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Texas Tech returns to the Sweet 16 with win over Buffalo

Buffalo v Texas Tech

TULSA, OKLAHOMA - MARCH 24: Jarrett Culver #23 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders shoots over Dontay Caruthers #22 of the Buffalo Bulls during the first half of the second round game of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at BOK Center on March 24, 2019 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

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When Chris Beard was hired by Texas Tech in 2016, the program had been to one NCAA tournament since 2007. They had not won a tournament game in 11 years and were coming off of a run where they reached the Sweet 16 just twice in four decades.

After the No. 3-seed Red Raiders steamrolled Buffalo, 78-56, in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday, Beard has matched that number of Sweet 16s in three seasons on the job.

The incredible part of this run is not Beard catching lightning in a bottle in a pair of tournament runs. It’s quite the opposite, actually. The Red Raiders won a share of the Big 12 regular season title this year, joining Kansas State as the two teams that found a way to put an end to Kansas’ 14-year run atop the league.

They did that in a season where they lost four starters and six of their top nine players, including first-team all-Big 12 performer Keenan Evans and first round pick Zhaire Smith, the latter coming a year earlier than anyone in the program initially expected. And if we’re going to be honest here, I will go to my grave saying that last year’s Elite 8 team would have won the Big 12 regular season title outright if it were not for an unfortunately timed broken toe for Evans.

He finds talent where others don’t see it, and he is as good at anyone at not only developing the players within his program, but maximizing their effort level while putting them in positions to be effective.

The perfect example of this is Jarrett Culver. An underrecruited wing out of Coronado HS in Lubbock, Culver arrived at Texas Tech as a three-star recruit that no one else in the Big 12 was all that interested in. After a solid freshman season, Culver exploded as a sophomore. He finished the season averaging 18.8 points, 6.4 boards and 3.8 assists while going from playing a role off the ball to becoming Tech’s primary initiator. He’s played his way into being a top 10 pick in the draft, and nothing about his performance in the first weekend of this tournament will dissuade anyone from drafting him.

Culver went for 16 points, 10 boards, five assists, two blocks and two steals in the win over Buffalo. That came two days after he popped off for 29 points, eight boards and seven assists against Northern Kentucky.

He’s been one of the best players in the sport all season long, and he is now the focal point for an offense that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough.

And that’s the other part of Beard’s program that should be celebrated.

After spending the first three months of the year as a team that had to win games in the low-60s to have a chance, they’ve grown into one of the more dangerous offenses left in the tournament. That’s because of how well they can shoot the ball. The lineups that have been the most effective for Tech of late feature Culver playing at the four with Matt Mooney, Davide Moretti and one of their other talented wings -- Brandone Francis, Kyler Edwards, Deshawn Corprew -- on the floor. It creates space everywhere and it has yet to hurt them defensively.

I say all that to say this: Texas Tech has a very real chance of getting to the Final Four this year.

Who saw that coming in November?