Texas Tech Elite Eight bound with chance for much more

Texas Tech Elite Eight bound with chance for much more
Chris Beard and Tech look mean again. Sarah Stier/Getty Images

It took a while for anything resembling offense to appear but when the 40 minutes were over the Texas Tech Red Raiders were headed to the Elite Eight once again.

It was the top two defensive teams in the country and you could tell. Michigan had their lowest output ever in the first half of a tournament game managing just 16 points to Texas Tech's 24. Even the trek to 24 by Texas Tech involved a lucky turnaround three with the shot clock expiring by guard Matt Mooney. Sure, luck on those three, they were gritty and determined the rest of the game on their way to a 63-44 win.

Texas Tech absolutely has a path to playing not only in the Final Four in Minneapolis, but the title game. Defense this time of year can sour even the most impressive of offenses and if Texas Tech can lean on Jarrett Culver just a couple more times there's hope for three more games on the schedule.

An unlikely spot to find the Red Raiders after losing six of their top eight scorers last year including consensus All-American Keenan Evans and the 16th overall pick in last year's NBA draft Zhaire Smith. But the Red Raiders are back in the Elite Eight for the second time in school history with a team even better than last year's surprising squad. Chris Beard's dogged determination to make life hard on offenses has paid off. The best defense left in the tournament belongs to the Red Raiders.

Standing in their way is one of the most impressive Gonzaga teams in recent memory. The Bulldogs dispatched Florida State in a revenge game from the previous year. The Red Raiders have the athleticism to hang with Gonzaga and the defense to throw the Bulldogs top-ranked offense into disarray. It wouldn't be easy but it isn't out of the question to see Texas Tech score just enough to sneak into the school's first ever Final Four.

Should they escape the showdown with their region's number one, a likely rematch with Duke would await. Texas Tech and Duke played earlier in the year and it was an early test for the Blue Devils and the first loss for the Red Raiders who had led at halftime. The Blue Devils poured it on while the Red Raiders offense went cold and the showdown in Madison Square Garden went to Zion Williamson and company.

Thinking Duke and beyond is ahead of ourselves though. Gonzaga is the next test. Loaded with athleticism top to bottom and a coach who has been to the tournament twice as many seasons as Beard has been a head coach the Bulldogs are the toughest team Texas Tech has faced all season besides Duke.

Of all the team's headed to the Elite Eight, four more punch their ticket Friday, Texas Tech might be low on the list of the likely contenders. Maybe even seventh in the likely pecking order of potential champions. Being picked seventh suited the Red Raiders just fine before the season, surely they won't mind it again.

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The Astros are back in action Friday night against the A's. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

The Astros need to whip up on the Oakland A’s this weekend in California as they did in sweeping four from them last week at Minute Maid Park. That was the start of a homestand which ended up with seven wins in 10 games. That goes down as a successful homestand, especially since it felt like the Astros’ prior winning homestand came while Donald Trump was President (it actually started in late July). Still, 7-3 doesn’t feel like a smashing success with it ending by dropping two of three games to the lowly Los Angeles Angels.

It is not exactly with bated breath that anyone should be waiting on Jose Abreu’s return to the lineup, but it’s coming. It should not be on this road trip. After the three games with the A’s the Astros move up the coast for a big four game set with American League West leading Seattle. The M's start all right-handed pitchers. That is no time to sit Jon Singleton to see if Abreu has managed to pump a few drops of gas into his tank while spending the better part of this month at the Astros’ minor league complex. It’s not as if Singleton has been stellar since Abreu’s departure, but by comparison, he’s been Lou Gehrig-esque. The series with the Mariners isn’t make or break but the Astros are strongly advised to get at least a split. That it should be Framber Valdez starting the opener Monday night doesn’t breed tremendous confidence, coming off his meltdown outing against the Angels. Another start, another opportunity.

The Mariners are at the Nationals this weekend, starting it a mere four and a half games ahead of the Astros. In four of the five other divisions the Astros' 22-28 record would have them at least 10 games off the lead.

One step forward, two steps back

Speaking of washed-up first basemen, Joey Votto should be a future Hall of Famer. The 40-year-old Canadian is trying to make it back to the big leagues via the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays. Votto was an absolutely tremendous player with the Cincinnati Reds. As the Beastie Boys said, “Ch-check it out.” Over Jeff Bagwell’s first ten seasons with the Astros he hit .305 with a .417 on-base percentage and .552 slugging percentage, yielding a phenomenal .970 OPS. Over Votto’s first ten full seasons with the Reds: .313/.429/.540 for an exactly phenomenal .970 OPS. Where am I going with this? Read on!

Votto had phenomenal strike zone and bat control. He turned 30 during the 2013 season. That year Votto had 581 at bats. He popped out to an infielder once the entire season. Alex Bregman turned 30 the third day of this season. Bregman popped out to the shortstop four times in the Angels series. So much for Bregman’s “knob past the ball” epiphany that saw him hit three home runs over two games last week. Going into the weekend Bregman has one hit in his last 23 at bats. His season stats continue to be pitiful: a .209 batting average and .607 OPS. Bregman has only struck out once in the 23 at bats of his latest deep freeze. It’s that so much of his contract is feeble. There is a lot of season left for Bregman to build up to decent numbers, but one-third of the regular season will be complete after the Astros play the Mariners Monday night.

While Bregman’s season to date has basically been one long slump, Jose Altuve is in a funk of his own. Since blasting a homer Monday, Altuve is hitless in 12 at bats. Mini-slumps happen to everybody but Altuve’s woes trace back farther. Over his last 15 games, Altuve is batting .175. He last had more than one hit in a game May 5. He’s also drawn just two walks over those 15 games. It’s tough to ever sit Altuve, but he’s probably playing a little too much. Altuve turned 34 earlier this month. He has started 48 of the Astros 50 games at second base. Mauricio Dubon should be getting a start per week at second (and probably another at third given Bregman’s level of play). Over a full season not playing the field once per week still means 135 starts. Altuve should mix in some more at designated hitter (he has just one DH game so far this season). Wear and tear is a real thing, players don’t grow less susceptible to it as they get to their mid-30s.

King Tuck

On the flip side, Kyle Tucker! So far this season, he’s making himself as much money as Bregman is costing himself. Only Shohei Ohtani (1.069) starts the weekend action with an OPS higher than Tucker’s 1.060. The law of averages dictates that Tucker won’t finish as high as 1.060, but if he does, it would be the greatest full-length season offensive performance in Astros’ history. Jeff Bagwell posted an absurd 1.201 OPS in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. Yordan Alvarez came in at 1.067 in his 87 games played rookie season of 2019. Lance Berkman’s 2001 was a monster. Enron Field was more hitter-friendly then than Minute Maid Park is now, but Berkman’s numbers were “Oh My Gosh!” spectacular. .331 batting average, 55 doubles (second in franchise history to Craig Biggio's 56 in 1999), 34 homers, .430 on-base percentage, .620 slugging percentage, and 1.051 OPS. And that was just Berkman’s second full season in the majors. Lance finished fifth in National League Most Valuable Player Award voting. Giant-headed Barry Bonds won MVP with his 73 home runs among other sicko stats.

* Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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