Back in January, Texas A&M was a missed Breein Tyree buzzer-beater away from starting SEC play 0-6.
Today, after mollywhopping the defending national champions and the No. 2-seed in the West Region, North Carolina, the Aggies are headed to the Sweet 16.
Texas A&M got 26 points, 22 boards and five blocks combined from Tyler Davis and Robert Williams while shooting 10-for-23 from three in a 86-65 win over the Tar Heels. A 29-8 surge at the end of the first half opened up a 42-28 halftime lead, and North Carolina never found a way to get back into the game after the Aggies landed the first punch in the second half.
We’ll get to North Carolina in a second, because there is going to be plenty to talk about with them, but the story today should be the Aggies, who will advance to take on No. 3-seed Michigan in the Sweet 16.
There is a reason that, all season long, pundits covering the SEC called this group the most talented team in the league. There is a reason that they were a top 20 team in the preseason. There’s a reason that, for all of the losses they suffered and the players that couldn’t find a way to stay healthy and out of off-the-court trouble, they were still a team that was too tantalizing to complete write-off.
And we all saw it come to fruition on Sunday night in Charlotte.
Playing what was a de-facto road game, the Aggies overpowered North Carolina in the paint while holding the Tar Heels to just 33 percent shooting from the field and a 6-for-31 performance from beyond the arc. Williams and Davis were terrific, but Texas A&M’s perimeter players — Admon Gilder, D.J. Hogg, T.J. Starks — deserve just as much credit.
Because that has been the biggest question mark with this group from before the season began.
It’s not difficult to look at this Aggie roster and realize just how good their big men are. Williams is a projected lottery pick for a reason. Davis was a preseason first-team all-SEC player for a reason. But Hogg spent his first two seasons on campus as the most inconsistent elite shooter in the sport. Gilder was good when he was healthy, but that wasn’t always the case. The point guard spot? That’s been a revolving door. It was supposed to be Jay Jay Chandler and J.J. Caldwell that played that role, but both of them have been in and out of trouble; Caldwell was dismissed from the team. Duane Wilson took the job over during the middle of the season, but he fully tore his ACL after spending two weeks playing on a partially torn ACL.
Starks inherited the role almost by necessity, and he’s been really good in flashes. When he plays like he did on Sunday — 21 points and five assists on 7-for-15 shooting — this is was A&M can be.
As far as North Carolina is concerned, this loss is disappointing and certainly one that is going to draw headlines, but the fact that this group did enough work to earn themselves a No. 2-seed in the tournament says more about Williams coaching job and the play of Luke Maye than anything else.
It’s a disappointing result, and one I certainly did not see coming, but for a program that thrives on elite bigs to do what they did while essentially playing small-ball is impressive.
Joel Berry II will certainly be missed, but at some point talent wins out in March and the Aggies, the more talented team, came to play on Sunday.