Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Three years ago, Texas Tech senior Matt Mooney was playing basketball in a football stadium, waiting for his chance while he sat out a season after transferring to the University of South Dakota.
The Coyotes played in Vermillion, S.D.’s DakotaDome as a new basketball-only facility was built next door. Mooney had just joined the team after spending a trying freshman year at Air Force.
“For people that don’t know, you’ve got every sport in there,” Mooney said of the stadium, “and you’ve got a practice gym in the back and then basketball’s in the main court in the middle, and you’ve got track running around, you’ve got football lifting weights up in the weight room, golfs hitting golf balls into the net. Every team, it was crazy.”
Fast forward to the present day and Mooney is once again preparing to play basketball in a football stadium. The only difference is he’s doing it as one of the top players on one of the top teams in college basketball, swarmed by a steady stream of national media that want to retell his story. He’ll be playing in front of 72,000 at U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis.
“Matt Mooney’s one of the best stories in college basketball,” said Texas Tech coach Chris Beard.
But he’s not the only underdog story on the Red Raiders.
Grad transfers unite
Mooney’s circuitous path to the limelight is shared by teammate Tariq Owens. Both players spent their freshman seasons in one place, transferred, played two seasons elsewhere, then opted to conclude their careers at a third school to make one last run at the championship.
While Mooney was deterred from Air Force because of the sometimes-harsh disciplinary measures and a non-traditional “Princeton” offense, Owens wholeheartedly wanted to be in Tennessee. His coach, Donnie Tyndall, was fired after one season, however, for misleading investigators about his role in a recruiting scandal at Southern Miss.
Owens fled the difficult situation in Tennessee. He had interest nationwide, including from the Minnesota Golden Gophers, but opted to play closer to his Maryland home at St. John’s. Mooney landed at USD, who “recruited him like crazy” and turned him into their top scorer.
Mooney, the Illinois native, scored over 1,200 points in his two seasons with the Coyotes, helping them to a pair of 20-win seasons and appearances in the NIT and CBI postseason tournaments. Owens became one of the great shot blockers in St. John’s history, totaling 163 in his two seasons.
Neither were able to fulfill their ultimate goal, however: Reaching the NCAA Tournament.
That’s when their careers converged at Texas Tech.
“Opportunity comes in different forms,” said Beard of the unique circumstances.
The Red Raiders knew of Owens through assistant Al Pinkins (who ended up leaving for Florida before the season). Mooney was a clear target — for dozens of schools — based on his work at South Dakota. Both players knew that the Red Raiders had opportunities available after they reached the Elite Eight the previous season but lost six of their top eight scorers. It was Beard’s job to sell them on the program’s expectation for success; to prove that 2017-18 wasn’t a flash in the pan.
“‘Hey, man. I am as hungry as I’ve ever been,'” Beard said to Mooney. “‘Don’t get this wrong. It’s just like we didn’t win a game. Nothing will change with me. I’m going to bring it every day, and that’s my promise.'”
“I felt like I needed to come here,” Mooney said. “I felt like it would be a challenge for me, get me out of my comfort zone a little bit. Every time you get out of your comfort zone it pushes you to either be better or to quit, and I knew that it would help me be a better player.”
Owens was asked what sold him on Texas Tech, and without hesitation pointed to Beard. The Red Raiders coach took a path similar to his two prize grad transfers: long, winding, not often glamorous. His three stops before Texas Tech were McMurry, Angelo State and Little Rock — a far cry from the expectations of the Big 12.
“Just from talking to him I got a sense of how real he was as a person and how genuine he is,” said Owens.
Beard needed to get his team older. Though he had a future NBA player in sophomore Jarrett Culver returning, he desired a more seasoned roster. As Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, Saturday’s opponent, said on Monday, “If you don’t have the best talent, you better be very old and very experienced.”
With Mooney and Owens in the mix, the Red Raiders have three senior starters and one senior coming off the bench. The injection of the grad transfers doubled the team’s senior count, adding two “self-made” players that fit Beard’s personality. He demands that players trust him; and he’ll trust them in return.
“What trust is, is you keep your word,” said Beard. “You’re very clear about what’s going to happen and what your expectations are and what you’re going to do and what they’re going to do and what you’re going to do together.”
Beard kept his word. He didn’t coast on the wave of the Red Raiders’ 2017-18 run — he got them further. And he couldn’t have done it without Mooney and Owens.
“I just brought a level of emotion and a level of toughness to our program,” Owens said. “This is already a tough team but just having other guys coming in who are willing to fall in line and just get behind that. And Matt, he brings a lot of experience. He wasn’t very highly-recruited, he wasn’t recruited out of high school, he wasn’t really highly recruited when he transferred, but he brings that tenacity and that chip on his shoulder because he’s made it to this level off his own merit and how hard he had to work.”
Smelling the roses
Beard is encouraging his Red Raiders to enjoy their experience during their first-ever Final Four, hence the signage in their locker room instructing them to “Smell the Roses.”
The team is hot right now, so why tense up?
Texas Tech won their last nine regular season games before a surprising first-round loss in the Big 12 Tournament. No matter. The Red Raiders have enjoyed the least stressful path to the Final Four of any of its representatives, winning by 15, 20 and 19 points in their first three games before taking down No. 1 seed Gonzaga by six.
Owens was tremendous in the first two games, averaging 11 points, recording five blocks and shooting 10 of 11 combined from the field. For the season, he’s seventh in the nation in blocks. Mooney broke through in the regional final against Gonzaga, scoring 17 and notching five assists. He’s shooting his best 3-point percentage since his freshman year at Air Force.
But it’s the defensive side where both truly make their mark.
Owens and Mooney, along with Culver, have three of the nation’s top 10 defensive ratings, per Basketball Reference. The Red Raiders hold teams to the third-fewest points in the country.
“In my mind they’re both All Big 12 players,” Beard said of his two grad transfers. “They’ve made their impact here from Day 1 all the way to the Final Four. They’ve done it in ways far behind the stat sheet.”
The stars aligned in many ways for the Red Raiders this season. They were predicted to finish seventh in the preseason poll and now have 30 wins. This time last year, Beard had no clue that two of his key players would be coming via USD and St. John’s. Nor did Owens or Mooney.
“It took a lot for us to get to this point,” said Owens, “and I think that’s why we play the way that we do, why we have such a chip on our shoulder because nothing was given to anybody on our team.”
“You only get to play four years of college ball,” said Mooney, “and I’m one of the guys that gets to go the Final Four. To be living it, doing it in my last year, it’s just amazing.”
“It’s been the ride of my life coaching these guys,” said Beard.