Culver, Mooney take different paths to Tech and Final Four
Hometown standout Jarrett Culver was the first recruit Chris Beard reached out to when he got to Lubbock as Texas Tech’s head coach three years ago.
Then, when the Red Raiders were coming off their first NCAA Elite Eight appearance last season and had to replace a senior All-Big 12 point guard, they targeted Matt Mooney, a graduate transfer from South Dakota who began his college career at Air Force after accepting his only Division I offer.
The two guards who got to the Big 12 Conference school in the plains of West Texas in distinctly different ways have helped lead Texas Tech (30-6) to the Final Four for the first time.
“Hard work pays off. For believers, you reap when you sow,” Mooney said. “They didn’t pick us to win the Big 12 or to be here right now, but we keep believing in each other, and we’re going to keep doing it.”
At one point last weekend in Anaheim, Calif., before the Red Raiders beat top seed Gonzaga in the West Regional final, Beard asked Culver if the sophomore was having fun.
When Culver responded “Yes sir,” Beard drew laughter in the room when he told the Big 12 player of the year and second-team AP All-American: “We should do this again next year together.”
The 6-foot-6 Culver, Tech’s leading scorer and rebounder at 18.9 points and 6.4 rebounds a game, is expected to be a high draft pick in this year’s NBA draft. But first comes Texas Tech’s first Final Four game Saturday night in Minneapolis against Michigan State (32-6). And then maybe a trip to the title game.
Even though he grew up close to the Texas Tech campus, Culver dreamed of “going other places, bigger places” to play college basketball. He went to only a few Red Raiders games, but Beard told him during a long recruiting process that he could make a legacy in his hometown.
Culver has now been a part of Texas Tech’s two deepest runs in the NCAA Tournament. Before last season, the Red Raiders had never been to the Elite Eight and their previous Sweet 16 had been in 2005, when the guard was only 6 years old and Beard was an assistant coach there for Bob Knight.
Beard has seen a different level of maturity this season in Culver, a kid who has always loved the game and put in the work. Instead of just shooting in the gym for a couple of hours, he now does calculated work.
“Specifically, I think he’s become a better defensive player. And on offense, he’s just a much better passer,” Beard said. “I think as a freshman, he was a confident scorer, a young great player. Now he’s a legitimate guy that can beat you with the pass or the shot, and so I think he’s just developed.”
Not only has he increased his scoring and rebounding averages (11.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg as a freshman), Culver has nearly two more assists per game (from 1.8 to 3.7 as a sophomore).
Mooney had a lot more schools interested in him when the 6-3 guard decided to leave South Dakota after two seasons. He started all 68 of his games with the Coyotes, averaging 18.7 points and making 36 percent of his 3-pointers.
With All-Big 12 guard Keenan Evans among five seniors gone after last season, along with high-soaring freshman forward Zhaire Smith for early entry in the NBA draft, the Red Raiders got older again with two grad transfers who became full-time starters — Mooney and 6-10 post Tariq Owens from St. John’s.
It didn’t take long for the older newcomers to blend in with their new team.
“For me, it’s just proving yourself all over again to a new group of guys, your teammates and your coaches,” said Mooney, who has averaged 11.0 points and made 38 percent of his 3s while starting every game.
Mooney also earned a new nickname for his approach to the game and his competitiveness.
“He overthinks things. He’s a perfectionist. The great thing about him is he is detailed-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,” Beard said.
“On the flip side, it can get annoying from time to time. So (guard Davide Moretti) gave him the nickname professor. ‘All right, Professor. You’re right on everything.’ Those guys have a special relationship.”
And a special season.