MINNEAPOLIS – It's that look on Matt Mooney's face that tells you he's got everything figured out. And maybe he does.
It's just a process of getting it all out of him. Texas Tech's senior guard is in his fifth season and on his third school. He once accused the Air Force Academy of bullying. He transferred to South Dakota where he became a two-time all-conference player.
It doesn't make much sense that he would cash that into transferring to one of the toughest defensive programs in the country.
"I walked up to him one time and said, 'Matt, you could really be a good defensive player,' said Craig Smith, his former coach at South Dakota. "He looked at me with this smirk. He had this undeniable smirk. He said, 'Coach, defense has never really been my thing.'
"You fast forward four years and he's on the all-Big 12 defensive team."
That's one of Mooney's dichotomies. He is a contrarian with floor burns. A (potential) fighter pilot at Air Force turned Red Raider. A kid from suburban Chicago thriving in West Texas.
Mostly, he's a 6-foot-3 guard who has been able to adapt to his surroundings.
"His brain is wired in different way, but that's what makes him so good," said Smith, who coached Mooney for two seasons at South Dakota before moving on to Utah State.
lost six of his top seven scorers. The Red Raiders were picked seventh in the Big 12. It's because of players like Mooney that Tech shared the league title and got to its first Final Four.
But first Mooney had to bend. This being his fifth season, he is one of the most experienced players in this Final Four. To get beyond that smirk, you have to consider that one lost year at Air Force, a transfer to South Dakota for two seasons and a grad transfer year spent at Texas Tech.
He went from mid-major Mountain West to low-mid major Summit League to Power Seven Big 12. That journey doesn't make him unique even in his own lockerroom. Three other teammates are transfers.
Don't call them outsiders. Call Texas Tech's accomplishments this season outlandish. All of it may not stop at Saturday's night semifinal against Virginia.
"I'm sure once I walk out there for the first time, it will hit home. I'm living a dream right now," Mooney said.
The baby-faced kid from Wauconda, Illinois began playing college basketball in 2014.
He has fit in at Tech as the third-leading scorer who can play point or shooting or combo guard. But how many players do you see at this level majoring in entrepreneurial studies?
That's Mooney who had a wild idea to open a restaurant/bar featuring flavored ice cubes.
Smith claims it went further than that.
"He has all these amazing ideas as an entrepreneur," Smith said. "He wanted to open a restaurant named 'Bug.' How is that appetizing? People don't associate good food with bugs."
The player nicknamed "The Professor" has had other ideas. Most of them so far have been bucking the system.
"I kind of realized I'm going to have a chance to play pro ball," Mooney said. "Entrepreneurial studies is something I was interested in that wasn't as time consuming."
There's no question about Mooney's smarts. He was bright enough to win a commission to the Air Force academy.
But he chafed under the culture, at one point telling the Chicago Tribune there was "bullying" at the academy. That drew a statement from Air Force sort of saying what Mooney was referring to is typical freshman year at the military academy.
"If you're not running on the way to breakfast, they'll make you do pushups," Mooney told reporters on Thursday. "I said bullying happens there sometimes. I was young and I was a little angry with some things that had gone on there. I said that but I shouldn't have said that."
During Mooney's redshirt year at South Dakota, Smith coached up a raw product. Mooney needed to improve his shooting, his decision making, cut down on his turnovers.
In consecutive seasons, he averaged 20 on a pair of 20-win teams.
But it's more layered than that. In going to Texas Tech, Mooney knowingly transferred to a program that was defense first. He couldn't have cut it with Beard if Mooney didn't buy in to the self-sacrifice that comes with being the third-best defensive team in the country.
"He's obviously taken it a step further at Texas Tech," Smith said. "A lot of people kind of know who they are, but maybe they're not quite as honest with themselves as they need to be. Matt has great self-awareness, what he is as a person and what he needs to have around him."
Credit Beard, one of those coaches who squeezes blood out of a tomato. Mooney became that glue guy, the team's third-leading scorer with a 6-8 wingspan who leads the Red Raiders in steals. Texas Tech is 10-0 when Mooney scores at least 14 points.
This is the same kid who chafed at the discipline of Air Force but bought into a "Junction Boys'-type trip before the season to the Circle 6 Ranch in Stanton, Texas – 103 miles south of Lubbock.
Inspired by Bear Bryant's border-line abuse of his players at Texas A&M in the 1950s, Beard really wanted to get away. No cell phones were allowed.
"We came up with idea if we could get the guys out of town every year before official practice starts, kind of set some goals, get to know each other, it could be a special thing," Beard said.
That's part of the reason why Texas Tech has a better than even chance of winning the whole thing.
Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett aren't walking through the door. Auburn is down to nothing but juniors and seniors with the loss of their best inside player, Chuma Okeke. It's possible no top 100 recruits from the 2018 recruiting class see a minute of playing time in this Final Four.
Mooney is one of them. South Dakota was able to activate that inner gym-rat. While he was building a reputation, the school was building a new basketball facility next to the 37-year old DakotaDome.
"It's one of the worst facilities in the country," Smith said. "All 16 sports practiced in there. He always struggled finding a place to work out. The court wasn't down until football was done. Then they had this [practice] court. One of our guys, when he would shoot, sometimes it would hit the roof.
"[But] you could see the arena going up. Rumor has it, Matt found a way to sneak into that new arena, he would just always prop open a door. I'm sure he didn't shoot with a hard hat on.
"He had enough of not finding gyms to ever go work out in. He'd broken in that new facility by sneaking in there. It drove him nuts when he couldn't find a way to work out."
Smith recalls specific details about Mooney's recruiting. A point of contention was Mooney's wingspan.
"Smith would always tell the media I had a 7-3 wingspan. That's not true at all," Mooney said. "I have long arms, not 7-3."
But it did figure into Mooney's arrival at Texas Tech. Last summer he has a cyst in one of his wrists that affected his shooting.
"I have to impact the game another way," Mooney said to himself.
That led to a new commitment to defense that he lacked at South Dakota. That fit the desire he showed at Air Force. Mooney may not have liked coach Dave Pilipovich's Princeton offense but he could take a punch.
Literally. Every Air Force cadet has to take boxing. If you don't win a match, you don't pass the class. Mooney was 4-1 in bracket, losing a "title" fight to his best friend.
"He says, 'I have my last boxing match. It's for the title,' Smith said. "Then I don't hear anything for a couple of days. I text him, 'Are you all right?' I hear a big sigh."
For once, the smirk was gone.