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NASHVILLE, Tenn.--Head coach Billy Kennedy had a simple message for the Texas A&M men's basketball team before the Aggies departed College Station on Wednesday.
The soft-spoken coach has certainly delivered hundreds of pre-practice and pre-game speeches in his 18-year career. But none have been in a situation quite like this, with his team fresh off a regular season title and surging into the postseason as a 1-seed with several more wins expected.
Kennedy's message was succinct and to the point.
"This is a great time of year," he said. "Tournament basketball is what it's all about."
Indeed, tournament basketball is the pinnacle of the sport.
And as the Aggies prepare for Friday's quarterfinal matchup against 8th-seeded Florida, a 68-61 winner against Arkansas on Thursday, all eyes will be on Kennedy's squad to see how it handles the pressure of again being the hunted.
Considering the entire arc of the season, which saw A&M blaze into the national top five in January only to suffer a steep fall in February, the irony is compelling.
How the Aggies handle the situation this time around will likely shed a bright light on how the team will stand up to the mega-watt lights of next week's NCAA Tournament. Against Florida, A&M will be playing a team desperate for a win to try and earn spot in the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies edged the Gators 71-68 in College Station on Jan. 12.
Senior Jalen Jones said the Aggies have learned from their mid-season swoon.
Photo courtesy Thomas Campbell.
"We learned it's an everyday process," said Jones, referencing the nasty stretch where A&M dropped five consecutive SEC games. "We have to continue to get better each and every day. We have to stay locked in and we can't overlook any opponent. (After the losing streak) we became more locked in and focused on the task at hand."
The task is a significant one.
A&M's history is littered with early departures in various conference tournaments. The Aggies have already achieved one postseason first this year by playing in the quarterfinals, thanks to the SEC Tournament awarding double-byes to its top four teams.
It has been six seasons since an Aggie squad played in a tournament semifinal and an astounding 29 years since the school appeared in a tournament final. That is a lot of history to overcome, but the Aggies have already ended one significant drought this season. The conference regular season title was the school's first since 1986.
A&M's unique lineup, with four senior starters and three heralded freshmen, is tailor-made to make waves in March.
Jalen Jones (15.8 points per game), Danuel House (15.3 ppg), Alex Caruso (school record holder in assists and steals) and Anthony Collins (4.5 assists per game) have set the tone for freshmen Tyler Davis, DJ Hogg and Admon Gilder.
"It's been a unique team," Kennedy said. "They sold out to each other and to the team and how we want to play. A lot of these guys have set their egos aside, and you have to have that to win during tournament time."
A&M's defense has been solid, holding five of its last six opponents to less than 69 points. The Aggies offense has scored 80-plus points in two of its last three contests, but Kennedy believes his team can get better on that side of the ball.
House and Jones, the Aggies two leading scorers, have only had one game out of the last 12 where they both scored 15 points.
If they both come alive, watch out.
"That's why I know we can play better," Kennedy said. "We are going to need both of them to be big for us if we're going to win the SEC Tournament or win in the NCAA Tournament. They've had some good games, but scoring wise, they've only had a couple where they've both had big numbers."
Jones, who transferred to A&M from SMU prior to last season, is soaking up the moment. His former school is banned from postseason competition this year, so he has an extra appreciation for his situation.
"When you're a senior, you can kind of see your career in basketball coming to and end," said Jones. "It's bittersweet because I feel like I'm in a great position...a lot better than a lot of other seniors in the country. So I want to take advantage of the opportunity. We're here to win games."
It's extremely rewarding to be able to give back to something about which you are passionate. We love coming back over here and love being involved. For as long as I can, I want to try and do more."