By DAVE SKRETTA
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The past year hasn't been kind to Texas Tech's basketball program.
After a disastrous eight-win season, the Red Raiders endured the fall of Billy Gillispie, their one-time hotshot coach who resigned under scrutiny on Sept. 20, citing health concerns and with the university investigating allegations that he mistreated some of his players.
Chris Walker was been given a six-month contract to shepherd the team through this season, and he admitted Wednesday that finally getting on the court for practice has been a blessing.
"They've had adversity, and the true guys have come out," Walker said during an interview with The Associated Press. "They've handled it with class, and they've handled it with integrity."
Now, they're ready to start playing games.
Texas Tech won a single Big 12 game last season, and its 8-23 record was its worst in more than two decades. Several players have come and gone, but the roster that Walker — a disciple of Jay Wright and Steve Alford — has taken over looks similar to the one that finished last season.
"Everybody's excited about practice. Fired up about it. Trying to stay focused, working hard and just taking advantage of the time," said Jordan Tolbert, the team's leading scorer.
Tolbert called all the adversity "a learning experience," but acknowledged the challenge in adjusting to the recent changes. Walker took over day-to-day operations of the program Sept. 7, but wasn't elevated to interim coach until Oct. 4, just over a week before the start of practice.
"We're trying to understand him," Tolbert said, "and he's trying to understand us."
Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt has said a report on its investigation into allegations of additional practice-time violations than ones previously reported to the NCAA has been submitted to the governing body. He has so far declined to comment further.
The Red Raiders open the season Nov. 11 against Troy. Hocutt hasn't said whether Walker will have a shot at the permanent job, but that doesn't seem to be affecting the interim coach's disposition — or his outlook on this season.
"It's all about attitude," Walker said. "I was remarking with someone the other day, in a joking manner, that there have been a lot of interim coaches out there and they just don't know it.
"People look at this like I've been diagnosed with cancer or something, like I've got six months to live," he said. "I look at it like I've got six months to give."
Getting a jumpstart
Big 12 players and coaches were unanimous in their praise for new NCAA rule changes that allow for more interaction during the offseason.
Each school is allowed to one international trip every four years, which Kansas, Oklahoma State and Kansas State took advantage of this summer. But new rules also allow for an eight-week period during which coaches can provide up to eight hours per week of staff-supervised workouts.
"It helps team bonding. It helps understand roles," Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. "It helps work on X's and O's early."
The Cowboys took a summer trip to Spain, while Kansas State went to Brazil and the Jayhawks to Switzerland and France. The rest of the league managed to get workouts in at home.
"We did a lot of individual work," said Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, who took his team to Italy last year and wouldn't have been able to practice this offseason under the old rules.
"You see bad habits, and you're able to correct them before you get started," he said.
The changes were particularly helpful for Big 12 newcomer TCU, which took advantage of the available practice time to install new coach Trent Johnson's system.
"We did a lot of team workouts, a lot of going over plays, just getting used to each other on the court," junior forward Amric Fields said. "Especially with a new coach, it helped a lot."
Breaking in new digs
Kansas State will be in a new practice building by the end of the week.
The Basketball Training Facility adjacent to Bramlage Coliseum had a ribbon-cutting recently, but some administrative details must be wrapped up before the Wildcats can begin practicing on one of the two full-sized courts in the $18 million building.
There are also locker rooms for the men's and women's programs, player lounges and coaches' offices, team film rooms and a 2,500-quare foot weight room and sports medicine center.
The biggest benefit in the eyes of first-year Wildcats coach Bruce Weber? Enough hoops set up in the building for his team to practice free throws.
"When you're in an arena, you have two baskets, and one side basket. You can't get shots up, and free throws," Weber said. "You don't have the time to put in the effort to working on it."
Keep your coat on
There will be more emphasis placed on bench decorum this season, and a range of animated reactions — including when a coach rips off his sports coat or gestures at an official over a questionable call — will result in an automatic technical foul.
"React to a play, make your point and we'll go on to the next one," said Curtis Shaw, the Big 12 coordinator of men's basketball officials. "We're not taking out their coaching abilities or spontaneity but we've got to get it under control."
Shaw said there's also been an emphasis on calling block-charge fouls during training sessions this offseason, acknowledging that many "just weren't being called correctly."
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger thinks coaches and players will be able to adjust accordingly.
"There will be plays during the course of the game where you think the call should've gone the other way," Kruger said, "but that's going to happen in every ballgame. It's not something to get distracted by. Play the next play, and try to get your players to do the same."