An early exit from the Big 12 tournament likely knocked Texas A&M down a seed in the NCAA tournament, but it doesn’t seem to have shaken the team’s confidence.
The third-seeded Aggies will shift their focus toward a longer stay in this tournament starting Thursday, when they face 14th-seeded Pennsylvania in the first round of the South Regional at Lexington, Ky.
Texas A&M (25-6) looked like it was headed toward a No. 2 seed after finishing second to Kansas in the Big 12 during the regular season, but was dropped down to the third seed—the highest in school history—after a 57-56 loss to Oklahoma State last Friday in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
“We don’t care what seed we were going to be,” Aggies coach Billy Gillispie said. “I could not care less. We’ve played really good basketball this year, but we haven’t reached our peak.”
This is eighth tournament appearance for the Aggies, who have never made it out of the second round. Texas A&M lost 58-57 to eventual Final Four participant LSU in the second round last season.
The Aggies will try to bounce back after losing two of their last three, including a 98-96 double-overtime defeat to Texas, the No. 4 seed in the East Regional.
“It feels good to get in and now we have to focus and go play,” sophomore Josh Carter said.
Texas A&M, which has used the same starting lineup in every game this season, and No. 2 seed Georgetown in the East are the only teams in the nation to be ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive field-goal percentage. The Aggies shoot 50.1 percent and hold opponents to 37.2 percent shooting.
Led by Carter, who shoots 51.6 percent from 3-point range, the Aggies are the top 3-point shooting team in the tournament at 42.2 percent. Carter, who averages 12.6 points, is the Big 12’s all-time leader in career 3-point percentage (46.2) with a minimum off 100 attempts.
Senior Acie Law averages a team-leading 17.9 points, but had just 10 and no 3s in the loss to Oklahoma State after averaging 24.5 points in his previous six contests.
“This has been a very special year for me as a senior,” Law said. “It’s a very high honor to make the NCAAs and to be the top seed in Texas A&M history.”
Texas A&M has a 4-8 NCAA tournament record.
While some believe the Aggies are a serious Final Four candidate, they will not be looking past their first-round opponent.
“Penn is an outstanding opponent and they are going to do all they can to win,” Gillispie said. “We’re going to prepare for a very good team.”
The Quakers (22-8) are no strangers to the NCAA tournament. They will be making their 23rd appearance and third in a row after going 13-1 to win the Ivy League.
Penn takes a 10-game winning streak into Thursday’s contest.
“This is our senior year, so I would say that this is so much sweeter,” said Mark Zoller, who averages a league-best 18.2 points and shoots 56.6 percent from the field.
Zoller is one of three Quakers averaging in double figures and making more than half their shots. Guard Ibrahim Jaaber averages 15.9 points on 52.5 percent shooting and junior Brian Grandieri is averaging 12.0 points and shooting 51.3 percent. Both joined Zoller in earning all-Ivy honors.
Penn’s last tournament win was against a current Big 12 school, 90-80 over Nebraska on March 17, 1994. The Quakers, 13-24 in the tournament, lost 60-52 to Texas in the first round last season.
Prior to its Ivy League schedule this season, Penn faced Syracuse, Villanova, Seton Hall and North Carolina, and beat a struggling Temple squad.
Thursday will be the first meeting between these schools.