This has been a pro basketball state for a quarter of a century. Eight of the past 25 NBA championships have been won by Houston, San Antonio and Dallas, with the Spurs claiming the majority of those. Texas Tech is working hard to alter the state’s reputation at the college level.
Bound for the Final Four for the first time in school history, Tech is also the first team from the state to venture this far in the bracket since Rick Barnes’ Texas Longhorns in 2003. For the Red Raiders, it has been a long, hard journey.
One of the advantages of going to a challenged basketball school (Texas in the mid-1970s) was that it wasn’t difficult to secure student tickets to the first Southwest Conference Basketball Classic at Moody Coliseum in 1976. The seats happened to be two rows behind one of the benches. Arkansas’ Sidney Moncrief and Ron Brewer, SMU’s Ira Terrell, Houston’s Otis Birdsong and Texas A&M’s Sonny Parker displayed their talents, but it was Rick Bullock and Texas Tech that captured the league’s first postseason tournament.
The winding road that began with Bullock and included Bubba Jennings and Tony Benford and Lance Hughes and Darvin Ham and others was completed Saturday when guards Jarrett Culver, Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney combined for 48 points in a 75-69 win over top-seeded Gonzaga in Anaheim, California.
“In the first half, I felt like I was coaching a game I’ve watched all these years on TV,” coach Chris Beard said. “We’re trying to build a program at Tech like Gonzaga.”
Beard is doing it in stunningly quick fashion. Tech was one of seven teams to return to the Sweet 16 this season and most of them are the blue bloods of the sport – Duke, Kentucky, Michigan, Gonzaga to name a few. Then the Red Raiders just kept going and they didn’t reach their first Final Four on a fluke, catching low seeds along the way. They beat a 2 and a 1 to reach Minneapolis, where they will face Michigan State.
It’s the eighth Final Four for Tom Izzo, but Tech hasn’t shown any worries about fighting uphill battles or being the underdog this season. Coaches picked the team to finish seventh in the Big 12 after losing first-round pick Zhaire Smith, senior guard Keenan Evans and two other starters.
Beard has taken a collection of grinders and transfers and weaved them into something special, but don’t think that they can’t play basketball. Culver will go top 10 and might go top five in this summer’s draft.
But it’s the Tech defense that will serve as this team’s and this program’s signature. Gonzaga coach Mark Few explained after Saturday’s defeat how difficult it was to get his team ready for Tech in one day.
“They are really good at reaching, poking and digging things outta there,” Few said. “So it’s real. That defense is real.”
How realistic is it to think Tech might not be satisfied with just a plane ride to Minnesota? After beating Duke, Michigan State might fairly be regarded as the team to beat in this Final Four, but that’s due mostly to our familiarity with this team.
You have two schools (Texas Tech, Auburn) reaching their first Final Four and Virginia going for the first time since Rick Carlisle was in the backcourt (1984). It’s eight and counting for Izzo, but he has only won it all once. Given the closeness of this magical Elite Eight, in which all four games were decided in the final minute or in overtime, it’s a wide-open Final Four.
So don’t assume Tech is finished Saturday after playing the Spartans. Beard’s product comes with no expiration date. With the quality of basketball players this state develops – most of the good ones leave the state just like Duncanville’s Matt McQuaid, a senior starter for the Spartans – this trip to the Final Four should do wonders for Beard’s recruiting the next two or three seasons.
At some point, a second Texas team will win the NCAA championship. They wrote books and made movies about the first champs but that, of course, was Texas Western’s stunning victory over Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky in 1966, five African-American starters against a Southeastern Conference team that was years away from accepting integration.
There are fewer sociological and cultural ties attached to this game, not much beyond Beard’s frequent references to Whataburger and Grandy’s and restaurants that might not be so familiar in some parts of the country.
“Texas Tech is going to the Final Four,” Beard said in Saturday’s postgame news conference. “Some of you look surprised.”
It’s time to get over it. Texas Tech takes the floor at U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday. Much like when the Minnesota Vikings take the field, there will be defense.
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