Mike Casazza: Tubby and Texas Tech good fit for each other
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- They will play the 626th game in the history of the Coliseum on Wednesday night when West Virginia opens its doors for Texas Tech. Tubby Smith will add to an exclusive tradition Adolph Rupp started more than 33 years ago.
The Red Raiders coach will be just the eighth coach to stalk the visitor's sideline after winning a national championship. Rupp won four at Kentucky before winning the third game in Coliseum history in 1970.
Smith won his title at Kentucky in 1998, the very season WVU beat Bob Huggins to advance to the Sweet Sixteen and then lost to eventual runner-up Utah. The 8 p.m. game against the Mountaineers on the Big 12 Network will be just the 20th time a coach with a national championship will be in the building.
The Mountaineers are 7-12 in the first 19. In between Rupp and Smith were Ohio State's Fred Taylor, Georgetown's John Thompson III, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, Louisville's Rick Pitino and Kansas' Bill Self. Taylor beat the Mountaineers in 1971, Thompson was 2-1 and Calhoun was 3-2. Boeheim is 2-1, Pitino is 2-3 and Self is 1-0 with a win last year.
Huggins is 4-5 in his home matchups against championship coaches. There were just 10 such games from Rupp's appearance to 2006 and none from Taylor's game and WVU's first Big East game at home against Thompson's Hoyas in December 1995.
Much like there was in the Big East with Thompson first and later Calhoun, Boeheim and Pitino, the Mountaineers are guaranteed two every year for as long as Smith and Self remain and until the likes of Travis Ford at Oklahoma State, Scott Drew at Baylor or Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State cut down their own nets.
Smith is far away from another ring, but does have the Red Raiders on their way to something better than what they'd grown accustomed to with three coaches in three seasons before Smith. Chris Walker was 11-20 last season as an interim coach. Walker, who is Smith's associate head coach this season, relieved Billy Gillespie. He resigned in September 2012 for health reasons, but was also under fire for allegedly mistreating his players. Gillespie was 8-23 and lost 17 of 18 Big 12 games in his one season after replacing Pat Knight.
These Red Raiders, like the Mountaineers, are 10-8 overall and 2-3 in the conference, but on a different trajectory than WVU, which has lost three straight. Texas Tech has won two in a row, including a home upset against Baylor. The program hadn't won consecutive conference games in three seasons and ended a 12-game road losing streak in Big 12 play in Saturday's win at TCU.
"We're trying to build some structure and after that be creative and innovative," Smith said.
"You rely on them to grow. I don't want to stifle them and their creativity. I think a lot of it, because they've had a few different styles of play and systems over the last few years, is they needed some structure, some kind of way to see that they are making progress.
"If you just let them have freedom, it's hard to see that progress. I guess we could have done it another way, but we tried to get them to understand we're going to be up-tempo, we're going to run, we're going to play a style that's been successful for us and then kind of make them adapt their ability to what we do best."
Smith's roster is situated to handle the transition. The Red Raiders returned nine players, led by leading scorers Jaye Crockett and Jordan Tolbert, and first-year players have made the most of first chances with a new coach. Junior college transfer Robert Turner is the third leading scorer and redshirt freshman Aaron Ross is the best player off the bench who helps across the floor.
A win Wednesday would give the Red Raiders as many overall wins and conference wins as they had a year ago and continue Smith's pattern of first-year success.
In 1991-92, Smith was 17-13 in his first season at Tulsa. Four years later, he led Georgia to a 21-10 record and the Sweet Sixteen. His national title at Kentucky was in his first season and followed a runner-up finish the year before and Pitino's national title in 1996. His 2007-08 team at Minnesota was 20-14 and made the NIT in his first season after finishing 9-22 and losing their final nine games the year before.
"This is one of the most coachable groups I've ever had," Smith said. "They're hungry. They don't have an ego. It's not like going into Kentucky, where they'd already won a national championship when I took over. They weren't questioning what coach Smith or our coaching staff knows or our ability to lead or to coach.
"That really cuts to the heart of it. I feel honored to coach them. That's kind of the way I approached it and I think they kind of needed that instead of them wondering, 'Coach, what are you doing here?'"
Smith had five 20-win seasons and his worst record in six years at Minnesota was 17-14. He led the school to four NCAA Tournaments and two NIT appearances and signed a contract extension after losing the NIT championship in 2012. He was nevertheless fired after losing to Florida in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, but wasn't unemployed for long.
In Texas Tech, Smith saw a team that he needed as much as it needed him, even if it didn't make sense to most observers.
"They've heard it from the others," he said. "That's the sense I got at first, but I think that's why they're so excited. 'Hey, Coach Smith is willing to come here.' For a program where we've struggled for so long, it galvanized them. If gives them one focus.
"They're not looking over their shoulders saying 'I'm going to leave early' or this and that is happening. They know it's on them. They realize, 'We've got an opportunity here and we better take advantage of it."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.