Texas Tech set for first round match-up with Northern Kentucky

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TULSA, Ok. (KOSA) -- One of the first steps in this journey started at a ranch in Stanton, Texas on a team retreat without media around but with communication about the steps that could eventually lead the Texas Tech basketball team back to the dance. At the time, unranked and with questions about how the team that had lost five seniors and a first-round NBA pick could return to the NCAA Tournament, coach Chris Beard spoke to the team about how staying committed and consistent throughout the season would keep them in the fight and could lead them back.

On Thursday in Tulsa, the process he spoke of before the first practice in October proved to be true as the team walked together into the BOK Center on the first day of the national tournament to talk to the media and conduct an open practice on the court where the No. 9-ranked Red Raiders will play Northern Kentucky at 12:30 p.m. on Friday in their first-round matchup.

"We never take this for granted," said Beard who has led the Red Raiders to a 71-30 record and to two straight NCAA appearances. "It's so hard to win games at our level and make the NCAA Tournament. It's something we just cherish, and our team this year was led by four seniors. I'm so proud to be back up here on this stage this year. Again, don't ever take this for granted but we start talking about programs versus team talking about consistency. Each team and coach has a different way to go about it. Our plan is our process. We've got a day-to-day process that went in from strength conditioning to individual work, to practice, to embracing academics, to an unselfish culture. Many things go into our day-to-day process."

The Red Raiders (26-6) are a No. 3 seed in the West Region and enter the national tournament ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press Top-25 after winning the program's first Big 12 Conference regular-season championship. The program is back in the tournament for the 17th time in its history and is making back-to-back appearances for the fourth time. It's the third time in the tournament for senior Norense Odiase and Beard, the second for Jarrett Culver, Davide Moretti, Brandone Francis, Parker Hicks, Andrew Sorrells, Avery Benson and Malik Ondigo and the first for graduate transfers Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens and also the first for sophomore transfer Deshawn Corprew and freshmen Kyler Edwards and Josh Mballa.

"We achieved heights that the school never reached before, and this year we're just ready to create our own story," Odiase said. "We have two seniors that's never been on this stage before and I'm very happy to get them there. We just want to build off this year, off what we did in the regular season, and continue to finish strong."

Mooney and Owens arrived in Lubbock as seniors having experienced personal success at previous schools but wanting to play in meaningful games in March. They both bought in during the recruiting process and at the team retreat before earning all-conference honors along the way to helping the Red Raiders back to the tournament. When the ball is tipped on Friday, Mooney and Owens will be playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in their careers and will see the promise Beard made them and the process he instilled come to fruition. On Thursday they were asked, does it feel real?

"This was our goal from day one," Mooney said. "But not just be here, to win the whole thing and take it one game at a time. But no, feels real. Coach wants us to soak it in, but at the same time get ready to play a game. We're starting to lock in now."

"Definitely feels real," Owens said. "Since we got here, we've been enjoying our time working, you know, and just feels great. This is great. Just feels great to achieve this goal."

Beard, who was named the Big 12 Coach of the Year for the second straight season, has now led three teams to the NCAA tournament – first in 2016 at Little Rock and now two years in a row at Tech. In front of a group of national media that gathered at the pre-tournament press conference, Owens was asked what brought him to Tech to play for Beard and the experience he's had this season.

"One of his methods is the process," Owens said. "You know, everybody from top to bottom, first guy to last guy, everybody is in the gym. Constant work every day. That's just the culture of our team. Everybody enjoys the work. Nobody gets tired of it. This is the main thing that brought me here. I enjoy the work. These guys up here with me enjoy the work. That's what we've been doing all year."

On Friday, that culture of being committed and consistent in the process will be in the spotlight together in Tulsa but also with the wealth of experience that has been gained on a daily basis in their home gym in Lubbock, at the retreat during the first week of October in Stanton, a scrimmage against Houston in Fort Worth, a preseason tournament in Kansas City, a matchup against Memphis in Miami, the showdown with Duke at Madison Square Garden, nine Big 12 Conference fights on the road and last week's conference tournament. Interview after interview with the NCAA March Madness backdrop behind them, the Red Raiders mentioned the process that got them here. It's been a true-telling approach by Beard they've heard every day along the way and a message they're ready to execute on Friday.

"It makes me happy that those guys use the same word," Beard said. "We don't really have a weekly plan or month plan. I've always been the guy that had a day-to-day plan. Our plan is to execute the process. This team has done that about as well as any team I've ever coached."

The game will air at 12:30 p.m. CT on TNT.