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Texas Tech reaches national final from deep in the dirt

Updated April 7, 2019 - 5:52 pm

MINNEAPOLIS

Matt Mooney plays in the dirt. He was digging in it long before arriving in Lubbock, Texas, before awaiting the biggest basketball game of his life, a One Shining Moment most only dream about but never experience.

If you’re looking for reasons why Texas Tech is here, set to oppose Virginia in the NCAA Tournament final Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium, a Red Raiders team that before Chris Beard arrived as head coach three years ago posted losing records in five of the previous six seasons, glance no further than the guard who began his career at …

Air Force?

“You have to work for everything,” Mooney said. “What you want most is never going to be on the surface. You have to dig deep for it. You have to go get it, deep in the dirt.

“If people would have thought more highly of me coming (to college), who knows where I would be. It helped me stay motivated. It helped me stay hungry.”

Don’t lose your chip. … The secret is in the dirt. … They are mottos by which Beard and his staff inspire players to reach far beyond what their resumés read before signing with Texas Tech.

It’s how Beard built the program so fast. In his own likeness.

The Red Raiders will likely start the following lineup Monday, and consider that next to each player’s name is the national ranking and number of recruiting stars that he was assigned as a high school senior:

Tariq Owens — 185th/3

Jarrett Culver — 312th/2

Davide Moretti — 132nd/3

Norense Odiase — 358th/2

Mooney — unranked/0

“I think ratings and stars are good for basketball, there’s good intention to it, but it really has no relationship to winning,” Beard said. “We had Zhaire Smith last year. He wasn’t a Top 100 player. He went 16th in the NBA draft. Panned out pretty good for him. We have (a projected lottery pick in) Culver this year. He had two stars.

“Stars are just stars. They don’t mean anything once you get to work. It’s about player development and working your craft. Steph Curry is a pretty good player. He didn’t play at a blue-blood program. It’s all about the work you put in.”

Not everyone could do this. Not everyone can build a national power of one-and-dones like John Calipari at Kentucky. Not everyone could have spun the success that Eric Musselman did with his blueprint at UNR the past few years and will now try to mimic at Arkansas.

Not everybody — few, in fact — work like Beard.

He never stops.

Identity: Be old

Beard talked this week about the night he accepted the Texas Tech job and he and those who would join his staff sat around wondering how best to win in the Big 12.

Out-coach people? Bill Self, Lon Kruger, Bob Huggins … no.

Out-talent people? Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma … no.

“So we came up with an identity,” Beard said. “Be old. Experience is everything. We had five seniors on our team last year and made the Elite Eight. This year, we have four seniors. Experience will always be part of our equation.”

Texas Tech is now a year-to-year program when it comes to recruiting. Beard will have new faces every season. He will scour the transfer portal as much as anyone nationally.

When it does work, Mooney and a 6-foot-10-inch forward like Evans fall in your lap as graduate transfers.

Mooney averages 11.3 points and 3.3 assists over 30.7 minutes. He played a year at Air Force before transferring to South Dakota, where he competed for now-Utah State coach Craig Smith and was a two-time all-conference player. Smith once told Mooney that he could develop into a great defensive player. Mooney laughed.

He made the all-Big 12 Defensive Team this season.

“You’re not playing (for Beard) if you don’t play defense,” Mooney said. “We work defense like two-thirds of every practice. He wants to be great. He’s elite. He’s never satisfied. He’s always working, always pushing us, always holding people accountable.

“Even (Sunday) morning, some guys were tired from (Saturday’s game against Michigan State) and stuff. He was like, ‘Hey, you don’t have any time to be tired. We’re playing for a national championship. So wake up and bring it.’ ”

Not everyone could do this.

Texas Tech has … from deep in the dirt.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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