The story of the West Regional final between the Texas Tech Red Raiders and the Gonzaga Bulldogs is more than just a story of opposing teams. It is a story of opposing forces. It is a story which goes back one year to another Elite Eight game.
Texas Tech was new to the Elite Eight in 2018. Chris Beard had two elite players, Zhaire Smith and Keenan Evans, and his third-seeded team tried to make the school’s first men’s Final Four against the top-seeded Catholic school in the East Region, Villanova University.
Evans was not fully healthy, a terrible piece of luck for the Red Raiders which has to be acknowledged in an account of that contest in Boston. However, the larger overall reality of that game was that Villanova happened to be the dominant team in the NCAA Tournament.
If you recall, the 2018 NCAA Tournament began with a sense in the college basketball community that there was no transcendent team for that particular season. The pervasive belief wasn’t wrong at the time, but in the course of six NCAA Tournament games over three weekends, a dominant team was unmasked. Villanova was that team. The Wildcats received a moderate test from Texas Tech’s Big 12 neighbor, West Virginia, but they handled it with distinction, winning by 12 points in the East Regional semifinals. Villanova had all the answers for Texas Tech in the Elite Eight, winning 71-59 and marching to the Final Four. Once in San Antonio, Villanova obliterated Kansas and Michigan to win a second title in three seasons.
Texas Tech ran into the wrong team in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
That sets the stage for Saturday’s second consecutive Elite Eight appearance for Texas Tech. The school’s only two Elite Eights came last year and this one. Now Beard’s Boys have a second chance to make a first Final Four and leave an even more lasting impression than they did a year ago.
There is a chance that they could once again run into a buzz saw.
We will find out if that is the case on Saturday afternoon in Anaheim, but one thing which is known is that — much like 2018 — Texas Tech will again face a top-seeded Catholic school in a regional final. This time, it is Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs, through three tournament wins, have looked like a national championship team — not perfect, but never severely threatened and fundamentally in control of their opponents. They have not had to sweat too much in the final two minutes of any game they have played. Florida State was within seven with just over two minutes left on Thursday in the West Regional semifinals. Villanova made a similar journey through the first three rounds last year.
Duke was lucky to survive UCF. Virginia barely scraped by Oregon. North Carolina trailed Iona by five at halftime. Gonzaga has easily been the strongest top seed in this tournament through the first three of six rounds.
This could be the buzz saw Villanova was a year ago.
The counterpoint — and the possibility the Red Raiders hope will emerge — is that this time, Texas Tech might be ready to turn an elite team into a diminished version of itself. Gonzaga has national championship quality, but whereas Texas Tech couldn’t take the starch out of Villanova a year ago, maybe the Red Raiders have learned something from 2018.
Some people will say that Texas Tech was sent to the region with the hottest No. 1 seed in the bracket. The Red Raiders will simply have to make sure that the best version of Gonzaga is never allowed to surface — at least not for more than a few scattered minutes.
Gonzaga won’t be a buzz saw if Texas Tech can blunt the Zags’ sharp edges first.
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