Texas Tech basketball has reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in nearly a decade. They are the #8 seed in the Midwest Region, highlighted by top seeded Virginia and Michigan State. Now sit down before you move on to the next paragraph, folks.
There is a plausible path to the Final Four for the Red Raiders.
[Waits for hysteric laughter to subside…]
It’s going to take some skill, an upset or two, a dose of Tubby magic, and taking advantage of some familiar foes. Remember, when Texas Tech had lost six out of seven to close out the month of January, I said we still had a path, albeit a narrow one, to the NCAA tournament. I hope that’s earned me a little bit of credibility with the claim that there’s yet another narrow path available for the Red Raiders, this time to the Final Four.
Step One: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." -Laozi
The first step is abundantly obvious and not all that far-fetched. The first game of the tournament is against Butler, a #9 seed, meaning they are just about equal in quality to Texas Tech. Butler has some serious tournament experience, while Texas Tech players have none. But this is Tubby Smith’s fifth different program to take to the big dance, and Texas Tech is by no means overmatched. A victory over Butler is the most straightforward aspect of the path.
Step Two: Tubby works his magic #TubbyTime #InTubbyWeTrust
A #16 seed has never beaten a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. While I hope Hampton does the unthinkable to Virginia, we all know it’s not going to happen. Therefore to move forward in the tournament, Texas Tech is going to have to beat one of the best teams in the country in front of a crowd that will probably be 90% Virginia fans.
The good news for the Red Raiders is that of the top seeds in the tournament, Virginia is perhaps the most flawed. Virginia’s rise to basketball prominence is still relatively new, and they have yet to prove they can handle the postseason with any significant success. To this you might say "Texas Tech hasn't either". True, the players haven't, but Tubby Smith is a national champion.
In 2014 as a #1 seed, Virginia beat #16 seed Coastal Carolina after trailing by five points at halftime and beat #8 seed Memphis in the next round. Then they got bounced in the Sweet Sixteen by #4 seed Michigan State. Last year, as a #2 seed, the Cavaliers defeated #15 seed Belmont as expected then lost to #7 seed Michigan State in the second round.
Basically, Virginia is a great regular season team with no evidence that they can truly put away a good team in the big dance. In fact, it’s been over 20 years since Virginia beat a team that was seeded better than #8 in the tournament. With Texas Tech barely missing out on a #7 seed and very likely receiving one had they not blown a game to TCU in the Big 12 tournament, Virginia may choke again at the hands of the Red Raiders, especially if they get caught looking ahead to a potential Michigan State matchup for the third year in a row.
Step Three: The rematches.
On to the Sweet Sixteen, where things really get interesting. I’m going to assume for the most part that there are no major upsets apart from Texas Tech beating Virginia, and that seeds #2 through #5 - Michigan State, Utah, Iowa State, and Purdue, respectively - all advance past the first round.
Personally, I think Michigan State is not only the greatest threat to win the Midwest region, but if I were a betting man I would put my money on them to win the entire tournament. I don’t want Texas Tech to have to be the David who defeats the Goliath of Tom Izzo and the Spartans in the month of March.
The rest of the region's games need to transpire just right for Texas Tech. In an ideal world, Iowa State beats Purdue to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, forcing a third matchup with the Red Raiders this season. In addition, a Utah upset of Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen would go a long way in helping Texas Tech’s chances of winning the region.
If Texas Tech draws Iowa State in the Sweet Sixteen, it relieves a lot of the big game pressure. The players haven’t sniffed a game as important as this one would be, but they’ve beaten Iowa State already this season and would likely be comforted by facing off against a familiar foe. While it would indeed be an upset, it would be far from shocking if the Red Raiders beat Iowa State again and advanced to the Elite Eight.
Another scenario is #12 seed Arkansas-Little Rock turning into this year’s Cinderella. Even if Little Rock advances to the Sweet Sixteen instead of Iowa State or Purdue, it gives Texas Tech a team they’ve already played against and beaten this season.
After a Utah upset of Michigan State, Texas Tech would have yet another familiar foe in the next round of the tournament. Way back in November, Utah and Texas Tech squared off, resulting in a 73-63 victory for Utah. It was by no means a blowout, and the Red Raiders are drastically improved in the four months since then.
Again, it would be an upset, but not a total shock if Texas Tech beat Utah in a rematch. Just like in the hypothetical matchup with Iowa State, playing a team you’re familiar with goes a long way in alleviating some of the pressure associated with playing in a big game.
I’m not saying this scenario is a sure thing. I’m not even saying it’s likely. But if the chips fell just right; Virginia chokes again, Michigan State loses to Utah (or anyone, for that matter), and the Red Raiders take advantage of a couple rematches, it could happen.
Here's a graphic to make it easier to follow along: