2019 NCAA championship: Texas Tech's Final Four run is turning heads on campus and across the nation
The most interesting team in college hoops isn't on Tobacco Road, it's in Lubbock
MINNEAPOLIS – John Waccholtz has been home maybe one day since early March. First, that's a lot of re-washed underwear. Second, he doesn't care.
It comes with his profession as the driver of Texas Tech's team bus.
Waccholtz starts ticking off the towns he has visited since March 9 – Ames, Iowa, to Kansas City, to Tulsa, Oklahoma to Anaheim, California and finally here to Minneapolis. All of it because Texas Tech prefers that he and his bus be on every road trip to schlep the Red Raiders around.
Yes, it would be much cheaper to rent a team bus. Instead, it is part of Tech's championship make-up that a 50-year-old native Hawaiian meets the team on the road wherever it lands.
It's just another indicator that Texas Tech doesn't do anything easy.
"John drives us everywhere," Tech coach Chris Beard said. "It's a real peace for us. It's a comfort zone. You get off a plane in Manhattan, Kansas or Austin, there's John. There's a familiarity."
Yeah, but why? A quick Google Maps check shows that Waccholtz has traveled approximately 4,800 miles since leaving Lubbock, Texas for Iowa State, site of the team's last regular-season game on March 9.
Since then, nothing but hotels and hoops.
"I've been told it's good luck," Waccholtz said. "As far as I know, I'm the only one who does it."
If you're looking for a rooting interest Monday night in the national championship game, may we humbly suggest Texas Tech – a school and program full of quirks and conquests.
Duke isn't here. Michigan State looked like a pretender. Virginia is a half-court dullard. Why not the inspiration of a blue-collar West Texas town that doesn't quite know what to do with itself right now.
"There's not a lot of liquor left in that little part of [Texas]," said Don Allen, a 1981 Tech grad standing outside the team hotel on Sunday.
Beard is sort of numb to the outside world this time of year but he has gotten wind of what they're calling "Fandemonium." https://www.lubbockonline.com/news/20190407/fandemonium-lubbockites-celebrate---some-too-much---after-texas-techs-final-four-win
"A lot of good," he said of the student-fueled wild celebrations. "A little bit bad. I didn't like that."
Lubbock hasn't been this much on fire – OK, bad choice of words – perhaps since the Crabtree Catch -- Michael Crabtree's legendary tightrope grab for a touchdown to beat Texas in 2008.That season Tech rose to as high as No. 2 in the AP poll under Mike Leach.
Since then, there have some College World Series appearances and a stint by Bobby Knight, but none measure up to this moment. Think of Kliff Kingsbury's handsome looks translated into actual wins.
With that long drought in mind, consider Texas Tech's athletic timeline since October:
--Texas Tech was picked to finish seventh in Big 12 basketball.
--Former quarterback Patrick Mahomes was named NFL MVP.
--Kingsbury, his Tech coach, was fired.
--The Red Raiders helped break Kansas' 14-year Big 12 winning streak by sharing the conference title with Kansas State.
--Three weeks later, Texas Tech got to it first Final Four.
"I didn't think they were great or elite or anything like that," said Jarrett Culver, the team's star and Lubbock native. "Growing up as a young kid I never would have imagined."
Mahomes completed this recent whirlwind cycle by speaking to the team before Saturday's semifinal win over Michigan State.
The point is, no other program has an NFL MVP of such recent vintage dropping by the lockerroom. Mahomes, 23, was a classmate with current Tech center Norense Odiase.
"He's been the same way from the beginning to now," Odiase said. "Everything he's getting he deserves. He said that we were the underdogs. Nobody thinks that we can win. Prove then wrong like you've been doing all season."
Together, they're all making Texas Tech cool in real time. It is a school and program transforming before our eyes. AD Kirby Hocutt said applications for the 96-year old school are up 100 per day since the Sweet 16.
"It's going to have a profound impact on our entire university," he said.
Everywhere else the impact has already been felt. Daniel Charbonnet stood in the first row Saturday night reveling in the moment as U.S. Bank Stadium emptied out. The former Tech defensive back transferred from Duke and etched his name in its football history.
Charbonnet had a Pick Six in that 2008 Texas game.
Saturday night might have been better.
"Cotton fields and cornfields," he said, happily recalling Lubbock.
Charbonnet now works in Midland, Texas, the origin of what he said were at least 20 private planes that flew fans here from Texas' rich oil country.
"A group like this that is beating people that are better recruits than them or better rated than them or higher seeds than them is fantastic," Charbonnet said. "This is uncharted territory."
The Red Raiders are easy to like. They're good copy. They are a team that lost most of its top players off an Elite Eight team in 2018. The underdog label is easy to apply in a sport (usually) dominated by bluebloods.
"We don't have any prima donnas or jerks," Allen said. "They're tight, they're close. Some of them are very religious, some aren't. But they're all good kids. It's hard not to root for us."
"We're never going to have the biggest budget because our football stadium is not as big as our competitors," Hocutt added. "You know what, there's a culture and belief that we have an opportunity every night."
As for keeping Beard who is going to be the hottest name in college basketball, soon, if not now?
Texas Tech is historic and huggable. Waccholtz alone is a long-haul superstar. Laws dictate he can only be on the road 10 hours a day. After a combined 35-hour trip to Southern California, he made it to the Long Beach, California airport with only 45 minutes to spare.
Road trips from Lubbock to West Virginia take 2 ½ days. There's a reason Waccholtz was presented with a jewel-encrusted Elite Eight ring from 2018 at a team dinner this season.
When asked about his marital status, Waccholtz quickly shot back, "No, not with these hours. I have a girlfriend at home. As long she has direct deposit, she's happy."
Mostly, Texas Tech has proved it can play exciting basketball while sucking the life out an opponent, no matter what the cost.
Texas Tech fans took over U.S. Bank on Saturday. There were approximately 12,000-14,000 of them. Forward Tariq Owens rolled his ankle in one of those slow-motion replay jobs that turn the stomach. After X-rays, Owens returned to the floor. You'd have thought from the cheers he had just won a title fight.
"I would just explain to [people] we're a group of guys who never had anything given to us," Owens said. "We worked for this and I feel like we earned it."
Texas Tech's Davide Moretti has seen a new country through the windows of that team bus. He is the only native Italian to ever play in a Final Four. Italy knows about basketball. Does it know about Texas Tech?
"They do now," Moretti said.
They are a diverse team in another way havingas its anthem.
"The first you heard it, we thought it was a country song," Beard said. "Half our lockerroom was fired up then when it rips into hip hop, the rest are, 'This is perfect, man.' "
They are a team with a "defensive coordinator." Assistant Mark Adams' defensive strategies should open up head coaching opportunities for him in the near future.
"I boxed in Golden Gloves," Adams said. "We feel like every time down the floor is a fight and we want to throw the first punch."
We'll see if prospective employers dig into Adams' resume. He has also owned a pair minor-league hockey teams in Lubbock and Amarillo.
"It was a joke," Adams said of his title: general manager. "I knew nothing about hockey."
The basketball thing has worked out. Thanks to Adams, the nation's No. 3 scoring defense will face off against Virginia's No. 1 scoring defense.
As the NCAA signage around town constantly reminds: This indeed is the end of the road. From Ames, Waccholtz went directly to Kansas City for the Big 12 Tournament, then on to Tulsa for the NCAA Tournament first round.
Then there was a breezy 1,500-mile jaunt to Anaheim for the West Regional following by 1,900 miles back to here for the Final Four. That's not counting the back-and-forth to practices and driving the team to meals.
"The only thing that is new to me is what restaurant to eat at," Waccholtz said.
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