ANAHEIM, Calif. — As Texas Tech made its way through the Honda Center corridor Thursday after holding Michigan to 44 points — the lowest-ever tally for the Wolverines in the NCAA tournament — Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” thumped so loudly in the team’s locker room that the doors rattled.
The Philly rapper’s ode to overcoming the odds — “I used to pray for times like this/To rhyme like this/So I had to grind like this” — could be the theme for a program that’s reached the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season under third-year coach Chris Beard.
Now, Texas Tech, which plays the best defense in America, will face Gonzaga, the best offense in the country, in a Saturday battle that could send the Red Raiders to the first Final Four in the history of the program.
“Yeah, I’m already kinda shaking, thinking about how good Gonzaga is, but I didn’t know they were the best team offensively,” Beard told ESPN after the game. “I’ve got great respect for their coach and their program, as does everybody in our locker room. We’ll have to guard at a high level because that’s who we are. I’ve always thought when you get to this tournament you’ve gotta be who you are. That’s obviously who we are, and we gotta figure out a way to score some points, too.”
It’s easy to forget about the West Regional.
Zion Williamson is not in Anaheim. North Carolina and Kentucky are elsewhere, too. Tennessee and Purdue staged one of the best games of the year on Thursday. They played in Louisville, where Virginia also held off a game Oregon team. The bulk of the sexy, pre-Final Four storylines include teams that did not make the trip to the Honda Center, a 3.5-mile drive from Disneyland. Yet Saturday’s meeting between Gonzaga and Texas Tech will be a stat freak’s dream. Gonzaga, the nation’s most efficient offensive team, and Texas Tech, the country’s most efficient defense — all attributes equally supported by ESPN Analytics, Synergy Sports and KenPom alike — will compete in the most intriguing battle of the weekend.
“We haven’t watched any film on them yet,” projected lottery pick Jarrett Culver said. “We was just focused on Michigan, but, we know [Gonzaga is] a great team, one of the best teams in the country, so we’re gonna have to play one of our best games to compete with them.”
There was notable offense for Tech — Culver poured in a game-high 22 points and fellow guard Davide Moretti added 15 just hours after viral video surfaced of Moretti’s family surprising him with a visit from Italy — but as usual with this team, it was defense that carried the day.
On Thursday, the Red Raiders made history for Michigan basketball (the bad kind), which missed its first 18 3-point attempts. This all came after Buffalo, which was averaging 84.5 PPG and had scored 91 points in the first round against Arizona State, was held to just 58 points against Texas Tech in the second round. Northern Kentucky, Buffalo and Michigan averaged just 53.0 PPG against Texas Tech, a team that has held seven teams under 50 points this season.
“You know, whoever we play, it’s going to be just a phenomenal defensive team,” Mark Few said after Gonzaga’s win over Florida State without knowing which team he’d face in the Elite Eight. “And probably just as hard or harder to score than it was [Thursday]. So we’re going to have to really buckle down and be tough.”
The hype surrounding this matchup will not surpass the hype around the other Elite Eight games.
Virginia can complete the exorcism of last season’s demons and a first-round loss to UMBC with a Final Four run. The Cavaliers will face a Purdue squad that somehow lost a talented senior class and still managed to enter Saturday’s game just one win from the program’s first Final Four appearance since 1980.
Some combination of Duke, Virginia Tech, Kentucky, Houston, North Carolina, Auburn, LSU and Michigan State will create more nationally relevant matchups Sunday than anything that will unfold Saturday.
Let’s just be honest.
Gonzaga versus Texas Tech can’t compete. But if you believe the numbers, no other Elite Eight encounter will top the purity of the one that will be staged in Anaheim. We might see Culver and Texas Tech suffocate a Gonzaga squad that won seven West Coast Conference games by 30 points or more. Or, we could see the Bulldogs and their two projected first-round picks, Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura, reel off a crippling run and dominate Texas Tech, as it has other opponents throughout the season.
It’s an efficiency-fueled meeting with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
Does it get much better than that? Not for the analytics acolytes.
“We show our team clips of winning basketball,” Beard said. “We show a lot of Gonzaga clips. Their passion, their togetherness, their courage, how aggressive they are. At this point, I’m a fan, and here in the next hour or so, I’ve got to flip that and start to get ready to try to prepare against them.”