After surviving a bracket full of familiar names, the Michigan State Spartans Final Four opponent is a relative unknown in the Texas Tech Red Raiders. In order to get a better feel for what is to come Saturday, we reached out to our friends at Viva The Matadors.
Fair warning – answers below were given while in a full and proper defensive stance.
Coming off of the biggest win in program history, how is the fan base handling reaching the Final Four?
If I had one word to wrap up these past few days after the Gonzaga win it would either be “calm,” or if I’m feeling ambitious “expectant.” When Chris Beard came on to the scene, he promised Texas Tech that he would get them to a Final Four. So while it is incredible to have made history by beating one of the best teams in CBB, Beard has been honing our fanbase to be ready for this moment. There hasn’t been a moment where Coach Beard spoke out of turn; always making sure that his team and his fans respect whomever they’re playing. A moment that epitomizes the transformation in my memory was beating Kansas at home on February 23. Tech absolutely dismantled the Jayhawks and after the final buzzer nobody rushed the court. That illustrated the change that Coach Beard had worked so hard to make obvious: Tech isn’t just “that team that can upset you,” but “that team that is always in the fight.” He’s methodical, he’s charming, he’s hard-working, he’s Lubbock and we’re all buying in. I’d say we’re handling it well enough for a bunch of people from “the middle of nowhere.”
Before the season started, was there a feeling internally that Texas Tech had a chance to have a season like this?
The hardest transition into this season was losing a key star like Keenan Evans, a big man like Zach Smith and the freshman sensation Zhaire Smith (Tech’s first one-and-done). We were left with a season that looked a lot like a fluke, and the media really pressed into that. Being picked in the preseason to finish 7th in the Big 12 and not even appearing in the AP top 25 was substantial disrespect in our eyes but there wasn’t much argument against it when half of our squad left. Collectively fans knew we were better than the media presented, but I don’t believe anybody said “oh we’ll make a Final Four” and truly believed it. Win the Big 12? Maybe, but the Final Four? That was a preseason LONG shot.
Is there any one factor or one cog that makes the defense so dominant?
I can’t honestly pin the defense’s success on one item, but that’s exactly why it is the most difficult defense to prepare for. You’ll be tempted to look at tape and buy into the idea that if you could drive up the middle, you’ll dismantle the defense. You’d be wrong. You’ll be tempted to buy into the idea that if you can get it to your shooters beyond the arc, you’ll dismantle the defense. You’d be wrong. You’ll be tempted to buy into the idea that … you get it. It seems like every team we’ve faced off against in the tournament has been prolific at something, and our defense has locked it down. That credit goes to Coach Mark Adams for Tech who – I’m convinced – is a wizard. I guarantee you he was watching tape on Michigan State not five minutes after Tech went back to their locker room. A humorous story about Coach Adams came in the Michigan game where at the media timeout, Adams said ‘We need to make an adjustment,’ and Coach Beard responded, ‘Coach, they’ve scored six points. We need to get a basket.” Who knows what will happen against Michigan State, but I can’t bring myself to take anything away from what this defense has done through the season.
What should Michigan State fans know about the TTU offense?
It is more efficient than everybody is making it out to be. I saw a quote from ex-Buffalo now Alabama head coach, Nate Oats, in the Lansing State Journal: “Michigan State can go beat them 58-52 if they need to, because they can get stops. Like I would not be shocked if Texas Tech had a five- or six-minute scoring drought against Michigan State.” Let me be HILARIOUSLY clear that from the 3:36 mark of the first half until the 12:21 mark of the second half, Tech held Buffalo without a field goal and put the game out of reach with a 27-5 run. Okay, off my box. Yes, Texas Tech is not the best offensive team in the country (KenPom 28th) and they are prone (like others) to scoring droughts. However with that ol’ Bobby Knight motion there is a lot of room for error from star players. All season we’ve had different people step up in games to get it going – and in the post season we’ve been the most efficient we’ve ever been. There are some stats that show Texas Tech is actually Michigan State’s best-shooting opponent (eFG%) since December 21.
Nationally, fans are just starting to become aware of how good Culver is, what is it that makes him so special on offense? Who else should MSU fans be aware of on the offensive end for Tech?
Jarrett Culver’s best quality on offense is his ability to take control. Last season he worked a lot with Keenan Evans who, similarly, was Tech’s king of late time takeover. Culver has a great IQ with the motion offense, and his ball work – while not as clean as Beard would like – can outwork his defenders. Standing at near 6’6 and close to 200lbs, Culver is no pushover either. We have seen all throughout the season his ability to outmuscle defenders on his way up to the basket. Layups are bread and butter for this kid but I wish he would drive the line more often. Regardless, Culver has been the guy that has come through at the clutch moment in many games.
We’re not solely reliant on Culver either. Michigan State fans should acquaint themselves with some Italian because we have an absolute steely-eyed missle man from Bologna, Italy. Davide Moretti has been quietly one of Texas Tech’s best scorers all season. He actually had all of his stat percentages go up when conference play started. That’s difficult! The transfers Matt Mooney, Tariq Owens have also made themselves known on the offensive side of the court; Mooney with classy layups and Owens with demolishing dunks. There’s also the players who get us back into rhythm frequently. Kyler Edwards, Deshawn Corprew, and Brandon Francis often come up with three pointers that seemingly pull momentum for Tech.
Where do you think Tech best compares to MSU? What will be the biggest issue to overcome?
Numbers aside, I think something both Texas Tech and Michigan State do well is play tough. If you’ve watched either team all year something that their largest wins are illustrative of teams that don’t give up on themselves and grind out a big fat W at the end. Tech and MSU are prolific defensive teams, and while MSU doesn’t typically record many steals, they force opponents to make bad shots often. I think I saw the average time that teams spend before taking a shot against MSU is 18 seconds? That’s damn good defense. The biggest issue to overcome for Tech is not only scoring against this suffocating Spartan defense, but also limiting Cassius Winston. The guy is a baller and has been integral to Michigan State’s offensive scheme. His 20 points and 10 assists against Duke prove that he is a monster in monster games. Tech has done well shutting down star players throughout this tournament, but I have a big question of whether or not they can do the same to Winston.
Chris Beard is emerging as one of the breakout stars of the 2019 Tournament, what has he done to bring the program to this point?
Everything. Next question.
Seriously, though, I could spend a whole article on this question. In fact we have. Baseline response is that Beard has changed the culture of the program as well as the fanbase, success creating success and all that.
Do you have a prediction for the game?
I think my responses thus far may make it seem like I’m giving little to no respect to Michigan State, and I want to make it clear that is not the case. There’s a reason Michigan State is in the Final Four: they’re one of the nation’s more balanced teams, Coach Izzo is one of basketball’s premiere figures, Cassius Winston is the real deal, and the team as a whole is prepared for a national championship. Not to mention they handled Michigan three times this year. THREE TIMES. Do you know how hard that is?! I assure you that nobody in Lubbock is looking at the Spartans as if we’re guaranteed anything. That being said – my focus is on Michigan State’s turnover rates. They turnover 18.5% of their possessions (176th in the country) and they rank 342 out of 353 Division 1 teams in opponent turnover rate. I would think these are important factors when you’re going up against a team that forces turnovers on 23% of their opponent’s possessions. Texas Tech isn’t just the best defense Michigan State has played all year – they’re the best in the country. If Tech can create momentum off of turnovers then Michigan State will be in for a rough go of it.
You know I can’t pick against my Red Raiders in the Final Four! Tech grinds one out against the best team left and gets the win, 69-65.
Special thanks to Jeramey Gillilan from Viva The Matadors for playing along. Follow him on Twitter at @JerameyDane and @VivaTheMatadors.