MINNEAPOLIS – Take the names off the jerseys, which a physical Texas Tech team almost literally did to Michigan State on Saturday, and almost nothing about this is surprising. Not the score (Texas Tech 61, Michigan State 51), not the spot in Monday’s title bout against Virginia, and not, if it happens, a national championship parade in Lubbock. The Red Raiders are that good.
They know it, too. Yeah, Texas Tech star Jarrett Culver sat at his locker Saturday night and said, “I never thought Tech would get to this point growing up in Lubbock,” but that’s like if Neil Armstrong said he never thought, as a kid, that humans would walk on the moon. By the time he stepped inside the Apollo 11, he believed.
That is where Texas Tech is now. Forget history. Forget that Michigan State was in its 10th men’s Final Four and Texas Tech is in its first. Forget that Tom Izzo has already delivered his induction speech at the Hall of Fame and Chris Beard has spent an inordinate amount of media time this week promoting Pop-Tarts. Forget that Culver couldn’t find the rim with a metal detector in the first half.
And forget that Michigan State cut the score to 52-51 with less than three minutes left. Texas Tech figures with its defense, one-point leads are safe. The Red Raiders gave the ball to Culver, their future lottery pick, and he took care of the rest.
“When it’s crunch time, I’m locked and loaded, (David Moretti) was locked and loaded, Matt Mooney was locked and loaded, so they couldn’t help,” Texas Tech’s Brandone Francis said afterward. “So it’s one on one.”
In the final three minutes, Culver drove for a bucket, hit three free throws and drained a three-pointer. The only other player on the court to score was Norense Odiase.
Michigan State coaches looked at Texas Tech’s dismantling of fellow Big Ten power Michigan in the Sweet 16, and they were actually encouraged. After all, the Red Raiders only scored 63. Well, this time they only scored 61. Against Virginia, they might only need 50. And unlike Virginia in its last two games, Texas Tech did not need a wild finish to get here.
“They deserved to beat us,” Izzo said. “They played better than us. They made shots, made some incredible shots late. They were the tougher team tonight. You know? They just were.”
There are no truly great teams this year—no 2012 Kentucky or 2001 Duke or 2009 North Carolina. Texas Tech is here because it found a way, it hit shots at the right time, and because of a word that has been uttered by every basketball analyst since the net was invented: matchups.
Texas Tech was a difficult matchup for Michigan State. The Spartans are an extremely bright and skilled team, but they are not terribly athletic, and they are young. Texas Tech is older and quicker, and it showed. The Red Raiders tend to switch on every ball screen and have the athletes to do it.
You could tell Michigan State was in trouble in the first half, when Texas Tech’s 6'10" Tariq Owens would switch onto MSU point guard Cassius Winston, and Owens was actually quicker than Winston. Winston is a marvelous player, a basketball savant who sometimes toys with other teams like the ball is a cat toy and his opponents are cats. But in his last two games, against Duke and Texas Tech, Winston shot 9-for-27 from two-point range. This had nothing to do with poise (Winston has plenty) or skill (he has that, too) and everything to do with athleticism. The shots he gets against most teams were not there against Duke, and they really were not there against Texas Tech.
Maybe if Michigan State had Josh Langford, its best shot-getter, this would have been different. Langford’s season ended in January. But also: Owens only played 23 minutes because he hurt his ankle. If he stayed on the floor longer, this could have been uglier. And if Culver played like he usually does, it could have been uglier, too. When your best player shoots 3-for-12 and you win by 10 anyway, you might have something going.
“We had a chance,” Michigan State freshman Gabe Brown said. “We had it all in us. We had the passion. We just came up short.”
Texas Tech was a reason for that. Matchups were a reason, too. We’ll never know, but I think Michigan State probably would have beaten Virginia. The Cavaliers are not as long and athletic as Texas Tech, so they wouldn’t have posed quite the same problems for this Michigan State team.
Again: we’ll never know. The point is that this tournament, this year, is not really about crowning a clear best team. It is about who you face, and it is about survival. Virginia survived Carsen Edwards and Purdue, and then it survived Auburn after a last-second foul call and three enormously clutch Kyle Guy free throws, and now it has a chance.
Texas Tech has found advantages against Michigan, Gonzaga and Michigan State. Those last two are in the top five in the nation in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency rankings. Forget the history. Forget the names. Forget the seeds. The Red Raiders are good enough, they know it, and they may prove it Monday night.