MINNEAPOLIS – Tom Izzo once told the story of the first time he ran into John Wooden after Michigan State won the national championship. Wooden had an unusual greeting for him.
“Welcome to the fraternity of 40.”
That’s how many men at that moment could say they coached a national champion. A larger club than those who walked on the moon, but still pretty exclusive. Now there are 49. Monday night, it will be 50. So here’s the question.
Does that fraternity have anyone quite like Chris Beard?
The coach at Texas Tech takes his players on tourist excursions on road trips. When the Red Raiders were in New York to play Duke, the team visited the famed Rucker Park neighborhood courts, and the graduate assistants played a pickup game.
The coach at Texas Tech does video Fireside Chats, and has his players occasionally send out words of gratitude to anyone who has helped them. Thankful texts, he calls them. “I think one of the best things you can do is just thank somebody from your past," he said. "The foundation for every championship team isn’t style of play, it’s not coaching, it’s not players. The game changes, but I think anything any championship team ever has is a positive foundation.”
The coach at Texas Tech has worked in a dozen places – the first three he said didn’t even pay. He made extra money one time by cutting up cardboard boxes behind a grocery story. His stops included the South Carolina Warriors of the American Basketball Association, which he said Sunday was “was really like a basketball vacation. I kind of lost myself in the game for a year.”
The coach at Texas Tech has an engine that never gets turned off. Last week he watched a tape of every single game Michigan State played this season. He was up till 5 in the morning Sunday studying Virginia.
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“We talk about it all the time, this guy is wired 24/7,” center Norense Odiase was saying Sunday. “He says he’s not the smartest, but he’s going to out-tough you, out-tough you, out-tough you, out-tough you. It’s got us to this point. We see it in him. It’s not fake, it’s real. It’s contagious to every single one of us.”
The coach at Texas Tech has a team in the national championship game Monday night, where he figured the Red Raiders had a good chance to be all along, even if a lot of other people didn’t. Even if the school had never been there before, not in 80 years.
“Our goal has never been to make a tournament, it’s been to win the tournament,” Beard said. “Sometimes it comes off as a little bit of arrogance, but you’ve got to be willing to tell people — I’ve been telling people my whole life, I think we can in championships and play on the last night of the season. The reason I say that is not arrogance, it’s just belief in what we do on a day-to-day basis.”
They are this far, more than anything, because of relentless, stifling, take-no-prisoners defense. Wait until you see the stunning carnage they have caused to opposing offenses in the NCAA Tournament. And the coach at Texas Tech is perfectly willing to tell you the brains of that operation is someone on his staff.
There at one corner of the Texas Tech locker room Sunday was a gentle-looking, soft-spoken fellow in glasses. Who would ever guess, by looking at him, the terrible forces Mark Adams has unleashed upon the NCAA Tournament?
“Coach Adams is the secret sauce,” guard Kyler Edwards said.
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Adams is like Beard, a basketball lifer with many stops, but now joined by a common purpose in Lubbock: Make life miserable for anyone trying to score on Texas Tech. The Rad Raiders' defense is his baby.
His father was a Texas Golden Glove champion boxer. “I grew up just learning repetition, repetition. If you do something over and over again, then it becomes habit. That’s a big part of defense, we just believe in building good habits.
“I’ve got a little bit of that fighter in me. We talk a lot about that, we feel like every time down the floor it’s a fight, we want to throw the first punch and be the most aggressive team on the floor — the team that’s just attacking, every pass, every play, every possession.
“It’s kind of like a quarterback, you want to pressure the quarterback so he can’t make the passes. We feel the same way. We don’t want to let one of their players feel relaxed and get a good look at where he wants to pass the ball.”
Remember, this has been done with mostly a redone lineup. Usually it takes some time to glue a defense together. Not this season at Texas Tech.
“It starts with just getting these guys to understand the importance of defense. If you want to play for Coach and be productive in our system, you’d better buy into defense," Adams said.
That means accepting up to two-thirds of practice is devoted to defense. “Sometimes it gets old, but it helps us win games,” Matt Mooney said.
Yeah, Adams knows. “You could take a vote in this room right now, probably none of them want to practice defense. But it’s just who we are.”
And the players have apparently seen the light. “I love eating ice cream,” Brandone Francis said, “and it is no different than playing defense.”
What Texas Tech has done to its five tournament opponents is a lot more unpleasant than a scoop of butter pecan. Consider some of the numbers, and words of the victims:
Texas Tech 72, Northern Kentucky 57. Horizon League player of the year Drew McDonald goes for 2-for-13 and scores five points.
Northern coach John Brannen: “They’re everything they’re contracted up to be in terms of defensively.”
Texas Tech 78, Buffalo 58. The Bulls had been averaging 84.4 points a game.
Buffalo coach Nate Oats: “Those are big, tough guys. It’s disappointing because we’ve been the tougher team probably 34, 35 nights out of the year. To lose the last one on toughness hurts.”
Texas Tech 63, Michigan 44. The Wolverines score 16 points in the first half, and end up 1-for-19 in 3s.
Michigan coach John Beilein: “The scouting reports we heard from different people that played them during the year was that you’re going to be amazed at how quick they are, how good they are staying in front of people and how they rally to the ball, which usually gives us open 3s — and you still can’t get open 3s.”
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Texas Tech 75, Gonzaga 69. The Zags were leading the nation in scoring and field goal percentage but are held 18 points under their average, shoot 42.4 percent and commit 16 turnovers.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few: “This is the best team I’ve ever had for taking care of the ball. We’ve had games with four turnovers, three turnovers, halves with zero turnovers. They took a lot of balls from us when we had the ball in great position for us, where I’m feeling . .. yes! And then we just lost it. It’s tough, it’s real.”
Texas Tech 61, Michigan State 51. That's 11 points under the Spartans’ season low, and Big Ten player of the year Cassius Winston goes 4-for-16.
Izzo said after it is very rare that one of his teams gets physically beaten up. “Tonight was one of those nights.”
The coach of Texas Tech had this in mind all along, and has turned Adams loose to do what he must. Beard just wishes people recognized the Red Raiders can play offense, too. A question came to Beard on Sunday about how effective his style has been this month.
“Offensively or defensively?” he asked.
“Yeah, I know.”
The coach at Texas Tech has dreamed of this chance, in off-the-basketball-beaten-path places that were light years from U.S. Bank Stadium. A man who loves his job and the game as much as he does, being No. 50 would mean the world. "He's unique in his personality," Odiase said of Beard. There wouldn't be many stories in the fraternity like him.