It all happened quickly and unexpectedly in April of 2016. First, Georgia Tech pulled a shocker when it hired Memphis coach Josh Pastner. Then, a week later, Tigers AD Tom Bowen also pulled a rabbit out of his hat when he tabbed Tubby Smith to replace Pastner.
Chris Beard was a no-brainer for Texas Tech Red Raiders AD Kirby Hocutt, except for one minor issue. Beard had just accepted the UNLV gig.
Beard’s three daughters live close to Lubbock, Texas, and he knew he belonged in Lubbock. So he left Vegas after a brief, couple-week stint, took major criticism for the quick departure and has validated the decision by quickly turning the Red Raiders into a program that could crack the top five when the polls come out on Monday.
There was the win over Kansas in Lawrence 10 days ago, but there are shocking losses all the time. Boston College knocked off Duke back in December. But Beard & Co. have proved the win at Allen Fieldhouse was no fluke, not after coming back Saturday for a 72-71 win over a West Virginia team that hadn’t lost a game since Nov. 10.
Beard fits in Lubbock. It wasn’t that Smith hadn’t done a solid job. He took the Red Raiders to the NCAA tourney in his third season after the mess that Billy Gillispie left behind.
Smith gave the program credibility, but Beard has taken it to another level.
“Tubby left us a good base, and our first two recruiting classes have really produced and impacted the program,” Beard told ESPN on Saturday.
Keenan Evans has thrived under Beard and become one of the Big 12’s top players. He made a couple of huge buckets in the final five minutes. First there was a drive that tied the score at 60-60, and then a leaner from 17 feet that put the game away with 40 seconds remaining.
But the crazy aspect of all this is that Beard has done it in Big 12 play without 6-foot-8 senior Zach Smith, who was supposed to be the team’s top player this season. Smith rolled his ankle and played only four minutes against Baylor, logged six minutes in the win over Kansas and hasn’t played the past two games after suffering a broken bone in his foot in the win against Kansas State.
Beard told ESPN that he wasn’t sure if Smith will be back this season, only that he’s “out for a while.”
Texas Tech’s freshman duo of Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver has stepped up, but it’s the mentality that Beard -- a former Bob and Pat Knight assistant at Texas Tech -- has brought back to Lubbock that has made the difference. He’s a grinder, and after leaving Texas Tech following the hire of Gillispie, Beard has had to climb the ladder rung by rung. First it was the South Carolina Warriors in the ABA in 2011-12, then Division III McMurry in 2012-13, two years at Division II Angelo State, one at Arkansas Little Rock and the past two at Texas Tech.
It’s no shock with Beard’s grit that the Red Raiders have become one of the best defensive teams in the country.
“We’re good defensively and a work in progress offensively,” Beard said.
Now Texas Tech sits in a four-way tie for first place in the Big 12 with Kansas, West Virginia and Oklahoma. However, the Red Raiders have beaten Kansas on the road, the Mountaineers at home and will get a chance for revenge against Trae Young and the Sooners.
“We’re rolling now, but this league’s so good,” Beard said. “You can lose a couple in a row easily in this league. I don’t think the race will shake out until February.”
And if Texas Tech is still in the race, Red Raiders fans can thank Georgia Tech and Memphis for the assist.