Chris Beard worked as an assistant coach at Texas Tech, left to prove himself as a head coach at smaller schools and work his way back to the big time, which, to him, was Texas Tech.
Matt Mooney played for Air Force, then South Dakota, and used the graduate transfer rule to transfer to Texas Tech for his senior season and one last shot to make the tourney.
Mooney wouldn’t be in the Final Four if not for Beard. Beard wouldn’t be in the Final Four if not for Mooney. Both picked the road less traveled, and for them it led to Texas Tech and, improbably, the Final Four in Minneapolis.
“Matt Mooney is one of the best stories in college basketball,” Beard said. “Kind of like myself — we worked our way up.”
Mooney is a versatile 6-3 swing player who has scored 30 or more points seven times in his career. He’s Tech’s second-leading scorer, after future lottery pick Jarrett Culver, as well as a deft passer and eager defender.
What Mooney is not is a prototypical key starter on a Final Four team. Beard arrived at Texas Tech three years ago and decided that the fastest way for him to compete was to get “old.” Mooney’s experiences at smaller schools weren’t disqualifying. They were the attraction.
“It’s totally been a part of our plan, not just at Tech but at other places we’ve been,” Beard said. “We’ve always tried to stay old.”
Beard gathered his staff upon arriving in Lubbock and asked his staff how Texas Tech could beat the likes of Kansas, Baylor, Texas and Kansas State.
Outcoach them? Recruit better talent? “No,” Beard said. “That’s not our plan. Recruiting is improving, but one thing we always talked about was always trying to be old. Last year’s (Texas Tech) team that lost to Villanova in the Elite Eight had five seniors, this year we have four seniors.
‘‘Sometimes, to beat really good, talented, teams, experience is always part of the equation.”
That’s why Minneapolis will host a relatively starless Final Four. The one-and-doners at Duke and Kentucky lost to veteran teams from Michigan State and Auburn and Texas Tech’s seniors clamped down on Gonzaga.
In Mooney, Beard landed a natural offensive player and a willing defender. Then Beard made him better, teaching him how to react more quickly on defense and how to read opposing offensive players.
“They showed me a technique when I first got here of how some guys in the NBA, when they’re guarding the ball, their feet are always moving,” Mooney said. “They call it ‘pulsing.’ Sometimes you’re guarding the ball and your feet are still. You have to always move your feet so you’re quicker to react.”
That’s what makes Texas Tech fascinating. Every college basketball coach preaches team defense and defensive principles. Beard and players such as Mooney demonstrate the difference between teaching and hoping.
“He’s probably the best there is,” Mooney said. “I don’t think we’ve lost a game all year when we’ve had a lot of time to prepare. They nail the scouting report and the game plan.”
Before the season, Beard took his players on a mini-retreat. According to the Texas Tech website, Beard had his four seniors address the team, then asked “Does anybody work harder than Matt Mooney?”
Beard asked every player who believed Mooney should be the team leader to stand. Everyone stood.
Tech’s two graduate transfers, Tariq Owens and Mooney, were at their best in the toughest moments of their upset of Gonzaga.
“Those guys have had great seasons,” Beard said. “In my mind, they’re both All-Big 12 players. They’ve made their impact here from Day 1 all the way through the Final Four.”
Signing graduate transfers is an easy strategy to adopt. Beard hopes that his success will prompt more athletic directors to hire coaches who succeed at lower levels — such as Beard, the Matt Mooney of coaches.
“Nobody’s asking, but I’d go out and hire somebody who really knows how to coach,” Beard said. “I wouldn’t worry about what division it was. Four years ago, I was trying to win games in Division II.”
And Mooney was starting his trek from Air Force to South Dakota to Texas Tech and finally to Minneapolis. The older player and the old-school coach might as well be the faces of the Final Four.