TRAXLER: Rooting for Mooney is an easy call at Final Four
MINNEAPOLIS—Matt Mooney's story at the NCAA Final Four this week has been hard to avoid.
As a graduate transfer who left the University of South Dakota for Texas Tech, Mooney has been a face of one of the most talked about rules in the history of college basketball. He's also one of the main regional connections in the Twin Cities, which had the chance to welcome back Kentucky's Reid Travis, Duke's Tre Jones and Gonzaga's Geno Crandall for the sport's biggest stage. None of those guys made it, but Mooney did.
But Mooney, the 6-foot-3 guard who is the Red Raiders' third-leading scorer, has seemingly handled it all in stride. He admitted Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium, ahead of Saturday's national semifinal contest against Michigan State, that it's been pretty wild. But his outgoing and personable coach Chris Beard has encouraged the team to smell the roses and take it all in.
"Coach talks about two things on this trip: You know, smell the roses, enjoy the trip, enjoy it all, enjoy the attention, enjoy the scene and the people," Mooney said of Beard, who calls his player "The Professor." "But at the same time, we have to be us. When it comes time to practice, film, it's time to lock in. It's been pretty cool."
Maybe there's a few holdouts who are still bitter that Mooney departed the Coyotes after a Summit League championship game loss a year ago and a 26-9 record. Based on the social media feedback from the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight, there's not many South Dakota fans holding a grudge, however.
That's good. Mooney clearly took advantage of an opportunity to challenge himself. Aside from taking the Coyotes to the NCAA tournament, Mooney had accomplished as much as he could at USD and still had more to give.
Mooney admitted that he feels in some ways that he let some people down at USD but appreciated the support he's gotten from folks in a different shade of red.
"That community means so much to me, they don't even know," Mooney said, who mentioned he hopes to get back to Vermillion after the season. "The fact that they're pulling for me really makes me happy. I really struggled leaving South Dakota because I love the people there, and I love my teammates so much. It was really hard."
He said that he knew Texas Tech would challenge him in a way that would make him uncomfortable but a better player.
"There's certain programs I could have gone to that have the same role I had at South Dakota; they needed a scorer and I could just come in and do my thing," he said. "But at Texas Tech, I got out of my comfort zone, I really had to defend, be a playmaker, a passer."
Mooney is a rare connection for the state of South Dakota to the Final Four. You'd have to go back to—who else?—Mitchell native Mike Miller to find the last true connection to the state to make the Final Four during that memorable 2000 run to the championship game with the Florida Gators.
Mooney has seemingly walked the line this week between his two schools about as well as possible. He spoke glowingly about both Beard and former coach Craig Smith, and Mooney has represented the Coyotes well.
The chance for South Dakota residents to root for someone that represents the state well—both in the past and present—is a good thing.