Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Women's College Basketball [Print without images]

Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Texas Tech on the right track in '11

By Mechelle Voepel
ESPN.com

The past few years, it has been wise for Texas Tech coach Kristy Curry to keep in mind the motto of nothing ever being as good or bad as it seems. Except, of course, sometimes things really were that bad.

Kristy Curry
Kristy Curry and Texas Tech have opened the season at 16-1 overall and 3-0 in the Big 12.

Just a little gallows humor here. When so much of your life is about winning basketball games in a place where people really do care a lot about that, it can be hard to know just what "perspective" is, let alone successfully keep it.

But there is a "up" side to even the worst days of Curry's time at Texas Tech. Most coaches feel internal pressure to succeed, or they probably shouldn't be coaching. But in women's basketball, the reality is that many programs don't have a lot of external pressure to win. When you do have that, at least you know fans are paying attention. That pressure sure beats indifference.

Certainly, Texas Tech has passionate fans. And Curry's situation -- following much-admired Marsha Sharp as steward of the Tech women's basketball program -- was going to have its rocky moments even with a lot of victories.

It has been rockier, of course, because there have not been enough wins. Curry entered this season 66-62 in four years in Lubbock. Furthermore, Tech hasn't been in the NCAA tournament field -- for many years, their appearance was a foregone conclusion -- since 2005, Sharp's second-to-last season.

Has it been a rougher-than-expected adjustment for Curry? She readily admits that. But this week, for the first time since November 2006 when she was in her first season in Lubbock, Texas Tech (16-1 overall, 3-0 in the Big 12) is in the coaches' poll, at No. 25.

It could be a short stay: Tech plays No. 13 Oklahoma and No. 1 Baylor this week, both on the road. Yet even if Tech loses those games, Curry won't be any less convinced of her team's ability.

"This season, we're bigger, we're longer, we're healthy," Curry said. "I'm not sure what's going to happen down the stretch; nobody ever can be. But I feel good because I see improvements every day."

"I said in the middle of December, they were the most improved team in our league. … I just like their ballclub.

-- Texas A&M coach Gary Blair on the Texas Tech Lady Raiders

Asked what she sees different in Tech, Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said, "Belief. They've been in the system for a while and started to get rewarded for their effort in terms of checkmarks in the win column.

"That begins to build confidence, and they believe in one another and the way they're playing. That's just a process. Their pieces are good; we could all see it last year. I can't tell you how many times as a staff we said, 'Texas Tech is really close.'"

Still, Tech finished 18-15 overall and 5-11 in the Big 12 last season. The program got national attention for unwanted reasons: the scuffle March 3 between Jordan Barncastle and Baylor's Brittney Griner that ended with Barncastle getting punched.

Tech lost that game by nine points, then lost the regular-season finale at Missouri and its Big 12 tournament opener to Kansas State. Curry's squad won one game in the WNIT, then fell in overtime of the second round.

"Close" wasn't close enough for a lot of Tech fans. Curry felt the heat; it would be impossible not to. But it's also important to put into context the situation she stepped into at Tech.

When Curry left Purdue for Lubbock after the 2006 season, Texas Tech was in a different place than it had been a decade previously, when the Big 12 started. In 1996, Tech was three years removed from an NCAA title. It was at the top of the recruiting chain among Lone Star State schools, edging even Texas then.

Tech had won or shared with Texas the previous five Southwest Conference regular-season titles. Texas A&M was 8-6 in the last year of the SWC and got its only SWC tournament win that '96 season. But A&M didn't have another winning season until 2005, coach Gary Blair's second year in College Station, Texas.

And before Kim Mulkey took over as Baylor coach for the 2000-01 season, that program had had a winning record just three times in the previous 16 years.

However, by the time Curry arrived, Baylor already had won an NCAA title, and A&M also had turned into one of the Big 12 powers.

"It takes at least three recruiting classes to start to make a difference in the Big 12," Curry said. "It's very difficult to leapfrog other teams. Never one time have we made excuses, but Marsha was very honest about how difficult things had become recruitingwise with the success of so many other programs in our conference."

Indeed, in the 14 seasons of Big 12 play, nine teams have won or shared the league's regular-season title, and seven have won the conference tournament. In the 14 years of the SWC's sponsorship of women's hoops, only three schools won the regular-season title and just four won the tournament championship.

So the idea that Tech could maintain its dominance/co-dominance with Texas once the SWC ended and the Big 12 began was rather unrealistic. But because Tech won or shared three of the first four Big 12 regular-season titles, that reality was slow to hit Lubbock.

Plus … there's no way an iconic figure is replaced -- even if it's by her choice -- without there being some resentment or disappointment. Curry didn't do everything exactly the way Sharp did. There were "long-timers" in the fan base who began to feel disenfranchised from the program. West Texas-based high school talent -- something Tech had benefited from enormously -- had some relatively dry spells.

The positives that were happening at Baylor, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and even Oklahoma State -- which got to the 2008 Big 12 tournament title game -- made some Tech followers believe their program was being left in the dust.

Curry tried understandable quicker fixes with juco transfers, but her teams had too much "new" feel to them the first couple of years. The strong attachment the Tech fan base has long had with program frayed a bit. And the biggest thorn of all was not being in the NCAA tournament.

There's certainly no guarantee that will change this season. Tech's lone loss coming into league play was at Penn State on Dec. 5. This week will include a visit to the top-ranked team in the country. Next week, rival Texas -- which has started Big 12 play 0-3 -- comes to Lubbock, then Tech travels Nebraska. Meaning it would not be a big surprise to anyone who follows the Big 12 if Tech ended January below .500 in the league.

But it also wouldn't be a shock if Tech pulled some upsets, traveled well and protected its home turf. Granted, its league victories are against unranked Kansas, Missouri and Kansas State, the latter in double overtime at Tech's United Spirit Arena on Saturday. Tech also had to scramble from behind in the victory over the Jayhawks.

Kierra Mallard
Kierra Mallard, a 6-foot-3 junior post, is averaging 13.3 points and 7.8 rebounds for the Lady Raiders.

However, in league play, what matters is not so much how you win -- if it's ugly, if you had to catch a few breaks, if you feel as if you escaped -- but simply that you win.

"I said in the middle of December, they were the most improved team in our league," Blair said. "These are all Kristy's kids right now. I just like their ballclub."

In August, Tech played a series of games in Canada, a trip that came at a very good time for the program to have such a bonding experience. The players gained a cohesiveness that so far has stayed through the season.

Leading the way inside are two 6-foot-3 post players, junior Kierra Mallard (13.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and senior transfer Teena Wickett (10.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg). Mallard, from Dallas, missed four games in February to suspension.

Curry said Mallard has "participated in her own rescue," a term she also uses for Wickett, who is from Vallejo, Calif., and previously played at Pepperdine. Wickett had to deal with academic eligibility issues.

"That's why you coach -- players like Teena Wickett," Curry said. "She decided she wanted to get it done. Our plan was to have her a year ago, but she was still short academically. We stuck with her. She's provided leadership and has really come around and provided a huge impact for us. She brings us toughness."

Tech's other starters are sophomores Casey Morris and Monique Smalls and junior Barncastle. There has been bench contribution, too, led by sophomore Chynna Brown. She hit the winning layup at the buzzer of the second overtime against K-State, finishing with 13 points.

"With Mallard, Brown and Wickett -- those are three kids that are very quick to the ball," K-State coach Deb Patterson said. "Barncastle can extend you, and they were aggressive off the dribble.

"This is a really good basketball team, even though they don't necessarily blow you away with any one strength. They play hard every possession. I think they are building a confidence level that has led to success."

Curry knows, though, that confidence becomes an even more precious -- and easily evaporating -- commodity in league play. Mallard, in her third season, understands that, too, but also realizes that Tech has come a long way in keeping its good mojo going. Even in the difficult times most teams are going to experience through conference season.

"We have the chemistry now, and that trust in everybody," Mallard said. "A couple of years ago, if we were down in a game, we wouldn't be able to come back. We've talked to each other about it; we know how to play. The toughest-minded teams always win, and we want to be that team."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.