Big 12 Notebook: No. 14 Texas Tech looking forward to fun March

KANSAS CITY, MO. — It’s the most wonderful time of the year.


At least if you’re Chris Beard.

The second-year Texas Tech men’s basketball coach has been preaching to his players and coaching staff to be part of the fight in February and March.

That time is now and, not only that, the No. 14 Red Raiders get to enjoy what is expected to be a fun slate of games during “March Madness.”

“Anything you want in life, kind of like basketball, I think you have to have a plan for what you want,” said Beard, who’s guided Texas Tech to a 23-8 regular-season record, including a 1-0 mark in March, so far. “So we’d like to have a good March. Our plan is pretty specific. And one of the parts of our plan is we want to try to have more fun than anybody in college basketball this month. So, led by our seniors, we’re going to try to enjoy every moment. That’s what March is. I’m glad our guys are having fun.”

Some of the fun is expected to include runs in the Big 12 Tournament and, when the time comes, the NCAA Tournament in less than a week.

But, before that, the Red Raiders enjoyed a friendly one-on-one battle Wednesday between Texas Tech sports information director Matt Dunaway and Chris Ogden’s son Bo.

After some back-and-forth action, Bo celebrated his 10th birthday by driving down the right lane before making a layup and getting a victor’s celebration. The friendly drill asks players, coaches and staff members to pick a player —- most went with Bo —- with the losing side expected to run the length of court.

“The great part about this time of the year is just how much fun we can all have in the game,” Beard said. “I’m looking forward to watching our players compete on the biggest stage, which is the Big 12 Tournament, ultimately, the (NCAA) Tournament. Have a lot of confidence that we’re going to play well this month.”

Much of Beard’s confidence revolves around the upped play of Keenan Evans, who scored 23 second-half points against TCU to ensure the Red Raiders ended the regular season and senior day with a victory. Evans has been dealing with an injured toe he suffered against Baylor back in February.

Zach Smith, who suffered a right foot injury that kept him out for several weeks, is looking to get his offensive rhythm back on track. After suffering a concussion against Kansas, Just Gray appears to be back to his normal self as a versatile guard that can play on the perimeter or defend in the paint and around the block.

“I wish we were completely healthy, but we’re just not. We’re no different than any team in college basketball in that regard,” Beard said. “So it’s certainly not an excuse. … We’re about as healthy as we’ve been in a long time. I know guys like Keenan and Zach are looking forward to competing. I got a lot of confidence in our roster.”

The Red Raiders will play the winner of Wednesday’s Texas and Iowa State game at 6 p.m. today in the quarterfinals. Results from the game were not available by the Avalanche-Journal’s print deadline.

“But when that ball goes up at 6 o’clock (Thursday) night, none of this stuff matters,” Beard said. “Day off, bye, rankings, what happened last time. This is March. The most beautiful month of the year,” Beard said. “My daughters think it’s December, but it’s not. It’s March. So the best team’s going to play and the best team’s going to win.”

Stevenson stepping up

Niem Stevenson appears to have gained his shot back.

After finding a new aggressive attitude on the offensive end, the senior guard has finished in double figures in four of his last six games. It was highlighted by a season-high 24 points in a road loss to West Virginia back in February.

Thanks to that offensive outburst, he upped his scoring average from 6.6 to 7.2 in the span of 19 days.

“Niem has had a great year,” Beard said. “So proud of so many guys on our roster. Obviously guys like Keenan (Evans), Z (Zhaire Smith) and (Jarrett) Culver have gotten a lot of attention this year. But, I would challenge anybody to try find somebody that’s meant more to their team as a junior college transfer than Niem Stevenson. He’s done a lot for our team. I’m so proud of him. He’s playing his best basketball of his career, right now, when it matters the most in late February and March.”

Looking for consistency

Just like the the Red Raiders, West Virginia is looking to make its own run at the conference title game.

But, unlike the Red Raiders, West Virginia ended its season with an 87-79 overtime loss to Texas, which snapped a three-game winning streak.

The Mountaineers, like Texas Tech, enjoyed a first-day bye before an 8 p.m. Thursday game against Baylor.

“We’ve got to play hard,” West Virginia forward Sagaba Konate said of what needs to be done to make a tournament run. “Always play hard and guard the ball and rebound the ball.”

Udoka out

Kansas, like several other Big 12 teams, will have to adjust on the fly due to an injury to a key player before the Big 12 Championships.

Udoka Azubuike suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee during a Tuesday scrimmage.

“In practice yesterday (March 6), Udoka (Azubuike), sprained his medial collateral ligament in his left knee during a scrimmage situation. It is isolated. It is a grade one sprain. We will hold him out this weekend in Kansas City and he will be reevaluated Sunday and our expectation is that he’ll be back on the court next week.”