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  • Matt Mooney's winding college career brought him to Lubbock at just the right time for both player and team, and now the Red Raiders find themselves in the Final Four.
By Greg Bishop
April 04, 2019

After clinching the first Final Four berth in school history, before flying home to football country, members of the best-ever Texas Tech basketball team met with their families at the team hotel last week. Senior guard Matt Mooney requested his own space, so as to accommodate the 20 or so people in his party.

The numbers alone spoke to Mooney’s winding basketball path, from Notre Dame College Prep outside Chicago to the Air Force Academy to South Dakota to Texas Tech. So the assembled coaches and mentors and family members pulled their chairs into a circle in Anaheim, Calif., and held a friendly impromptu press conference. They asked about the ladder he climbed to cut off a slice of net, the celebration in the locker room and the dance moves (awkward, A-for-effort) displayed by coach Chris Beard.

Mooney’s mother, Angela, asked the most questions; she jokes she should might have been a reporter in another life. Mostly, she wanted to know how her son felt—clearly, she worked in TV—and whether he had considered all the things that had to happen for him to sit there, surrounded by his support system, at once in a better position than he ever could have imagined and as a main factor in Tech’s unprecedented season. He didn’t answer right away, but when he did—“classic Matthew,” his mom says—he said just one word. Blessed.

John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated

That seems like a common basketball sentiment these days in Lubbock, Texas, where the basketball team that lost six of its top eight returning scorers and was tabbed to finish seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll finds itself on college’s basketball grandest stage. The Red Raiders are led by a coach who worked in Division III as recently as 2013, a hometown hero who morphed into future NBA lottery pick and a mish-mash of foreign talent, overlooked role players and two grad transfers that tied together this motley collection that will face Michigan State on Saturday in the Final Four.

One of those transfers is Mooney, who embodies the Red Raiders program, from Beard’s willingness to seek transfer aid to how Texas Tech develops players to the team’s suffocating defense, of which Mooney is a surprisingly crucial cog. They’re not in the national semifinals without him. And he’s not in the Final Four if he transferred to his other top choices, Creighton or Northwestern. He’s not in the Final Four if many things don’t fall just the way they happened.

Start in high school. Notre Dame was Mooney’s second choice. He often didn’t have rides to school, which meant he took a combination of trains and buses for 90 minutes each way from his family home in suburban Chicago. His mother later accepted a job near campus so as to ease that commuting burden. But her son excelled for a balanced team that featured five all-conference-caliber starters, which meant he didn’t compile gaudy statistics, which meant he was lightly recruited, which meant only one Division I school offered him a scholarship.

That school was Air Force. The Academy. Mooney had not fully developed when he arrived there way back in 2013; he couldn’t even grow facial hair yet. To make matters worse, Mooney crashed his bicycle that June, breaking the fibula in his left leg and tearing a deltoid ligament. The accident inflamed his left ankle and foot and delayed his career at Air Force by one season. He spent several months at Air Force Preparatory School, rehabbing his injuries. He also established a career pattern. “He’s taken every bad break and turned it into a positive,” says his high school coach, Tom Les.

The Academy itself proved a poor fit, according to Mooney, his coaches and his family members. To spend as many hours in the gym as he wanted, he had to arrive there at 5 a.m., before mandatory training at 6:30, or sneak back in at 11 at night. He struggled with the hazing done by upperclassmen and how little time he could devote to basketball, which remained his truest obsession. “Coach,” he told Shay Boyle, an assistant and administrator at Notre Dame, “I jumped out of a helicopter but I wanted to be in the gym.”

Still, the extra year allowed Mooney to develop, and the year he did play helped thicken his skin. He transferred after that to South Dakota, sitting out the 2015–16 season, which allowed him to grow into his body even more. It sucked not playing, but Mooney settled back into that gym life. Coach Craig Smith loved that Mooney had boxed at Air Force; Mooney even went several days without returning Smith's messages after his first loss. Smith had sealed Mooney’s fate with a 10-page handwritten letter, followed by an early coffee with Angela on the day he made his pitch. She ate oatmeal that morning; now, whenever he sees a bowl, Smith sends her a text.

Under Smith’s tutelage, Mooney transformed into one of the top scorers in South Dakota history. He often arrived at practice with two to three pages of handwritten notes, diagrams and lists and thoughts on how he could improve. He improved his shot selection and cut down on his turnovers and did everything, really, except focus on defense. He even told Smith once, “Coach, defense really isn’t my thing.”

Still, Mooney scored 31 points in his first game as a Coyote, back in 2016. He starred against UCLA, converting a pair of four-point plays. “Best player on the floor,” Smith says. For the first time in his career, Mooney became a featured star. His team needed him to drop 30 every night. He scored almost 1,300 points in two seasons at South Dakota—compiling the fourth- and fifth-best scoring seasons in school history—while recording 48 victories. While the school built a new arena, Mooney snuck in before it opened, taking jumpers early in the morning and late at night. “He rediscovered himself,” Smith says.

Near the end of his final season, Mooney told Smith, “Coach, I won’t be able to live with myself if I don’t get to the NCAA tournament.” Smith ended up leaving South Dakota for Utah State. It was hardest to tell Mooney but it also worked out for both men. Mooney decided to transfer to a school that would play deep into March this season. Only this time, because of his development, because of the years off and shots drained, he found himself suddenly in high demand.

Mooney lived in an off-campus house with four regular students in Vermillion, S.D. They drank more than a little beer, even as college coaches flew in on their private jets, ignoring snowstorms and weather delays to traverse the sticky floor in the kitchen and sit on the broken couch in the living room. Several coaches stopped in Chicago, too, to see Mooney’s parents on their way to South Dakota. Angela often asked for reviews on the cleanliness of her son’s house, or lack thereof. An Iowa State coach copped to “tons of dishes” in the sink. Angela says her son hosted “an astronomical number of coaches.” Somewhere north of 25. Maybe 40.

Beard met Mooney's parents for breakfast, then flew into one of those snowstorms, clomped across the gummy floor and sat on that godforsaken couch. “Probably the best salesman I ever met in my life,” Angela says, and she means that as a compliment. Beard sold her son on the program at Texas Tech, the Elite Eight appearance he had secured the year before in only his second season, his need for a scorer and his track record of player development. By the time Beard left the house with the dirty dishes, Mooney says he already knew where he wanted to play this fall. Tech, Mooney told his mom, “felt like an NBA program.”

The vision Beard laid out unfolded pretty much exactly as he said it would. Mooney spent most of his free time in the gym. He moved into a house with his older brother, Dan. He spent much time with assistant coach Mark Adams, the Red Raiders defensive wizard, chomping on the candy Adams stuffed into two jars in his office, so he can bribe players into extra film sessions. Dan loved to watch Texas Tech practice, loved witnessing how the coaches harped on every detail, how they never seemed satisfied, how they reminded him of his brother. “Beard is a grinder,” Dan says. “Matt is the same way.”

In the months that followed, Texas Tech climbed back into the top 10, despite new faces like Mooney and Tariq Owens, the shot-blocking rim-protector who transferred in from St. John’s. Mooney, with assists from Adams and Beard, became an All-Big 12 defender, rounding out his game, positioning him for a shot at the NBA. He was always a decent help defender, with long arms and solid anticipation skills. But he morphed into an on-ball defending force. Adams showed him clips of NBA players and how, on defense, they never stopped moving their feet. Pulsing, Adams calls it, leading Mooney to joke that his coach makes up words. Tech’s D finished the season ranked first in kenpom’s adjusted efficiency ratings. Yes, the kid who said defense wasn’t his thing played for the best defense in college basketball. Mooney was important to said defense. More important than he ever thought he’d be.

“Matt came to us with no defensive experience, really,” Adams says. “He made up his mind he wanted to be a defensive player. That might be the most gratifying thing that’s happened to us in the last six months. He’s everything that we’re about.”

John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated

Mooney hates camping, but he embraced the Red Raiders' team-bonding trip into the wilderness before the season started. He remains all in. He was one of the seniors who called a team meeting on Super Bowl Sunday, asking Dan to leave their house so the upperclassmen could address the team after a 16-point loss to Kansas the day before. Don’t let the moment be too big, Mooney told his teammates. Embrace the possibilities ahead. The Red Raiders have won 13 of the 14 games since then, their only loss a bad stumble in the Big 12 tournament against bottom-feeding West Virginia that actually seems like a positive in hindsight. It refocused the Red Raiders. Like many positives at Texas Tech, the run started with Mooney, the grad transfer who learned to play defense and made the Red Raiders an unexpected force. “He’s stabilized everything they do,” Boyle says. “He turns himself into a point guard.”

In the NCAA tournament, Mooney snagged five steals in the opener, a win over Northern Kentucky. He took pressure off of Jarrett Culver, the future NBA lottery pick. He knocked down two crucial three-pointers in Tech’s win over Michigan in the Sweet 16. Then he helped this merry band of defensive misfits topple Gonzaga, the top seed in the West Region, before retiring to that room with all his family members, the kid who survived the injuries and the transfers and then took part in a total transformation. That kid was headed to the Final Four. “He’s playing the best basketball of his life right now,” say Mooney’s older brother, Dan.

So is Texas Tech. Thanks in large part to its transfer, the best basketball team in Lubbock history now stands two wins from the ultimate triumph. Imagine that on the broken couch.

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