Sunday, February 26, 2006

And so it comes to this (long)

OK - I think it has become as simple as this - beat Texas on national TV Wednesday night (7:00 ESPN2) and you in all likelihood will have just punched your ticket for an invitation to the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

The Aggies used 40 minutes of suffocating defense to get a big win over another Big XII North opponent at Reed on Saturday. They held Nebraska to a terrible day shooting the basketball in forcing the Huskers to go 16 of 51 (31%) on the afternoon. A&M was less than perfect shooting the ball from the outside, but did manage to post their most lopsided conference win of the season in beating Nebraska 66-55 in front of nearly 11,000 fans.

What did this win mean for Coach G. and the Aggies?

Besides guaranteeing them no worse than a .500 finish in the league? - It was their 5th league win in a row, their longest streak since joining the Big XII 10 years ago. It also puts them squarely on the bubble in hopes of garnering an invite to The Big Dance. It means that CBS listed them as one of 5 "teams on the rise" Sunday during the nationwide broadcast of the Michigan State / Indiana game. It means that Dick Vitale mentioned how big the UT game is for the Aggies on two different occasions during Saturday night's Texas/Kansas game (more on that below). It means that Coach G was interviewed on ESPN Radio's College Gamenight on Saturday.

In a nutshell, Saturday's win has people on a national level talking about Texas A&M basketball for all of the right reasons - wins over losses.

Besides the awesome defensive effort by the whole group, Saturday's win was helped tremendously by the efforts of two guys - Chris Walker and Antanas Kavaliauskas.

My feelings should be pretty obvious by now, but that being said, Chris Walker had his best all-around game as an Aggie on Saturday. He had 12 points, 8 boards, 2 steals, and a block, all while only committing 2 turnovers. One good game a good player does not make, but if Chris would produce at this level day in and day out, you would not have anyone questioning the fact that he starts and the number of minutes he plays each night. I will give credit where credit is due and the kid had a great game on Saturday.

The other guy that continues to get better game after game is The Big Lithuanian, Antanas Kavaliauskas. AK was forced into 20+ minutes of action on Saturday as Joseph Jones spent most of the game on the bench in foul trouble. AK answered the call by putting up 13 points on 5 of 8 shooting with 6 boards and 2 blocks. Earlier in the season, Joe getting in foul trouble would spell doom for this team. That is no longer the case as AK has established himself as a more than serviceable backup and is easily the teams most improved player over the course of this season.

Saturday's game was also the first game in some time that didn't feature the Aggies typical pattern of; come out hot - go completely dead - fall behind big - rally - make it close or win.

The Aggies led by as many as 13 and by 11 on 4 different occasions before the intermission. This included an 11-1 lead more than 7 minutes into the game.

Nebraska rallied all the way back to get within 33-30 just after halftime before the Aggies turned on the gas and pulled away for good never leading by no fewer than 7 after the 10 minute mark.

The importance of this win can not be understated as the 8-6 Aggies are two games over .500 for the first time ever in Big XII play. They are also now all alone (technically) in the 4th spot of the league (Colorado is also 8-6) and the boys in Maroon and White own the head-to-head tiebreakers with the next two closest teams - Colorado and Nebraska.

Some quick hits:

- A&M was better from the charity stripe going 11-17. You would still like to see them make 13 or 14 of those 17, but hey, we'll take 11 for now.

- Acie's turn to go full throttle this time as he played all 40 minutes.

- Joseph Jones had 11 points and 4 boards in only 21 minutes. As we said up top, he was in foul trouble most of the game.

- Carter (11) and Kavaliauskas (23) have clearly established themselves as Gillispie's guys on the bench. The 5 starters and these 2 guys will likely play 90%+ of the minutes from here on out.

- A&M set a school record for most blocks in conference play with 10 on Saturday.

Bizarre Rotation of the Game - Status unchanged - Eddie Smith did not play again. I do not know what the story is - perhaps that ankle is worse than was reported.

Bizarre Stat(s) of the Game - Nebraska shot 4 of 23 (17%) from the field in the first half.

Looking Ahead

I can't go back to the days of Shelby Metcalf, but I can say this with all certainty - Wednesday's game against Texas is the biggest game in the last 20 years at Texas A&M. The Aggies are on the cusp of going to the big dance for the first time since 1987. All it will take is a win over your arch-rival who is coming off a HUGE win over one of the hottest teams in the country.

UT beat the absolute dog snot out of Kansas 80-55 on Saturday night in probably the biggest conference matchup of the season. The game in Austin was never close and was not even that fun to watch. UT looked downright bad over their two previous games in losing to OSU in Stillwater and escaping Manhattan with a one point win on Wednesday last week over KSU.

They apparently got the kinks worked out and simply stomped all over a red-hot KU team that came to Austin with a 10 game winning streak.

As good as they have looked at times this season - UT only goes 5 guys deep and really has no bench to speak of. Their starting 5 of Buckman/Tucker/Aldredge/Gibson/Paulino are as good as anyone in the country and can kill you if they get rolling. But, as Beau and I discussed this afternoon they are however a different team on the road and A&M does present some nice match-up problems for them.

Law and Kirk can hang with Gibson and Paulino and the trio of Jones/Kavaliauskas/Pompey can bang inside with Buckman and Aldredge. This leaves a big question mark on who will guard the likely big XII player of the year - PJ Tucker. The guy is awesome and even tougher to guard, he's too big for 3's to shut him down and too small and quick for 4's to guard.

The Aggies answer to the problem? My vote would rest with Martellus Bennett. Martellus is almost the exact same size as Tucker and is certainly just as athletic. My guess is that Coach G will throw Walker at Tucker and Chris will find himself over-matched pretty quickly, just as he did in their first matchup earlier this year. This isn't a knock on Walker's effort, just a testament to how good Tucker is.

Here's to hoping we see Martellus for more than 4 or 5 minutes. If nothing else, he has 5 fouls to use and beat on the guy for a while. This is the formula they used in Austin earlier in the season and let's hope we see it again on Wednesday.

Again, the game is on ESPN2 at 7:00 - be sure to tune in.

By the way - The students have already started camping out at Reed. Who would have thought we'd see the day were students were camping out to guarantee themselves the best seats in the house for Aggie Basketball!

Big 12 Standings
Texas 12-2
Kansas 11-3
Oklahoma 10-4
Texas A&M 8-6
Colorado 8-6
Nebraska 7-7
Texas Tech 6-8
Kansas State 5-9
Iowa State 5-9
Oklahoma State 5-9
Missouri 4-10
Baylor 3-11

Big XII games this week.

Monday, Feb. 27
Oklahoma State at Oklahoma - 8:00 ESPN

Tuesday, Feb. 28
Missouri at Iowa State - 7:00

Wednesday, Mar. 1
Colorado at Kansas - 7:00
Texas at Texas A&M - 7:00 ESPN2
Kansas State at Nebraska - 7:00
Texas Tech at Baylor - 7:00 ESPN+ (KTBU Ch. 55 in Houston)

Saturday, Mar. 4
Texas A&M at Texas Tech - 12:30 ESPN+ (Ch. 51 in Houston)
Kansas at Kansas State - 3:00 ESPN+ (Ch. 51 in Houston)
Baylor at Oklahoma State - 6:00
Iowa State at Colorado - 7:00

Sunday, Mar. 5
Nebraska at Missouri - 1:00 ESPN+
Oklahoma at Texas - 3:00 CBS

As you were.

(Oh yeah, go get some maroon kool-aid, it's tasty right now!)



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