There are two things that are immediately striking about Lubbock, Texas when a visitor walks out of Preston E. Smith International Airport during basketball season. The ground is flat, and, whether it’s grass or dirt, very brown.
Tumbleweeds literally blow across the highways as you make your approach into town, passing by old storefronts, run-down body shops and mostly wide open spaces. Oil derricks move as metronomes, keeping time in a place that in some spots has been largely forgotten by it. Way out in west Texas and five hours from anywhere, Lubbock is neither a destination nor hardly on the way to anywhere.
It’s also now home to a likely top-five NBA draft pick, the coaching profession’s newest star and, as of Saturday, a Final Four basketball team.
Texas Tech, powered by Chris Beard’s defense, Jarret Culver’s brilliance and a patched-together cast of supporting characters, has gone from the middle of nowhere to the center of the college basketball universe after a 75-69 win in the West region final Saturday against No. 1 seed Gonzaga.
“Texas Tech is going to the Final Four,” Chris Beard said after the game. “Texas Tech is going to the Final Four. Some of you look surprised.”
Who wouldn’t be, see this stunning story of a coach and a program that have emerged from obscurity to the sport’s pinnacle in such a short amount of time?
Beard was on Bob Knight’s staff the last time things were rolling at United Supermarkets Arena – which amazingly enough is located on Indiana Avenue in Lubbock – more than a decade ago when the Red Raiders went to four NCAA tournaments and a Sweet 16. When Pat Knight’s tenure ended there, though, so did it for Beard, who would then embark on a coaching vagabond’s journey with stops in the ABA, Division III, Division II and then at Arkansas-Little Rock.
Texas Tech’s success may have been UNLV’s if Memphis wouldn’t have pulled Tubby Smith out of Lubbock in 2016, which resulted in the Red Raiders calling Beard home after he had taken the Runnin’ Rebels’ job just a couple weeks earlier.
After an 18-14 season in Year 1, Beard had the Red Raiders on the cusp of a Final Four last year, with Keenan Evans becoming a Tech legend as he played through a broken toe and Zhaire Smith solidifying himself as an NBA lottery pick during an Elite 8 run.
The top four scorers off that team departed, making 2018-19 looking so much like a rebuilding year the Big 12’s coaches picked Texas Tech to finish seventh in their preseason poll.
Texas Tech, though, still had Culver, a 6-foot-6 offensive machine hailing from Coronado High School right there in Lubbock. Beard added graduate transfers Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens from South Dakota and St. John’s, respectively, and would ask a host of bench players to move into big roles.
That one star, a collection of newcomers and a bunch of guys Big 12 coaches probably couldn’t even pick out of a lineup helped end Kansas’ 14-year conference title streak and are now on the sport’s biggest stage.
“This is my fifth year in college. Your hard work all of the time doesn’t pay off right then and there,” Owens told reporters after the game Saturday, “but, you know, I believe myself and Matt included we stayed the course and kept working at it and working at it and we got a program where everybody was grinders, especially our head coach who believed in us and was willing to push us and push us to the next level that he knew we had.
“That just speaks to this program.”
So, too, did Texas Tech’s performance against the Bulldogs.
Gonzaga has been an offensive machine all season long. The nation’s most efficient offense, the Bulldogs shoot 36.3 percent from deep and 64.1 percent on 2s. They almost never turn it over. They have versatile and talented bigs in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, a pair likely to be both All-Americans and lottery picks, and experience, skilled guards in Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell, Jr.
They’re a juggernaut. Or at least they were until Texas Tech completely immobilized them.
Gonzaga shot 42.4 percent from the floor for the game and 26.9 percent from 3-point range. They converted only 36.4 percent of their shots after halftime, including a brutal 3 of 15 mark from distance. They turned it over 16 times.
“That defense is real,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, “and it definitely impacted us tonight. They took a lot of balls from us when we had the ball in a great position for us, where I’m feeling, yes! And then we just lost it.
“It’s tough. It’s real.”
On a night when Culver, the unquestioned focal point of the Texas Tech offense, struggled on 5 of 19 shooting, that tough, real defense – along with 17 points from Mooney and 12 from Davide Moretti – put Texas Tech into the Final Four.
“For our program, for our city, for us personally, for our family, our friends, it’s huge,” senior Norense Odiase said. “The battles we’ve been through, the struggles, man. It’s huge. It means the world to work so hard and it pay off. It definitely hasn’t hit me. Hasn’t hit us. I don’t think, yet. But it’s huge for all of us.”
So the Red Raiders head back to home with snippets of net in their luggage and their season still alive. They’ll leave the airport and head back to campus, where the flat streets they’ll travel betray how high they’ve come, but allow them to look well out into the horizon, where Minneapolis and rarified air await.