The only opponent the Texas Tech Red Raiders officially defeated on Saturday night in Minneapolis was the Michigan State Spartans.
Texas Tech was scheduled to play one team in one game. The Final Four national semifinals provide a doubleheader, but not with one team playing an opener and a nightcap. Texas Tech could not play two games or two teams on National Semifinal Saturday, even if it had wanted to.
Yet, Texas Tech’s closer-than-it-looked 10-point win over the Spartans, 61-51, did indeed represent several victories rather than only one.
Texas Tech was playing a Michigan State team which was sent to Duke’s region… and emerged alive as the Final Four representative from the East Regional in Washington, D.C. Knocking the Spartans out of March has been one of the toughest things to do in college basketball this century. Only one senior class in 24 seasons under Tom Izzo has failed to make the Final Four. MSU’s toughness was fully on display when it whittled a 13-point Texas Tech lead to one late in regulation. Beating Michigan State by stabilizing in the final minutes was a hugely impressive feat by itself.
Yet, Texas Tech triumphed in so many other ways.
Jarrett Culver played poorly, hitting 3 of 12 shots but — more than that — often failing to take the ball to the basket (which he began to do only in the final few minutes). Culver’s passive play, more than the missed shots, marked his evening as a distinctly subpar performance. He probably lost a few spots in the NBA Draft order, if we are being honest.
Tariq Owens — Tech’s best player in the first half before Matt Mooney took over in the second — was injured midway through the second half. He screamed in agony. Screams that loud often mean a player has been severely injured.
Even though Owens came back, Michigan State did narrow the gap in his absence, and it was no sure thing that Owens would be able to function on defense. Texas Tech had to confront an opponent named “injury” in this game as well.
There were more opponents for the Red Raiders to play in the second national semifinal: the history of the Final Four in the 21st century and the longer shadow of Big 12 basketball history.
The history of the Final Four this century had provided two previous instances in which three teams had first-time Final Four coaches. This 2019 Final Four was the third such instance. In the previous two instances — 2006 and 2017 — the one team coached by a Final Four veteran (Florida under Billy Donovan in 2006, North Carolina under Roy Williams in 2017) won the national title. Viewed through that prism, this was Tom Izzo’s Final Four to lose.
Even the best coaches have usually needed to lose at least once in the unique and overwhelming environment of the Final Four before winning it.
Coach K didn’t win his first one. Neither did Dean Smith. Neither did John Wooden. Neither did Roy Williams, or Bob Knight, or Denny Crum, or Jim Boeheim, or Lute Olson, or Rick Pitino, or Joe B. Hall, or Big John Thompson, or Larry Brown, or any of a number of other highly credentialed coaches.
History said Izzo would clip the Beard.
Then consider the weight of Big 12 basketball history, which — like anything else related to Big 12 sports history — has its roots in both the Big Eight Conference and the Southwest Conference, the two leagues which splintered and formed the Big 12 in the process.
Houston and Arkansas are no longer in the Southwest Conference, which — of course — died over 20 years ago. However, when Texas Tech shared the SWC with Houston and Arkansas, they were the two most prominent college basketball programs over the past 60 years. Kansas was that program in the Big Eight, only on a larger scale of success. KU now shares Big 12 membership with Texas Tech, as it has since the Big 12 began competition in 1996.
If you take the 17 schools in the Big Eight and the old SWC and then remove Houston, Arkansas and Kansas from the mix, 14 schools are left.
Of those 14 schools (now in realigned conferences), only one had made a college basketball national championship game in the past 60 years: Oklahoma in 1988.
That’s a lot of dry spells at a lot of schools in football country.
Big 12 (and Big Eight and SWC) history suggested Texas Tech would not pass this test.
Texas Tech faced a damn good team — the team many thought (including myself) was the best team left at this Final Four.
Texas Tech faced its best player struggling.
Texas Tech faced its terrific shot-blocker getting knocked out of the game for a few minutes.
Texas Tech faced a 13-point lead getting shaved to one. Much like Virginia in Game 1 on Saturday, Texas Tech could have allowed this game to completely slip away.
Texas Tech was facing the Final Four coach who had been there many times before, Tom Izzo.
Texas Tech wasn’t conscious of its Big 12 history in this game, but ask North Carolina and Duke how much basketball culture can matter on a stage such as this. It has often been a timely source of help for college basketball blue-bloods.
The Red Raiders prevailed — over Michigan State, over Culver’s bad game, over many different obstacles in the present moment but also the past.
No, this wasn’t an upset — not if one thought (as I did) that all four teams in Minneapolis had an equal chance of winning. Yet, this one win felt like five or six for Texas Tech, multiplied several times over.
Actually, this is not about multiples or exponents. It is impossible to assign a numerical value to this victory for the Red Raiders. Its significance exists beyond measure.
Hyperbole? Not when Texas Tech hadn’t been at the Final Four in any previous season, and hadn’t been to the Elite Eight in any season before 2018.
College basketball programs aren’t supposed to figure things out this quickly.
Texas Tech hasn’t much cared what it is supposed to do in the eyes of experts.
Now the Red Raiders are one win from a national title, another victory whose value would exist beyond any price or statistic.
You can listen to and subscribe to the CBB Today Podcast on iTunes right here.
As always, don’t forget to subscribe to our college basketball, NCAA Tournament and NBA Draft email newsletter below. It’s the only way to survive the impending alien invasion.