At the start of this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the prognosticators at statistical analysis site FiveThirtyEight gave Texas Tech a 14 percent chance of making it to the Final Four. Instead of supporting the number three seed in the West portion of the bracket, the odds were stacked in favor of the top-ranked Gonzaga or maybe the two-seed Michigan. But as the tournament has unfolded, Tech consistently defied the odds. Buoyed by a stifling defense, the Red Raiders have not only made it to their first Final Four in school history, but ended a statewide drought that’s extended since the 2003 Longhorns got knocked out in the penultimate round.
If you haven’t been following Texas Tech basketball closely, it’s okay—one of the purest joys of March Madness is picking a team to support as the field winnows, and it’s extra satisfying when the bandwagon you’re joining belongs to an underdog. While some might pick Auburn, a five-seed on the other side of the bracket, the fact that you’re not reading Alabama Monthly right now suggests that you’d prefer to root for the boys from Lubbock. Besides, Auburn’s football success makes it hard to ever view them as a true underdog. If your loyalties were divided entering the latest round—say between Tech and Houston, who were sadly eliminated over the weekend—then you’re probably eager to get up to speed. Here are the bullet points you need in order to fake your way through any Red Raiders watch parties you may be invited to—against Michigan State on Saturday night and perhaps beyond.
Why They’re So Good: Defense, defense, defense. The Red Raiders held Michigan to a miserable 44 points in the Sweet Sixteen round, a truly stifling number for a program as esteemed as the Wolverines to put up. In the weekend’s matchup over Gonzaga, the top seed fared better, putting up 69 points, a nicer—but still insufficient—showing. That was the first time in the entire tournament that a team broke 60 points against the Red Raiders, but Gonzaga’s offensive efficiency had been unmatched this season, making Tech’s showing still extremely impressive.
What Makes Them Fun to Watch: Throughout the tournament, Texas Tech has been one of the most enjoyable teams to watch, one of the two feel-good underdogs to emerge in this year’s men’s tournament (the other, Auburn, faces a tougher contest against the powerhouse that is Virginia). Tech has been winning games not just by playing well, but also by making their opponents look sloppy, which is its own kind of reward. The team iced the game against Gonzaga by drawing an improbable technical foul in the final seconds; in Michigan’s first fifteen possessions against the team, the Red Raiders held them to just six points, and accumulated a whopping six turnovers (they finished the game with fourteen). Michigan State boasts a dominant offense, but one prone to errors (they turned the ball over 22 times in the second round), which Texas Tech will be looking to exploit.
Who to Cheer For: The team’s best player, Jarrett Culver, is difficult to contain for an entire game, and even a smart first-half game plan often leads to a second-half breakout from the shooting guard. You can drop a line like that if you’re pretending that you’ve followed the team all season, but the most likable thing about Culver isn’t just his on-court efficiency. A Lubbock native, Culver was born and raised in the city where he’s played two seasons of college ball. (He’s expected to enter the draft after the tournament, where he’ll likely become the first top-five pick out of Texas Tech since Tony Battie in 1997.) There are plenty of people who decry the one-and-done culture of men’s college basketball, where players are rented by high-profile programs for a single season before entering the NBA, in order to comply with league rules. If you’re one of them, Culver is a fine antidote, a hometown player who was largely unheralded as a recruit, and whose emergence in the only city he’s called home makes him an easy player to rally behind.
The Takeaway: If your bracket busted, jumping on the Texas Tech bandwagon is easy this year. It’s a strong narrative: a team of underdogs from a state that’s struggled to be relevant in the men’s tournament over the past two decades, led by a hometown hero who’s emerged from obscurity to become a sought-after NBA prospect. We’ll find out on Saturday night of the Red Raiders can extend the magic for another game—or two—but either way, it’s fun to root for them.