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Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with Viva the Matadors

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This is it. This one’s for all the marbles.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Semifinals-Michigan State vs Texas Tech Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, the Virginia Cavaliers will face the Texas Tech Red Raiders to decide the national champion. Man, that’s fun to say. In order to get a little more information on our foe from the Lone Star State, we reached out to our friends over at Viva the Matador. Huge thanks to Jeramey Gillilan for taking the time out to answer these questions so thoroughly.

You can see my responses to his questions here.

Streaking the Lawn: What has this experience been like for Texas Tech fans over the course of the season as y’all overcame some offensive issues and are clicking at the right time?

Viva the Matadors: From the beginning Texas Tech fans recognized that this team was special. After losing Keenan Evans, Zach Smith and Zhaire Smith last year there certainly was a big question revolving around the offensive production of this team. Sure we knew Culver would act as our leader on the court the same way Evans did, but I don’t think anybody knew just at what level that would become. Our first run after the loss to Duke was satisfying: we outplayed Kansas State, took care of a good Oklahoma team and then beat Texas in Austin for the first time since like 1996. Then the slump. Losses against Iowa State, at Baylor and then at KSU brought some pessimism regarding “maybe we peaked too early,” but it was far from over. After a lone loss at Kansas we ended up on a nine-game win streak to secure a share of the Big 12 title. The issue before? Our offensive scheme! Besides that fluke WVU game in the Big 12 tournament, Texas Tech has really picked it up with the Bobby Knight motion offense. As demonstrated in Saturday’s game against Michigan State – we don’t need our star player to have an amazing night. I think the fans have really seen how much this team is willing to step up for each other and are believing that if there’s a championship to be won: “why not us?”

STL: Shoutout to a fellow defense heavy team. What is it that makes this TTU team *so* good on defense...even if we’re a little jealous y’all are the best KenPom defensive team ever?

VTM: Ayy, 806D waddup! This is a question I had to answer in The Other Colors Q&A and, honestly, it’s tough to nail it down. You have to start with the coaching: Coach Beard and his “street dog” mentality coupled with Coach Adams’ absolute dedication to studying opponent offenses for hours at a time creates a good foundation for the players to build on. There’s a lot of good tweets out there analyzing Tech’s foundational approach to defense. Things like having the appropriate stance so you don’t get beat off a dribble, closing the gap to limit opponents’ creative space, and the hands – GOD, THE HANDS. Baseline however is the 4:1 mentality that has permeated Texas Tech’s culture altogether. “The mental is to the physical as four is to one.” Foundational knowledge doesn’t make Tariq Owens swat a three ball, nor does it make Davide Moretti fall on the floor for a loose ball, and it certainly doesn’t make Norense Odiase straight up take the ball out of Cassius Winston’s hands! This is a program that doesn’t just play good defense, it makes it their mission to dismantle opponent gameplans.

STL: Matt Mooney was on fire against Michigan State. What’s so special about him as a player, and what can Virginia do to slow him down?

VTM: What really isn’t special about Matt? First of all, he’s from Wauconda, Illinois. His chance at division 1 basketball was the only place that gave him an offer: Air Force. His time there was kind of wrought with depression and controversy so Mooney ended up transferring to South Dakota State. He did alright there: averaged 20 ppg and became one of their prolific offensive pieces, but it didn’t pan out to the level of an NCAA tournament. With the ability to be a graduate transfer, Mooney started assessing schools and the Texas Tech coaching staff sold him on their promise that his hard work would pay off. Fast forward and Coach Beard has kept his promise the same way the players kept theirs: give the game of basketball everything and it’ll repay you ten-fold. Beard has said that “he overthinks things; he’s a perfectionist. The great thing about him is he is detail-oriented and he’s got a little bit of stubbornness to him. He thinks he’s the best player in the country, but all the great ones do.”

I think shutting down any player on Texas Tech’s offense isn’t some complicated scheme. Lock them down, pressure them, put them in a situation where they’re uncomfortable. The issue has been, and will be for Virginia, is that you can’t focus too much on one player. Michigan State took out Culver for a large part of the game, but that created opportunity for Mooney. This is a team that moves the ball well on the offensive side and you just have to (as Coach Beard always says) “play your best basketball game of the year.”

STL: What, if anything, is the key to beating the Red Raider defense? Are there any weaknesses to exploit?

VTM: That’s getting harder and harder to answer with any confidence, especially with this tournament. Each game it has seemed like whatever team we were playing the narrative has been “Texas Tech has NEVER played anybody like… who could do…” whatever it was. Buffalo was supposed to drain baskets on us all day since they averaged near 90 ppg (they scored 58), Michigan was supposed to shut our offense down and win without us scoring 50 (we won 63-44), Gonzaga – oh man – Gonzaga was supposed to expose just how overrated Texas Tech was. Number one offense in the nation! It was a good game, but we stifled their key players when it mattered and got it done. Michigan State? Shoot, Texas Tech has NEEEEEEVER played a team this balanced. They just beat Duke! Duke beat Texas Tech! Okay well we see how well that worked out. Consider Texas Tech fans a profiting-victim of the media’s portrayal of their games. Every time sports “experts” have said Texas Tech was going to lose because (x), we have won in convincing fashion. No late time antics, no fluke or luck but from hard-nosed defense.

If you want to beat Texas Tech’s defense you just have to make your shots.

STL: Virginia likes to slow teams down and play things in the half court. How does Texas Tech fare in those type games?

VTM: The best game to take note of if you’re watching film is Tech’s game against Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen. Certainly not as prolific as Virginia, Michigan was another team that wanted to slow the pace and force opposing offenses to work the floor and make good shot selection. The First half was going fairly well for Michigan’s defense, but it all just fell apart as the game went on. I’m not entirely sure if they either got worn down or what, but I think this motion offense is the best strategy for half-court defense. There’s a stat floating out there somewhere, but Texas Tech is one of the only teams that actually has scored more points past the 15 second shot-clock mark than other teams in the tournament. There’s absolutely no way that Texas Tech does to Virginia what they did to Michigan, but I think our game plan might actually be prepared for Virginia’s brand. I mean we practice against ourselves, right?

STL: Texas Tech has been shooting well (39%) from three in the last two games with the next best tournament performance (35%) coming against Northern Kentucky in the opening round. Is that just-shy-of-40% clip sustainable for a third game?

VTM: I would say yes. One thing Coach Beard has done an exceptional job of this year is instilling confidence in his players. Good example is Jarrett Culver in the game against Michigan State. He was having a terrible night from bad shot selection and good defensive marking, but at the very end when Michigan State needed to get a stop he decided to pull up at the top of the arc and nailed a three. The 30% mark isn’t too far out reach, in my mind, just because it’s not coming solely from one player. Davide Moretti has been clutch from three all year for us. Matt Mooney can turn it on in an instant. Our bench has been sensational from three: Brandon Francis, Deshawn Corprew, Kyler Edwards. Even our big man, Tariq Owens netted the first three of last game! Culver, ironically, is one of our not-so-good three point shooters.

Point being: these guys don’t defer to the three pointers, because we love to pull charge calls and beat teams at the board. But don’t be surprised if Tech gets spicy from beyond the arc. We’re having a good time here.

STL: Who is the X-factor in this game?

VTM: Part of me wants to say Jarrett Culver. Honestly. His absence last game hurt us offensively, but didn’t take us out of the game. Culver isn’t one of those players who gets taken out two games in a row, so I fully expect him to be driving the basket a lot on Virginia’s defense.

If you want somebody you’re not even thinking about then Norense Odiase is your man. Odiase has been absolutely beastly for the Red Raiders under the basket through the tournament and it’s going to mean as much for him to do the same tonight. The guy took the ball from Cassius Winston’s possession when he was just standing up with two hands on the ball. The Big 10 player of the year! Took it from him like he was a child! Don’t mess with Odiase.

STL: Ok, prediction time.

VTM: Virginia is a good team; there’s a reason they’ve made it to the Final. But I’d rather go down swinging for my Texas Tech Red Raiders than to doubt them now (like most of the nation, except Dez Bryant – TTU’s newest ambassador). Defense wins championships – wait… can’t really say that here. I think Coach Beard has hit his stride in the tournament and the men from Lubbock, Texas play their street dog game to grind out a win against Coach Bennett and the Cavaliers, 60-55.