NCAA Tournament primer: Texas A&M faces scorching-hot Penn State in opener. Will road end there?
Texas A&M basketball is in position to gain a little respect. For the first time in 4 seasons under head coach Buzz Williams, the Aggies are headed to the NCAA Tournament. It’ll be their 1st appearance since the 2017-18 season, a region semifinal run as a No. 7 seed, and just the 3rd since 2011-12.
The 25-9 Aggies enter as the SEC runner-up both in the regular-season standings and the SEC Tournament after winning 10 of their last 12 games. The Aggies are in as a No. 7 seed in the Midwest Region and will open Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa, against No. 10 seed Penn State.
Here’s a look at the Aggies’ opening opponent and a prediction of how far they’ll advance in the NCAA Tournament.
Scouting Texas A&M’s opponent
The Nittany Lions have come out of nowhere to reach their 1st NCAA Tournament since 2010-11. A No. 10 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, Penn State just kept on winning and earned its way to the finals before falling, 67-65, to Big Ten No. 1 seed Purdue, also the NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed in the East.
The Nittany Lions won 5 straight and 8 of 9 games heading into the Big Ten Tournament finals. At 22-13, Penn State is certainly playing its best basketball at the right time.
Top player: Jalen Pickett, guard
The 6-4 point guard isn’t your average distributor. He leads his team in both scoring (17.9) and rebounding (7.3) in addition to total assists (234) and steals (34). He was recently named Sporting News 2nd-team All-American, just the 2nd Penn State player ever to be named 2nd team or higher.
Pickett has a 40-point game, a 30-point game and 12 20-point games. His physical style of play allows him to back down opposing guards, while he also possesses the ability to find the open teammate. In addition to leading the Big Ten in assists, he finished 5th in the conference in scoring and 8th in rebounding.
What they do best
This is a scrappy team that will fight you to the end. It isn’t overly impressive statistically. It does a good job of protecting the basketball and won’t give up regardless of the situation. And it recently learned how to win games at the end. Confidence is at an all-time high.
Best win this season
The Nittany Lions’ 77-73 victory over No. 19 Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals might be their biggest. They also defeated Illinois 3 times this season, including a 74-59 road win back in December. The Lions are 3-3 against ranked teams, with all 3 losses to Purdue.
Most important thing to know about the Nittany Lions
Penn State will be the oldest team in the tournament. Four 5th-year seniors head the roster, along with a 4th-year senior and a 7th-year senior (Michael Henn).
Prediction: Penn State 67, Texas A&M 66
If the road ends here
The Aggies could be running into a buzzsaw in Penn State. It could prove to be one of the more challenging opening-round matchups. If the Aggies aren’t able to put up enough points to get past this juggernaut, it would put an end to a season that saw Texas A&M take that next step under Williams and finally make an NCAA appearance.
Of course, should the Aggies play their usual solid defensive game and happen to put 1 more point on the scoreboard, it could very well set up a highly anticipated 2nd-round game between Texas A&M and archrival Texas.
That’s what we’re hoping for.
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