SALT LAKE CITY — On Tuesday night, on the eve before his predraft workout with the Utah Jazz, former Texas Tech guard Matt Mooney got a text from an old friend: Utah State coach Craig Smith.
“Go get them tomorrow,” the message read.
Smith coached Mooney for two seasons at South Dakota — two seasons that were among the best in South Dakota’s Division I history. Mooney was two-time all-conference player, Smith was a Summit League coach of the year. And then they both left.
Smith went on to rejuvenate Utah State's basketball program. Mooney, meanwhile, ended up in the Final Four and national championship game with Texas Tech. And that run showed just how close they were.
“That’s my guy. I love coach Smith,” Mooney said. “He did so much for me. He gave me a chance at South Dakota and let me play my game and develop me as a player. I think we will always be close … He was sitting front row at the Final Four.”
Mooney, who scored 22 points in Texas Tech’s win over Michigan State in the Final Four, said he did think about joining Smith at Utah State. But the allure of playing at the Power Five level against the best competition in college basketball was too hard to pass up.
That same desire is why he’d be more than happy to end up in Utah next season. Mooney still wants to play against the best.
His mindset would fit right in with the Jazz. Mooney transformed himself into a defensive player while in college.
"I walked up to him one time and said, 'Matt, you could really be a good defensive player,' said Smith told CBS Sports last month. "He looked at me with this smirk. He had this undeniable smirk. He said, 'Coach, defense has never really been my thing.’”
It was his thing by the end.
Mooney was part of the All-Big 12 defensive team and it was Texas Tech’s defense that pushed the Red Raiders all the way to overtime of the national championship game against Virginia.
He’s a defensive guy who is used to a defensive culture. No wonder he was so happy to work out the Jazz.
“That was our identity and that became my identity a little bit,” Mooney said. “Definitely at the next level, I want to bring that tough, that defense, wherever I play — hopefully it’s the NBA. You know, I think Utah is a team that plays defense, plays hard, plays tough and embodies that same thing. It was fun to be able to work out.”
How did the workout go?
Walt Perrin, the team's vice president of player personnel, said that Mooney shot the best out of the six players that were in for the workout. Perrin also pointed out that his basketball intelligence will pay off at the next level — where ever that ends up being.
“That’s not to say he can’t play in the NBA,” Perrin said. “Intelligence, ability to play with other teammates and making them better, any level that works.”
The group that also included Syracuse wing Tyus Battle, Notre Dame guard T.J. Gibbs, Miami big man Dewan Hernandez, Arizona wing Brandon Randolph and big man Mamadi Diakite from Virginia — the same Virginia that beat Mooney’s Texas Tech in the national championship game.
“He didn’t talk any smack, he’s a nice guy,” Mooney said. “If I were him, I probably would have talked smack but he didn’t talk any.”
Perrin said that Battle, who is seen as the top draft prospect in the group, showed that he could play defense — something Syracuse guys often have to prove during the pre-draft process — but didn’t shoot it as well as the Jazz thought he could.
“Tyus is a guy that, in more of a five-on-five situation, is able to get shots and get into the lane,” Perrin said. “He is more attuned to play better in five-on-five.”
Perrin also said that Diakite has the energy level, athleticism and length that is needed to play in the NBA.