Saturday afternoon, the Texas Tech men’s basketball team had just beaten sixth-ranked Kansas in the kind of performance that can help define an entire program in terms of priorities, potential, and hard work. Suddenly, what new head coach Mark Adams had been telling his players for months—that they’re good enough to beat any team in the country—didn’t sound so far-fetched.
That the Red Raiders pulled off the 75–67 upset without their top two scorers, and that they did it with poise and defense, with elbows and hustle, by challenging shots, drawing offensive fouls, and simply not backing down against all that four- and five-star talent, got the attention of the entire world of men’s college basketball.
“We don’t think offense that much,” Tech guard Clarence Nadolny said. “We just try to get stops, play a lot of defense, rebound, and if the offense goes with it, I mean, we’re with it too.”
This is Red Raiders basketball in 2022. Turns out, there might be life in Lubbock after the departure of Chris Beard, Texas Tech’s former head coach, who spent the last five seasons transforming the program into a national powerhouse and led Tech to the national championship game in 2019.
No team began this season as more of an unknown quantity than Texas Tech. When Beard left to take over at the University of Texas last spring, he brought most of his coaching staff with him. An exodus of Tech players followed via the transfer portal.
The team’s selfless nature and commitment to making winning plays was on full display during one defensive possession in the Kansas game, when a Jayhawks player drove to the basket and was met by two Texas Tech players hustling to get in position to draw the offensive foul. Strip everything else away, and that moment may be the greatest endorsement of the character Adams has been able to instill in this group over just nine months on the job.
Chris Level, Tech broadcast analyst and publisher of RedRaiderSports.com, told me he asked former Tech center Andy Ellis, “Have you ever seen two players line up to draw a charge?”
“Never,” Ellis said.
Three days earlier, with just seven players available due to injury and COVID-19 pandemic health protocols, the Red Raiders nearly pulled off an even more remarkable upset in a 51–47 loss on the road against eleventh-ranked Iowa State. Tech’s roster was depleted so severely that Adams had to tear entire pages from his playbook. He rotated those seven players in and out frequently, telling them to walk slowly on and off the court to give the entire team more time to rest.
Days after the Iowa State loss, Adams praised his team’s effort and resilience and said he couldn’t wait to see what they were capable of when he had a full roster, which might be two or three weeks away. “Our seven players knew they were representing those guys back home, and also those guys that were injured,” Adams said. “They played with a lot of pride. . . . I thought they did an unbelievable job of representing Red Raider Nation.”
Tech fans were angry last spring when Beard resigned, and they were especially furious that he would leave to coach the Longhorns. Almost immediately, though, folks in Lubbock pretty much demanded that Adams, Beard’s defensive specialist, be elevated to head coach.
From the outside, Adams might have seemed an unusual choice. He’s 65 years old, with the demeanor of a high school science teacher. His calling card is defensive planning and execution, which typically adds up to a slower, more disciplined style of play that some top-ranked recruits won’t find attractive.
What Adams had going for himself was this: he’s a West Texas native. He loves the place and speaks the language. He’d declined to join Beard in Austin, saying Texas Tech was where he wanted to be. “He’d lived in Lubbock. He’s a Tech graduate. He’d been an assistant under Chris; he’d been here under Tubby Smith,” Level told me. “He’s been part of West Texas basketball for years and years, and his decision to stay endeared him to the fan base.”
Adams is from Brownfield, just forty miles southwest of Lubbock. He’s a basketball lifer who’s spent 23 seasons as a head coach at places like Wayland Baptist and West Texas A&M. His Howard College team brought the 2010 junior college national championship home to Big Spring. His son Luke is head coach at New Mexico Junior College in nearby Hobbs.
When Adams got the opportunity to take over at Texas Tech, he saw the job not as a stepping stone, but as the culmination of his own hoop dreams. He choked back tears at his introductory news conference when he said: “This is home.”
“It’s a dream-come-true job for me,” he said. “It’s my alma mater. Both my children graduated from Texas Tech.”
When Adams took over at Tech, the challenges facing him were, well, everything. He was tasked with hiring coaches and staff, rebuilding a weakened roster, and attempting to convince players that the Red Raiders could do great things even without Chris Beard. Had he stopped to think about all the obstacles, he might have been overwhelmed. Instead, he rushed into the job, and because he knows almost everyone in the sport and has an eye for talent that’s been sharpened over a lifetime on the sidelines, he got to work.
No one at Texas Tech doubted that he was a good man with a strong basketball mind. But Beard had excelled in his career because he was also a great salesman and a first-rate recruiter who brought energy to the programs he coached. At times, he could have an entire athletic department on edge. But he got results.
“Chris was a great motivator, very good in front of the microphone and selling his program,” Level said. When Adams took over at Tech, Level added, the questions were: “ ‘Can Mark be that guy? Can he recruit? Could he sell the program to fans, recruits, or whatever?’
“I think he’s done a pretty good job there. But I think that the defensive part of it is so much of what endears him. That whole blue-collar mindset, it plays well with the fans out here.”
Adams had a solid foundation when guards Terrence Shannon Jr. and Kevin McCullar decided to return to the program. They’re leading Tech in scoring, but neither played in the Iowa State and Kansas games, and both could miss Tuesday’s matchup on the road against top-ranked Baylor.
Another player who didn’t give up on Tech is Nadolny, the rugged guard who scored a career-high seventeen points in the Kansas upset. “I love Clarence,” Adams said. “This is a guy that was loyal to me when I took this job, and he loves Texas Tech. . . . He just gives everything he has.”
Adams shored up his roster with additions from the transfer portal, signing a group that included guards Davion Warren (Hampton) and Mylik Wilson (Louisiana) and big men Kevin Obanor (Oral Roberts) and Bryson Williams (UTEP).
Entering Tuesday’s game at Baylor, the Red Raiders have had three losses: a tight four-point game at Providence, a fourteen-point loss to then fifth-ranked Gonzaga, and last week at Iowa State.
“What we learned from that [is] that we’re still a team, whether we’re missing two or three guys or five guys,” Adams said. “We have to believe in the program and believe in the system and, you know, believe in each other.
“And they did a great job of that at Iowa State, and I think it gave us a little bit of confidence and momentum going into [the Kansas] game, that we can play with anybody. . . . I think we’ve grown up a lot. And there’s a toughness about us that we may not have had a few weeks ago. . . . It came down to a few plays in the last few minutes, and I’m just really proud of our guys for making the big plays and making the free throws.”
I mentioned to Level that Tech’s 57–52 victory over then number thirteen Tennessee in December opened my eyes to this team’s potential. Adams had the team playing with such single-minded focus that it was impossible not to be impressed.
In that game, Tech’s defense harassed Tennessee into 27 percent field-goal shooting, but the Raiders didn’t burn it up, either, shooting 31 percent. If you’re looking for white-water, fast-break baseball, this wasn’t it. But there was a certain beauty in the grit and resolve both clubs showed.
“It’s not easy on the eyes at times,” Level said. “Most people nationally are watching and thinking, ‘This is awful. This is terrible basketball. All these missed shots.’ The thing is, Mark loves that.”
Adams was the architect of the defensive schemes that helped make Texas Tech successful under Beard. In five seasons, the Red Raiders held opponents to sixty points or less 59 times. (They’ve done it 7 times in fourteen games this season.)
Turning games into defensive struggles is what Tech does. More important, this is what it knows it must do to win. When Adams scouts players, he puts extra emphasis on plays that don’t show up in the box score: how many passes they deflect, how they pay attention to defensive rotations, how willing they are to do the dirty work of fighting over screens and jockeying for rebounding position under the basket.
“Mark believes he can teach a player offense,” Level explained. Defense, on the other hand, requires a mentality that not all players possess.
Once the team had beaten Kansas, Adams walked into the home locker room in Lubbock and was greeted by a mob of jubilant players who smothered him in bear hugs and screams. He danced a bit, did some shadowboxing, and soaked in one of those moments coaches and players share after achieving something special.
Down the hall, the Jayhawks offered the ultimate compliment. “We got outworked today,” Kansas forward Jalen Wilson said. “They played harder than us. They brought all the energy, all the effort.”
This is an affirmation that the people who wanted to see Mark Adams get a crack at the job were right. Once Shannon and McCullar return to the lineup, Texas Tech could continue to play spoiler in a Big 12 conference stacked with talented programs like Baylor, UT, Iowa State, and Kansas.
“I’m curious what it looks like when they’re all healthy,” Level said. “I don’t know if they can sustain it, because they’ve played really hard the last two games, and it’s exhausting.”
But once a team as competitive and hardworking as these Red Raiders gets a taste of success and starts believing in its ability to beat some of the best teams in college basketball, there’s no telling who it might knock off next—or how much fun it’ll have doing it.