LUBBOCK, Tex. — Is it true? Is there a living, breathing men’s Final Four berth tucked out here like a pot of gold way down the horizon of westbound U.S. Route 84, beyond the pump jacks sticking up like praying mantises, past the wind turbines, past where the ground seems to redden and the towns have names like Roscoe, Slaton and Post?
Really? Everybody knows about the women’s Final Four of 1993, when the championship game went Texas Tech 84, Ohio State 82, Sheryl Swoopes 47, and Swoopes’s total counted for Tech. But a men’s Final Four, among the wide, windy boulevards and the Torchy’s Tacos and the music department with the football yard lines on its parking lot so the marching band can practice with precision?
If this seems a worthy place for a little surrealism, well, the 230,000-odd people who live here seem to be feeling just that. They’re adapting to one of those truths hard to process because it previously had occurred precisely never. The whole thing is almost absurdly fresh.
By Thursday in Minneapolis, senior center Norense Odiase from Fort Worth said, “To be here is a surreal feeling.”
Freshman guard Kyler Edwards from Arlington, Tex., said, “It’s amazing because you get here and you see the band and just knowing that you’re here is amazing.”
Junior reserve Andrew Sorrells from Richland Hills, Tex., who has been around four seasons, said, “Right, it’s been really, I mean, it’s been so surreal. You don’t realize, I mean, every day and you’re like, ‘Oh, wait, we’re really in the Final Four. We’re in the Final Four. Wow.’ It’s super-surreal. When I was a freshman it was just, ‘We’re trying to get to the tournament. Trying to get to the tournament.’ ”
He said, “I mean, I’m gonna be honest. I’m a pretty optimistic person, but I did not see us in the Final Four.”
His grandfather Kent Hance, the former U.S. congressman and Texas Tech system chancellor from 2006 to ’14 with a lucky Red Raiders jacket, tweeted last weekend, “I still can’t believe that we are headed to the Final Four. Even though I knew [third-year Coach] Chris Beard could do it I still have to let it soak in.”
Men’s Final Four berths, of course, come to basketball aristocracies in Lexington, Ky., or Durham or Chapel Hill, N.C., or, of late, suburban Philadelphia. They get sprinkled around Texas sparingly as would befit a state which reveres a ball with two points on the ends: five to Houston between 1967 and 1984; here and there early on to Baylor, SMU and Texas; Texas Western with a title in 1966; and only one other to any program in the state since 1984 (Texas in 2003).
Now, through the toil of Beard — who on Thursday became the first coach from a Texas school to win Associated Press national coach of the year — and a rugged, personable team that overcame a Gonzaga giant, Texas Tech is in a Final Four, and if you repeat that just enough, you might coax yourself into believing it.
Rather suddenly, people are running around planning 1,136-mile road trips up through Oklahoma, Kansas City and Iowa to Minneapolis. Rather suddenly, as Varsity Bookstore general manager Andrew Cicherski noted “a bit of an increase” in sales and said, “Spring football games, nobody’s talking about it.”
The merry sacrilege of it.
Texas, West Texas and Texas Tech surely reserve their foremost excitement for when the ball is a prolate spheroid. “No, it’s not going to change it,” said the former 30-year high school coach Randy Dean, who coached Texas Tech star Jarrett Culver at Lubbock Coronado High. “All of us in this part of the world realize that it’s King Football. But that doesn’t mean basketball can’t be exciting and successful.”
That excitement might not bowl over a visitor in a college town so large, but it’s there in the bloodstream and the hallways.
“I know there are people looking all over the Internet for tickets,” said Jacqueline Bober, the curator of the Buddy Holly Center, probably Lubbock’s leading cultural attraction. “There are carloads of people going north, and busloads of people. The airport’s probably crowded with people trying to get out of town, too. There are going to be a lot of watch parties around town, for people who can’t make that trip.”
Sorrells, the junior guard, said, “I have a guy who leads a Bible study, he said he goes to work and it’s all everybody’s talking about. The city’s like it’s on fire. Everybody’s talking about Tech basketball. I go to class, and I mean, walking down the halls toward class, everybody’s talking about, ‘How am I gonna get to Minneapolis? How am I gonna get to Minneapolis?’ ”
When he returned with the team from the West regional in Anaheim early Sunday, the scene at 2:30 a.m. became — “I mean, it took us maybe 10 minutes to get from our bus, 20 feet to the arena door, to drop off our bags,” he said. When he tweeted, “It’s 2:30 am in Lubbock and I’m convinced not one person is asleep,” that former chancellor and congressman tweeted the next morning, “One of the best days of my life!!!”
Sorrells entered his business law class on Monday having completed his assigned case study on the nighttime flight home from California. The professor admonished those students who had not completed theirs: “She was like, ‘Well, he was in Anaheim and got back, what time, two-thirty? There’s no excuse for anybody else not to have it done.’ And she goes, ‘And this guy needs a standing ovation.’ ”
If basketball can elbow its way in with the usual football and a baseball team that reached the College World Series in 2014, 2016 and 2018, it helps that Beard’s team seems to fit with that team’s town. The 46-year-old coach, who arrived in 2016 after fashioning a résumé so peripatetic it’s tiring just to read, then announced an intent to reach a Final Four — yeah, whatever — has players rich in grit, in the privilege of being underappreciated, and in a sensibility Texas Tech has known while inhabiting a state with haughtier sorts from Texas and Texas A&M.
As Dean, Culver’s high school coach, put it, “It really fits together very, very well,” he said of Beard’s team and Lubbock. “Lubbock is a good-sized place but not a big city that has all the drawing cards. He’s built it on these guys who were willing to look at the program, have a dream about what could happen, and then put in the work and effort to try to make that dream come true.”
Specifically, that applied to Culver, the 6-foot-5, all-the-skills NBA prospect who stayed home even when others offered. His older brother, J.J., plays for a strong Wayland Baptist NAIA program 47 miles away, and still-older brother, Trey, merely won two NCAA indoor championships in the high jump.
Among the four starting lineups set for Minneapolis, and the four sets of major bench players, Jarrett Culver would be the only one playing in his hometown. It fits. Dean cites his “ability to score the ball, handle the ball, vision to pass the ball and work hard on defense,” his “great IQ about the game,” his “unselfishness,” the fact he “doesn’t mind taking the shot but at the same time” giving it up if that’s the better option, his “grit.” Said Dean, “He’s literally lived it, I guess, since he was very young. This is what he always wanted to do.”
It’s just that nobody around thought all that much about doing it this big and this far.