LUBBOCK, Texas – Texas Tech coach Chris Walker knows his Red Raiders team is young and inexperienced. It shows in nearly every game.
Yet not everything is grim for the Raiders — despite compiling more losses than wins.
"You know you're not going to take your lumps forever," said Walker, who got the job after Billy Gillispie resigned just before the start of this season. "But while you're going through this process you just got to stand up and take it like a man, and understand that it won't always be that way but today it is that way."
The difficulties for the Red Raiders (9-13, 2-9 Big 12) have been many. They have lost five straight and continue to struggle with poor shooting, turnovers, slack rebounding and getting back quickly enough on defense. They play well in spurts but no more than that.
Players, though, say they feel the team's chemistry is improving and that's reflected at practice.
"We don't execute the plays when we get out there (in games)," leading scorer Jaye Crockett said. "Sometimes the first five minutes we do and the second five minutes we don't. That just kills us, and it puts us in bad spurts where we don't score any points."
Gillispie went 8-23 in his lone season in Lubbock, the program's worst finish in two decades, and won just one Big 12 game.
This year's team, which plays at West Virginia on Saturday, has already outdone last season's conference record, having won its Big 12 opener at TCU and at home against Iowa State last month.
Walker is working on players' heads as much as their physical skills, reminding them that opponents are doing them a favor when they spotlight the Red Raiders' weaknesses.
"At any given time, we can spring a leak somewhere and that means a 10-point run — or we throw the ball away, that means a five-point run," he said. "We create situations for ourselves that we can't recover from. And it happens very quickly. We don't have the offensive firepower to combat that. If we could shoot that would change a lot of things."
The Raiders rank seventh in the conference, shooting 42 percent from the field. It hurts them beyond the scoreboard, too.
"When you can't score on offense, they get their heads down," Walker said. "It's like a Charlie Brown syndrome and then they can't defend."
Walker, in his first head coaching job, knows his players have talent. But he knows performing well in the Big 12 takes seasoning.
"We're just improving, that's all we're doing," he said. "We're just steadily improving and that's where we're going to hang our hat."
The offseason was challenging with the university investigating allegations that Gillispie mistreated players. The school also acknowledged that Gillispie had been reprimanded for exceeding practice time limits in 2011, a secondary NCAA violation.
Gillispie resigned for health reasons on Sept. 20 and the university named Walker, a former assistant under Gillispie, the interim coach two weeks later. He worked quickly to teach his style to players.
Athletic director Kirby Hocutt won't decide on a permanent coach until the end of the season, but players say the Gillispie chapter closed long ago.
"I don't remember the last time I heard anybody talk about the offseason," said Jordan Tolbert, whose averaging 9.2 points and 5.7 rebounds.
Tolbert suffered an additional setback before the season, losing his father unexpectedly, but is slowly finding his footing. In the conference opener at TCU, with his family in attendance, Tolbert contributed 11 points toward the win.
Tolbert leaned on his teammates, and says the team's chemistry is evolving.
"It's going pretty good, besides the losing part," the 20-year-old said. "But you always have to keep your head up and your chest out. I learned that through all those things that have happened these past few months."
With any chance to win the Big 12 title gone long ago, players are clamoring to play spoiler against teams still in the hunt.
"We just have to fight, just have to keep playing until that last game is over," Crockett said. "We can make a run in the tournament or win out right now. Anything's possible in basketball."