of those minutes.
The trio have been sparks off the bench, but struggled in their second Big 12 road contest against No. 9 Oklahoma.
Zhaire Smith, Culver and Moretti will need to forget about their mistakes and prepare for what is, arguably, the best defensive team they’ve faced off against to date.
“With West Virginia, it starts with their toughness,” Beard said. “In a lot of ways, they have the kind of program we’re going to try to build. Neither team really has McDonald’s All-Americans or one-and-done guys. But here you are with two Top 10 teams playing. … You’ve got to play tough anytime you play against a coach Huggins coached team.”
(Based off previous starting lineup)
No. 2 West Virginia
Daxter Miles Jr.6-3Sr.13.83.3
No. 8 Texas Tech
Who: No. 8 Texas Tech vs. No. 2 West Virginia
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: United Supermarkets Arena
Records: No. 8 Texas Tech 14-2 overall, 3-1 in the Big 12; No. 2 West Virginia 15-1, 4-0
Last game: No. 9 Oklahoma 76, No. 8 Texas Tech 65; No. 2 West Virginia 57, Baylor 54
Last meeting: Texas Tech 77, No. 7 West Virginia 76 (OT) on Jan. 3, 2016 in Lubbock
Updates: Follow Carlos Silva Jr. on Twitter at @cmsilvajr
Notable: After a 19-point outing on Tuesday, Texas Tech’s Keenan Evans increased his streak to 10 straight games in double figures. He’s also notched double-digit points totals in 14 of his last 15 games this season.