In 2018, when the Texas Tech Red Raiders made their first men's Elite Eight appearance, Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens were attending schools 800 and 1,800 miles away. At that moment, they were nothing more than standout players in different areas of the country.
Oh, what a difference one year makes.
After last season ended, Mooney and Owens transferred to the Big 12 school as graduates and braced a departure-rocked roster. Zhaire Smith was a surprise one-and-done, and the Red Raiders also lost five important seniors from the rotation.
Given that Texas Tech's No. 2 returning scorer―Brandone Francis―averaged 5.1 points per game, it was reasonable to anticipate a sharp drop in overall performance. Combined with the superstar emergence of Jarrett Culver, the arrivals of Mooney and Owens helped the Red Raiders remain a nationally competitive team.
But this? No. Not everyone envisioned they'd improve upon last season's historic finish with the program's first Final Four run.
"To be honest, I don't think we expected all of this to happen," Francis said on the Dan Le Batard Show before Saturday's 61-51 win over Michigan State in Minneapolis. "We knew we was a little bit talented, but it's an amazing feeling for us to be in this position we are right now."
Thanks to the grad transfers, Texas Tech isn't finished. How the pair ended up here, though―lifting the program to a date with Virginia for the national title on Monday―is simply remarkable.
Owens initially played at Tennessee, spent two seasons at St. John's and decided to play his last year at Texas Tech. Mooney began his college career at Air Force and then earned a pair of first-team All-Summit League honors before he landed in Lubbock.
On a night when All-American guard Culver struggled offensively and ended a meager 3-of-12 from the floor, Mooney and Owens carried Texas Tech to the triumph over the Spartans.
During the first half, Owens showed off his trademark skill and swatted a couple of shots. While at St. John's, the spring-loaded forward twice led the Big East in blocks per game. He ranked second in the Big 12 this season.
Owens added a third block before an ankle injury limited his remaining impact, but he still tallied seven points and four rebounds along with that much-needed defensive production.
And immediately after Owens hobbled off the floor with 14:43 left to play, Mooney stole the show.
The senior scored 13 of Texas Tech's next 18 points. Mooney propelled the Red Raiders to a 13-point edge, their biggest lead of the game. He finished the night with a game-high 22 points.
"The basket just got big for me," he told reporters.
Granted, a ton of credit should go to Texas Tech coach Chris Beard. He identified and recruited the talent―that includes Mooney and Owens―and has engineered the most efficient defense in the 18-year history of KenPom.com data.
Plus, Culver shook his icy shooting night with a clutch stretch in the closing minutes. After MSU made it a one-point game, he scored six straight points to seal the victory.
But the Red Raiders wouldn't have been in that position without the transfers.
"It's been a heck of a journey," Mooney said after the game, drastically understating the paths both he and Owens traveled.
And now there's only one obstacle between Mooney, Owens and their pursuit of the ultimate final stop: the first national championship for Texas Tech men's basketball.