October 19, 2011

Notebook: Raising Tech hoops

When you look at the 2011-2012 basketball squad, there's something different about them.

Obviously, there's a new head basketball coach in Billy Gillispie and you expect some changes. But for a squad entering the season with just three returning lettermen and 10 newcomers and undoubtedly some growing pains up ahead, there's a strange aura of confidence that Texas Tech basketball has turned a corner and is on the upswing. There's more of a family atmosphere as well.

But what does that mean to a cynical fan? The Red Raider basketball squad lost four of its five best players at the end of last season and they've been replaced with guys that are unproven on the Division I level. Why should anyone believe in this team before they earn a signature win.

Well, for starters, they look better physically than teams in recent history. Secondly, if they aren't the most talented team in the country, they haven't been afraid to slam each other around the floor in the first few days of practice and make each other work for every pass.

"It's one of those things where if you told me five, six months ago the kind of conditioning that we've done I would have been like 'are you crazy,'" a bruised up Robert Lewandowski said. "It's amazing how much stuff you can get done when you prepare yourself physically and mentally too. It's been good, but it's been tough and I think all the guys have done a good job stepping up.

"Now it's to the point where we're there physically and we just have to get there mentally. Get the basketball stuff done now too. We're learning every day how to get things going. Conditioning is just one part of the game."

Lewandoski lost about 30 pounds this offseason and then put seven pounds of muscle back on.

Ask anyone else on the squad and they'll tell you they're in the greatest shape of their life.

"I feel like I'm in the best shape ever," forward Jaye Crockett said. "I've never worked as hard as I've worked now. It's going to be good for us in the long run."

Gillispie has the players running and running and running some more. The drills are very up-tempo and there is no patience for players who aren't giving their full effort.

Fortunately, that's a rarity.

This Red Raider team seems to hold itself more accountable than other teams despite returning just the three lettermen, a senior in Lewandowski and two sophomores in Crockett and Bean Willis.

Lewandowski, naturally more of a soft-spoken guy, has really stepped out and tried to be a leader.

Gillispie said it's getting more natural for Lewandowski every practice.

"From day one since I've been here I've kind of lined it out exactly how we're going to operate," Gillispie said. "I've never seen anybody do a better job as Lew. It's probably not in his comfort zone to be a vocal leader and from day one he's been fantastic and obviously stepped forward.

"He's way outside his comfort zone. I think he'd rather just be one of the guys and one of the guys that did what they were supposed but tell him as far as vocal goes. That's the true thing about a leader, in my opinion, when you see what is called for your particular group and you stand up and take that responsibility."

LEARNING ABOUT TEXAS TECH

Gillispie knows the principles of turning a program around.

He did it at UTEP and then on the Big 12 level at Texas A&M. But Lubbock's a little different as all new places are.

Gillispie said he still hasn't learned what the particular challenges of raising the Tech basketball brand are but he knows there is a good foundation already laid by coaches past.

"There are unique challenges, but I don't know what they are yet," Gillispie said. "You get your head down and try to recruit and try to do things in the community. You try to most importantly coach your players and make sure they're doing the kinds of things that you think are important to building a quality, top-notch program…

"I'm sure there are some challenges, there's a lot of challenges, but there are a lot of challenges everywhere. There are challenges even at places that have been winning 25 years in a row. I just don't know enough right now to totally pinpoint what the biggest challenge is going to be to put us at the top."

However, Gillispie said there's going to be a huge effort to bring fans back to the United Spirit Arena through community outreach.

Gillispie praised the coaches that have come through Tech before him. He said Gerald Myers built an outstanding program that would have received more attention had Lubbock been bigger at the time. Myers is often credited for putting Tech on an upswing that culminated in back-to-back Southwest Conference Championships.

"There's a lot of great things here as far as basketball tradition goes," Gillispie said. "I think it's an emerging city. I lived out here in the early '90's and it's totally different than what it was, the university is totally different than what it was. It was good then, I think it's great now…

"I think it's a goldmine waiting to happen. We just have to do our job for everyone to be able to see exactly how good this place can be."

BASKETBALL OR FOOTBALL SCHOOL?

Basketball has played second fiddle to football at Tech for quite a while and that's to be expected when your team misses the NCAA Tournament for four-consecutive seasons.

But Gillispie thinks there's plenty of room for the men's basketball program to be cherished as well.

"I never bought into that," Gillispie said. "I've been at what some people would consider a predominantly basketball school, been to two of those places. I've never bought into that. I think any at this level, especially in a conference such as the Big 12, I think they're committed to every single sport. Not just football, not just basketball. Texas Tech is definitely on that boat and the other schools I've been at are on hat boat as well.

"This is a great, great, great community that loves college athletics. I know that if we do our job they're going to come out like crazy and make this a place where it's very hard to beat us."

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