2018 NCAA Tournament: Texas Tech reaches its first Elite Eight, way ahead of schedule

BOSTON -- It's been a historic 2018 NCAA Tournament. More of the unprecedented was created on Friday: Texas Tech is in the Elite Eight for the first time in program history.

You'll forgive Chris Beard for not being totally familiar with the phrasing.

"We just made the -- what's it called? The Great Eight?" Beard asked at his postgame press conference.

TTU senior star guard Keenan Evans clarified it for his coach: Elite Eight.

Three wins is a school record in the Big Dance, and Beard has pulled off the incredible in only two seasons at the helm in Lubbock. Third-seeded Texas Tech took out No. 2 Purdue in the East Regional semifinal 78-65 shortly after midnight on Saturday. It was impressive. They'll try to win as an underdog again on Sunday when they face No. 1 Villanova, which is playing like the best team in college basketball

The East Regional has a Wild West flair to it now that the Red Raiders can prepare for the first Final Four run in school history. A year after South Carolina did it, why can't TTU pull it off? Like South Carolina, TTU wins with defense. It's got a pair of really strong guards/wings with NBA potential, just like South Carolina of a year ago. 

But the comparisons may stop there. This team has quite the vibe going on. A redshirt freshman named Avery Benson was spotted rocking his customary black cowboy hat. Here he is after the game.

It was some celebration for the guns-up Red Raider faithful. They sang the school fight song in TD Garden, thousands of miles from home, cheering on Beard and his merry and lethal band of basketball assassins. Benson had to sit in the crowd with the fans because he didn't have the proper pass to allow him on the bench. After the win, the team mobbed him in celebration right next to press row. 

"Winning never gets old," Evans said. 

It's been a swift rise to the top for Texas Tech and Beard. The second-year coach got Little Rock to the NCAA Tournament two years ago. That was his first season as a Division I head coach. He advanced after beating Purdue, just like what transpired early Saturday morning. That Purdue upset was the win to put him on a zip line to his dream job -- right there in Lubbock, where he learned at the knee of Bob Knight more than a decade ago. 

Now Texas Tech is 40 minutes away from crashing a Final Four originating from where else, Texas, and how appropriate would that be? A team built on defense and charged with an attitude stemming from its coach, a man who took no shortcuts in his journey, is at the doorstep of the Final Four. 

Keenan Evans and freshman Zhaire Smith have turned things in a hurry. Texas Tech has a tremendous bench, but Evans and Smith are captivating players. What they did to Purdue was convincing. 

The right team is moving on. The best challenger from the bottom half of the East Regional will square up with Villanova at 2:20 p.m. ET on Sunday. 

There have been a lot of shocks in this NCAA Tournament, but in the wide lens of the season Texas Tech's Elite Eight run represents the biggest surprise in college hoops over the past four months. TTU was 18-14 a year ago, having gone 6-12 in the Big 12 and seemingly slowly building something. The NCAA Tournament was a hope, not a guarantee, for this group.

It started the season unranked but got to 14-1 and flew up the polls. It showed immediately that it was in a turnaround year and one of the best defensive units in college basketball. 

Now it's one of three Big 12 teams in the Elite Eight. On the right side of the bracket, the Kansas Jayhawks get Duke on Sunday. Texas Tech gets Villanova. The Big 12 -- which was the best conference in the country this season -- will have its two best teams tip off as underdogs. 

Yet a Kansas win over Duke and/or at Texas Tech defeat of Villanova wouldn't qualify as a shock. Making the Final Four would, but only in this context: it's Texas Tech basketball. It's not supposed to be this good or get this far. Conventional thought no longer applies, though. Not in this sport, in this tournament, in this year. The Red Raiders were built for a big run, it took a lot of people a long time to realize that. 

And now the biggest game in program history is less than 48 hours away. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his eighth season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics,... Full Bio

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