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Texas Tech’s Perfect Storm Started on a West Texas Ranch

MINNEAPOLIS — The Circle 6 Ranch sits halfway between Stanton and Lenorah, just off a stretch of Highway 137 in West Texas where the tumbleweeds have free rein. Parker Hicks, a sophomore on the Texas Tech basketball team, had another description for its location: “It’s in the middle of nowhere.”

The final chapter of the Texas Tech basketball team’s season will be written on Monday night, when the Red Raiders play Virginia in the N.C.A.A. men’s national championship game. But the opening one was set at the Circle 6, a broad spread on a dusty plain, over a long weekend in early September.

Back then, the Red Raiders were in many ways a group of players and coaches who hardly knew one another. Several of the team’s key players were new. So were a few members of the coaching and support staffs. The trip is where they laid the groundwork for what they have become.

“The whole point of the retreat was to really get to know each other a little bit better,” said guard Matt Mooney, a graduate transfer who scored 22 points in Saturday night’s win over Michigan State at the Final Four. “Oftentimes it’s hard to really trust each other and play for each other and play for the coaches if you don’t really know them.”

So the team bussed about 15 miles to the nearest high school gym for the year’s first practices, but it also sang karaoke, hung out by a bonfire, and walked along ledges buoyed only by the trust of a teammate. Everyone took part: players, coaches, managers, staff members.

One of the first exercises called for everyone’s name to be put in a hat, and then one by one each scrap of paper was pulled out to form pairs. Those tandems went walking around the ranch, getting to know one another.

Noah Parker, a freshman manager, learned that the wife of Tim McAllister, who was hired last summer as the team’s chief of staff, is a college rifle coach. Josh Mballa, a freshman who was born in Detroit and raised in Bordeaux, France, learned that the graduate assistant Gino Saucedo’s dad had a similar experience, coming from Mexico as a kid. The new assistant coach Glenn Cyprien learned that the mother of one of the team’s managers was battling cancer.

These types of exercises are not unique to Texas Tech; Virginia’s players had a hoot on a white-water rafting trip. (At least all of them except De’Andre Hunter, who can’t swim.) And Texas Tech’s players hollered when they visited Upper Manhattan’s Rucker Park in December and the team’s graduate assistants played impromptu pickup games.

For the Red Raiders, though, the bonhomie engineered at the ranch and cultivated ever since has been essential.

Last year’s team had lost five seniors and Zhaire Smith, a freshman who turned pro and was selected in the first round of the N.B.A. draft, from a team that reached the N.C.A.A. tournament’s East Region final. Texas Tech is not Kentucky or Duke; its coaches knew they could not restock the roster with new plug-and-play lottery picks. So Coach Chris Beard brought in two graduate transfers — Mooney, who played at Air Force and South Dakota, and Tariq Owens, who played at Tennessee and St. John’s — along with four freshmen and a junior college transfer. He also had new coaches, like Cyprien, and staff members, like McAllister, who would need to be integrated.

It was hard, then, to argue with Texas Tech’s being pegged for seventh place in the Big 12 in a preseason vote.

But Beard knows what it is like to build on the fly.

He has coached at junior colleges, Division II and Division III programs, and spent a year in the semiprofessional American Basketball Association and a summer coaching Switzerland’s national team. In his one year at Arkansas-Little Rock, Beard took a team with 10 new players to the second round of the N.C.A.A. tournament.

And so, fighting the clock to forge relationships, Beard regularly ate lunch and checked in last summer with Mooney and Owens, knowing how important the former, a scoring point guard, and the latter, a shot blocking forward, would be to his team.

“It’s not arrogance, it’s just the truth: we’re really good at coaching one-year guys,” Beard said. He added: “My experience in professional basketball, the rosters always change — guys come in on contract and just leave. I think there’s an art to it.”

The court, then, is a canvas.

Watch Texas Tech play defense, with its persistent switching on screens, and its disciplined funneling of dribblers toward the baseline. Trust is essential. And on offense, with its high volume of motion sets — the ones plucked from the playbook of his one-time boss in an earlier stint at Texas Tech, Bobby Knight — all five players are moving and reading one another with no predictable path for the ball. Communication is critical.

The transition has not always been seamless.

In mid-January, the Red Raiders lost three consecutive games. After a couple of wins, they were routed at Kansas and what had started as a promising season was turning sideways. Mooney and the redshirt senior Norense Odiase invited the players to their apartment, letting people get things off their chests and reminding everyone that there was still time to accomplish what they wanted this season, time to become a team that left enduring memories.

They lost only once after the meeting, and most recently rolled past second-seeded Michigan, thwarted top-seeded Gonzaga and staved off Michigan State, another No. 2 seed.

On Monday, they arrived in the championship game, an unforeseen occurrence for a team that until last season had never reached a regional final. That Texas Tech could have an extra challenge against Virginia if Owens, who injured his ankle on Saturday night, is unable to play or be effective, almost seems beside the point.

The Red Raiders will lean on each other for another 40 minutes. They will trust a bond whose roots were laid at a West Texas ranch — a fitting place to start a journey that seems to have come out of nowhere.

Source: NYT

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