ANAHEIM, Calif. — Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt was standing in a hallway outside the Red Raiders’ locker room last March when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
There stood Chris Beard, only 10 minutes removed from a season-ending loss to Villanova yet already looking ahead to the future.
Beard had just guided Texas Tech to its first Elite Eight appearance in program history, but the second-year coach wanted to make sure his boss knew he viewed that as a jumping-off point, not a culmination. In a quiet yet resolute voice, Beard told Hocutt, “Don’t think for one second this year is going to define us as a program.”
“That’s an absolutely true story,” Hocutt said. “His sense of urgency and focus is there no matter what the situation 365 days a year. He’s so driven to coach on that Monday night in April. That’s all he talks about.”
Beard doesn’t have to worry about last season defining Texas Tech as a program anymore, not after the Red Raiders topped that this year. Improbably, unfathomably, they’re headed to their first Final Four despite having replaced five of their top six scorers from last year’s team.
In a high-quality West regional final pitting Gonzaga’s top-ranked offense against Texas Tech’s top-ranked defense, the third-seeded Red Raiders secured their place in Minneapolis with a 75-69 victory. They imposed their will in the second half, controlling the pace, eliminating the transition buckets that hurt them in the first half and challenging the top-seeded Zags to score against a set defense.
Disruptive, quick-handed Texas Tech defenders made that difficult, swiping at the ball whenever Gonzaga attempted to go up for a shot, attack off the dribble or feed Rui Hachimura in the post. The Red Raiders forced 16 turnovers and blocked seven shots, none bigger than Tariq Owens swatting away Hachimura’s corner 3-pointer with just under a minute to go and somehow saving possession while falling into the Zags’ bench.
“That defense is real, Chris has done a great job with it and it definitely impacted us tonight,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They took a lot of balls from us when we had the ball in a great position for us, where I'm feeling, yes! And then we just lost it.”
Davide Moretti made sure those defensive stops didn’t go to waste, burying a pair of massive 3-pointers in the final four minutes to provide Texas Tech some much-needed cushion. The sophomore guard then clinched the game with a pair of free throws with 11 seconds to go after Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins received a technical foul for knocking the ball out of inbound passer Matt Mooney’s hands.
When Texas Tech players spilled onto the court and piled on top of one another after the final buzzer sounded, that was only the beginning of their revelry. Later, the Red Raiders dumped a bucket of confetti on Beard’s head and danced on the podium during the trophy presentation, a fitting celebration for a Final Four appearance few outside their locker room saw coming.
You’re not supposed to go to an Elite Eight and Final Four in back-to-back years at a program like Texas Tech. You’re especially not supposed to do it when you’re projected to finish seventh in the Big 12 after losing an All-American (Keenan Evans) and a surprise one-and-done (Zhaire Smith).
“We never bragged about it or told the media about it, but behind closed doors we thought we had a chance to be really good,” senior guard Brandone Francis said. “Everybody picked us last. Everybody doubted us. But we never listened to what everybody said. The work ethic, the dedication we had, that was something that nobody else saw.”
Why winning at Texas Tech isn’t easy
To put into context what Beard has achieved taking Texas Tech to the Final Four, it’s important to consider how the Red Raiders were perceived before his arrival. Other coaches have long labeled Texas Tech as the worst basketball job in the Big 12 because of its remote location, lack of obvious recruiting pool and minimal tradition.
In its two decades in the Big 12 prior to Beard becoming head coach, Texas Tech never finished higher than a third-place tie in the league standings and only twice managed to win at least one game in the NCAA tournament. The job is difficult enough that Tubby Smith once received Big 12 coach of the year honors just for finishing seventh in a 10-team league with a 9-9 record.
The turning point for Texas Tech was Hocutt’s decision to target Beard after Smith blindsided the Red Raiders by leaving for Memphis in April 2016. UNLV had hired Beard earlier that spring, but Hocutt felt strongly enough that he called Rebels athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy and warned her that he intended to pursue her prized new coach anyway.
“No, you do not have my permission to talk to Chris,” Hocutt remembers Kunzer-Murphy angrily telling him. “Are you kidding me? We just hired him.”
Surprised but undaunted, Hocutt responded, "With all due respect, I was just giving you a courtesy call. I’m going to ask Chris to meet with us. It will be his decision if he wants to take the time or not.”
Having grown up in Texas and spent a decade as assistant at Texas Tech, Beard had reason to seriously consider to Hocutt’s offer. It also helped that Texas Tech could afford to pay Beard considerably more than UNLV and that his three young daughters from his previous marriage also lived a short drive from Lubbock.
The morning after Hocutt flew to Las Vegas to offer him the job, Beard resigned as UNLV’s head coach after just 19 days. At his introductory news conference at Texas Tech in April 2016, Beard explained, "It's like when Bear Bryant left Texas A&M for Alabama. When momma calls, you've gotta go home. Texas Tech is my momma and I'm home.”
There was nothing about Beard’s 18-14 debut season that suggested Texas Tech was poised to make a leap, but the Red Raiders broke through in year two under their new coach. Fueled by an elite defense, an experienced senior class and two promising freshmen, Texas Tech challenged for the Big 12 title, endured an injury-induced late-season skid and then regrouped to make an Elite Eight run.
Outsiders labeled this a transition season for Texas Tech when only sophomore Jarrett Culver returned from the core of that team, but Beard isn’t wired to think that way. His background coaching at the junior college, NAIA and Division II level has taught him how to assemble quality rosters on the fly.
Beard signed a strong 2018 recruiting class featuring eventual contributors Kyler Edwards and Deshawn Corprew as well as now-injured top 100 prospect Khavon Moore. In April, Texas Tech landed Owens, a St. John’s graduate transfer with a knack for altering shots around the rim. In May, the Red Raiders snagged Mooney, a first-team all-Summit League selection at South Dakota last season.
“When [Beard] was recruiting me, I knew he had experience with new guys having success right away,” Mooney said. “So that was something that played a factor for me. Right when I first got here, he just made me feel included and confident right away. He talked me up a little bit in front of the guys and he's real good at putting guys in the right positions and making you feel like you're part of the team right away.”
How Texas Tech built an elite defense
Since Texas Tech added so many newcomers to its rotation this season, Beard saw a need to speed up the chemistry-building process. He organized a two-day retreat for the Red Raiders at a West Texas church camp, taking away his players’ cell phones, arranging for them to do trust-building activities and sing karaoke together and forcing them to get to know one another.
The results show not just in Texas Tech’s chemistry in the locker room but also in the way the Red Raiders communicate on the floor. It’s no accident Texas Tech players rotate on help defense like they’ve played with each-other for years, not months.
“The retreat played a big part in that,” Owens said. “We got to really learn about each other. We learned things about each other in a weekend that might normally take two or three years to learn about each other, things that some people might not tell their closest friends.”
The foundation for Texas Tech’s defensive mentality arises from an unforgiving exercise Beard calls the Kill Drill. In preseason practices, Beard splits his team into three groups and the fivesome on defense stays on the floor until it achieves a “Kill” by stringing together three stops in a row.
“You can be stuck out there for 30 minutes sometimes just defending and competing and they’ll have fresh guys on offense,” forward Norsense Odiase said. “It’s really tough, but it forces you to dig deep to get a stop.”
Schematically, the defense Texas Tech runs isn’t especially complicated. The Red Raiders wall off the middle of the floor, funnel dribble penetration to the sideline and baseline and rely on quick rotations and timely help defense.
What sets Texas Tech’s defense apart is that the program actually emphasizes defense rather than merely paying lip service to it. Deflected passes are celebrated. Lazy closeouts aren’t tolerated. Floor burns are treated like badges of honor.
Scrimmages in practices are scored by which team gets the most stops, not which team tallies the most points. After victories, a special chair is designated for the player who takes the most charges, a gold chain goes to the player with the most rebounds and a WWE-style title belt goes to the player who deflects the most passes.
“We compete for that belt, and whoever gets it wears it the next day and brags to the other guys,” Francis said. “It’s hard to get the deflection belt when you play with Tariq [Owens] and Matt [Mooney]. One game I had like seven deflections and I thought I was going to get the belt. Turns out that was one of Matt’s best games. He had like 15.”
The reason this year’s Texas Tech defense is the nation’s best is the Red Raiders’ knack for blocking shots and forcing turnovers. Jarrett Culver has emerged as a lock-down perimeter defender, Mooney plays the role of a quick-handed rover and Owens and Norense Odiase are both elite rim protectors.
Smothering defense alone carried Texas Tech over the first two-thirds of the season, but the Red Raiders have started to make some major strides offensively over the past eight weeks. An offense ranked outside the top 100 nationally entering February has now cracked the top 30 thanks to Culver’s continued blossoming into a star and the development of his supporting cast.
“We don't mind the underdog chip on the shoulder part of our story, but I think you disrespect our players a little bit,” Beard said. “We got really good college players and I think we're one of the best teams in the country this year.”
This Final Four run at Texas Tech is the culmination of a 20-year climb through the coaching ranks for Beard.
As a graduate assistant at Incarnate Word his first year out of college, Beard received only $400 per month and enough money to cover books and tuition. Among his responsibilities was going door-to-door selling ads in the school’s gameday program or getting people to pledge a certain amount of money for every lap around the track he could run in 30 minutes.
Over the next 20 years, Beard developed a style emphasizing airtight defense, meticulous preparation and innovative motivation on a path that included a half dozen coaching stops in the ABA, JUCO and Division II. It wasn’t until he guided Arkansas-Little Rock to a 30-win season and an NCAA tournament upset of Purdue that he finally received serious interest from name-brand programs.
For years, Beard has watched other more well-known coaches climb ladders and cut down nets this time of year. Now that he is the rising star one victory away from coaching on that Monday night in April, it’s hard for him to put into words what it means to him.
“Man, it’s just indescribable,” he said. “Growing up my whole life watching these press conferences, the guy that gets there always says indescribable, and I'm like, ‘Oh, give us something better than that.’ But I don't have anything better. It really is indescribable.”
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