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Lots of Love

Why should we embrace Aggie basketball? Let me count the ways.

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ANAHEIM, Calif.--On the eve of the Sweet 16, a national columnist for FoxSports.com penned a tongue-in-cheek story ranking the remaining teams in the NCAA Tournament on a "likeability" scale. Stewart Mandel, the author, meant no harm with his piece, but it was hard not to notice that he slotted Texas A&M in 13th place.

The Aggies were deemed more likeable than only Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina, with teams like Kansas, Notre Dame, Villanova, Iowa State and many others ranking higher.

Thirteenth? Surely even Mandel's fake ranking must be a mistake?

There is so much to love about this Texas A&M basketball team that it's hard to decide just where to begin. Let's start with:

The heart of this team--How else can you explain one of the most miraculous comebacks in the history of sports? Being down 12 with less than a minute to go sent fans streaming toward the exits and television viewers firing up their Netflix.

But then lightning struck. Several times. The insane rate at which the Aggies scored in the final half-minute of the game--A&M equaled its entire first half field goal output in that brief span--doesn't happen without a group of coaches and players who never stopped believing.

How much do A&M's coaches believe in their team? The staff made it a point early in the season to openly talk about the Final Four in Houston. A&M (28-8) is now two games away from achieving that goal.

"We've talked about it all year," said coach Billy Kennedy. "We've talked about it, but it starts with the next game. We broke down the last six games of our SEC schedule into three separate weeks, and we just want to go 2-0. It's the same this week."

The coach--There has not been a more maligned figure in Aggie athletics in the last few years than Billy Kennedy. He's overcome a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, a depleted roster, furious fans and several unfortunate losses to now lead a team that is in the discussion for the best in program history. Through it all, Kennedy has maintained an unwavering faith and continued to coach the program his way.

 

Head coach Billy Kennedy.

Photos by Thomas Campbell, courtesy of Texas A&M Athletics.

"He's trying to make us better before he worries about himself every day," said Alex Caruso. "He's trying to get us better as a team and better as individual people and players. Knowing that he has our back is assuring and gives us a lot of confidence."

The hugs--Perhaps the sweetest image from the aftermath of A&M's win against Northern Iowa was Danuel House climbing into the stands to hug and hold his 9-month-old daughter. Cameras also captured fellow senior Jalen Jones embracing his mom and dad amongst the euphoria. And there wasn't a dry eye between Alex Caruso and his father, Mike, in the A&M locker room when Alex interrupted his own press conference to make sure he could hug his father. They were all special moments, on a special night, for a special team.

The cigars--Former A&M Yell Leader and longtime Aggie basketball season ticket holder Sam Torn was asked by Kennedy to address the team prior to the Nov. 25 against Texas in the Bahamas. During his speech, Torn unveiled three cigars. He told the team he was saving the first cigar to celebrate an Aggie victory that night ("This one will be for our fans, because we hate the Longhorns," Torn said). The second would be to commemorate the team making the Sweet 16 ("I'm not going to waste it on just making the tournament, because we are too good for that.")

 

Sam Torn and sophomore Tavario Miller celebrate in the stands following the Aggies' improbable second-round comeback win over Northern Iowa.

Photos by Thomas Campbell, courtesy of Texas A&M Athletics.

Sure enough, late on Sunday night as jubilant A&M fans celebrated in the stands in Oklahoma City, Torn was right in the middle of it, chomping on an (unlit) cigar after the Aggies made the Sweet 16.

And what about the third? "It's for the Final Four," said Torn.

If the Aggies win two games in Anaheim, you'll no doubt see Torn in the crowd at the Honda Center, a cigar proudly in his mouth.

The history--How many fans thought they would witness A&M cut down the nets at Reed Arena to celebrate a conference title? That was the reality on March 5 after the Aggies upended Vanderbilt on the final day of the regular season to win the Southeastern Conference title. A&M is now one win away from the school's first ever Elite 8. Add in the miracle comeback a few days ago, and Aggie fans have been treated to a pretty special season.

The opponent--Every basketball fan in the nation knows about Oklahoma's Buddy Hield. The Sooners' spectacular scorer is nominated for virtually every major award and dropped a career high 46 points at Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse during a triple overtime loss in early January. The Sooners (27-7) have been media darlings ever since, setting the stage for A&M's all-important game Thursday at 6:37 p.m.

The seniors--What a legacy A&M's veterans are leaving. The gritty Caruso is the four-year player who has blossomed into being one of the best in school history. House and Jones are both two-year players who have come from other programs in Texas to win a conference championship. And, prior to last week, graduate transfer Anthony Collins was the only Aggie with NCAA experience. In his only year in College Station, he owns a 3-to-1 assists-to-turnovers ratio and has provided leadership to a team making its first March Madness appearance since 2011.

 

Seniors Jalen Jones and Danuel House.

Photos by Thomas Campbell, courtesy of Texas A&M Athletics.

"Look at the teams that are advancing and you'll see that seniors are huge this time of year," Kennedy said. "They are guys who understand they are playing maybe their last game and embrace the opportunity of playing in a tournament and embrace what the coach is telling them. That's a huge advantage."

The freshmen--A&M's explosive seniors often steal the show, but freshmen Tyler Davis, Admon Gilder and D.J. Hogg have pushed the Aggies to title contenders. The bulky Davis has started 33 games, scoring 11.1 points and 6.2 rebounds and provides a force in the paint that the program hasn't had since Joseph Jones. Gilder and Hogg both play more than 18 minutes per game, and Kennedy is not afraid to have either player on the floor during the final minutes. The three youngsters are also a sign Kennedy's program will continue to be in the mix in future years.

And that's particularly easy to love.

 

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2016 NCAA Tournament Regional Coverage

"We want Texas A&M to have the best programs across the board and have programs we can all be proud of.

It's a real pleasure for us to do this, because I think back about all the support Aggies have given me. No one accomplishes everything in life by themselves, and A&M and the Aggie network have definitely been there for me throughout my life."

Jack and Michele Lafield