|Texas Tech hopes to kick-start tourney run vs. Northern Kentucky|
Texas Tech made a spirited dash in last season's NCAA Tournament and fell one win shy of reaching the Final Four.
The Red Raiders are looking to better that showing this year, beginning with Friday's first-round contest against 14th-seeded Northern Kentucky in West Region play at Tulsa, Okla.
Texas Tech (26-6) is the third seed in the West, and neither No. 1 Gonzaga nor No. 2 Michigan is viewed as an unbeatable obstacle.
Particularly for a gritty squad of Red Raiders that held 12 opponents under 55 points and ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense (59.3).
Senior center Norense Odiase was part of the squad that lost to eventual champion Villanova with a Final Four berth on the line last year, and he is eager for another opportunity.
"It's something you work your tail off for," Odiase told reporters. "The ultimate goal is like it's obtainable now."
The Red Raiders also have the type of star offensive player a team needs to navigate the March Madness terrain in sophomore guard Jarrett Culver, who was named Big 12 Player of the Year.
The Lubbock, Texas product is averaging 18.5 points with 11 efforts of 20 or more points. His stock has risen to where he is a possible top-10 NBA draft choice should he leave Texas Tech following the campaign.
"He's just one of the best players in college basketball," Red Raiders coach Chris Beard recently told reporters. "He's gotten so much better from Year 1 to Year 2. Shoot, he gets better from last week to this week. He's always working on his craft.
"His talent? The whole world can see. But the things people are starting to understand is the championship DNA, the unselfishness, the toughness and what a great teammate he is."
Northern Kentucky (26-8) will look to slow Culver as it makes its second NCAA appearance in three seasons as a full Division I program.
The Norse put up a good fight against Kentucky before falling 79-70 in the 2017 tournament. Horizon League Player of the Year Drew McDonald feels his team is ready to post a stunning upset.
"There's a lot of belief in that room right now," McDonald told reporters. "I said before, we're special. There's something special about that team. We've had a great few days of practice before we knew who our opponent was. Now that we know our opponent, they'll be even better.
"I don't think we're done yet. We'll go out Friday and play good basketball."
McDonald, a senior power forward, averages 19.1 points and 9.5 rebounds and will certainly need to be in top form for Northern Kentucky to pull a shocker.
But the Norse also have three others players averaging in double digits in junior guard Tyler Sharpe (14.1), sophomore swingman Jalen Tate (14.0) and junior forward Dantez Walton (11.1).
Northern Kentucky's schedule was light -- a 78-65 loss to nearby Cincinnati marks the toughest opponent -- but confidence isn't lacking.
"As much as we've been through this year -- the adversity -- if anyone can, this group can," Tate told reporters. "The togetherness we play with and how hard we play. The coach (John Brannen) will come up with a great plan. We'll try to execute it."
However, the Norse are not a secret to Beard.
"I watch a lot of college basketball, so I probably know more about them than anybody in Lubbock," Beard said. "Have a lot of respect for their coaching staff and this program, relatively new to Division I and have been competing for championships since Day 1.
"...They're really good. Well coached. But everybody in this tournament is."
--Field Level Media