Same seed. Same opponent. This NCAA tournament matchup has a familiar feel.
BYU and Texas A&M meet again Thursday in the first round of the West Regional. It’s a rematch from last year when the Aggies won 67-62.
The eighth-seeded Cougars (25-7)—they’ve been in this spot three straight seasons—and ninth-seeded Aggies (23-9) were surprised they drew each other when the brackets were announced. But it made preparation a little easier. All they had to do was pop in the tape from their previous meeting to get a refresher.
“We were all like, ‘Again!”’ Aggies guard Derrick Roland said Wednesday. “It’s no surprises. We know what to expect. They’re a good team. We’ll be ready.”
Texas A&M’s five starters all played double-digit minutes against the Cougars last year while four of BYU’s starters saw significant action. Both coaching staffs probably spent more time breaking down film from that game than any this season. If they expose just one tendency or weakness, that can give them an edge.
“One of the things that we’ve done as a staff is just try to find the things that were good, that we did really well in that game, that we can kind of emphasize,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “We have a pretty good idea of how physical they are and how they like to play.”
The Cougars know one player they have to defend a little better this time around is Josh Carter. A senior forward who averages 14.1 points per game, Carter scored 26 against BYU last time.
“I figure they’ll stay closer with me,” Carter said. “Last year, they were leaving me a little bit more. I don’t expect them to do that.”
Carter leads a balanced offense that includes Donald Sloan (11.7), Bryan Davis (10.4) and Chinemelu Elonu (10.1). Texas A&M has excellent shooters— Carter, Sloan and B.J. Holmes are long-range threats—and is strong inside. The Aggies outrebounded their opponent in 11 of their last 12 games, holding an average margin of 8.3 in that span.
“One of the keys is definitely going to be Josh Carter,” Cougars guard Lee Cummard said. “We’re going to have to do a good job containing him as a team. Taking care of the basketball and rebounding is another key. They’re physical. Sometimes they send three, four guys to the offensive glass. If we can control that, it will really help a lot.”
BYU is an outstanding perimeter-shooting team led by a trio of scorers. Cummard (16.8), Jimmer Fredette (16.2) and Jonathan Tavernari (15.9) combined to shoot 38.2 percent (168-of-440) from 3-point range. Jackson Emery also can shoot well, knocking down 37.3 percent from beyond the arc.
Cummard, Fredette and Tavernari shot 41.2 percent (7-of-17) from 3-point range in their loss to Texas A&M.
“To me, it’s all about transition defense and finding shooters in transition,” Aggies coach Mark Turgeon said. “If you can slow that down a little bit, you have a chance. If you don’t do that, you have no chance against them. It’s a tough matchup. They’re hard to guard. Those three scorers will make tough shots, closely guarded shots. You just have to accept that, go the other way, do the best you can. It’s a challenge for us.”
Both schools have deep football traditions, but they haven’t matched that success on the hardwood. Still, their basketball programs have enjoyed revivals this decade.
BYU has four consecutive 20-win seasons under Rose after going 9-21 in 2004-05. The Cougars are 11-26 in the NCAA tournament with six straight losses in the opening round. They haven’t won a tournament game since 1993, but they’ve come close lately. BYU has lost four in a row by five points or less.
The Cougars got an at-large bid after losing to San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament semifinals. They’ve won the regular-season conference title the last three years.
“I hope it’s not adding any pressure because it’s really an accomplishment to make the field,” Rose said of the school’s losing streak in the tourney. “That’s a sense of accomplishment that I think needs to kind of make your team feel a little bit relaxed. I know for some of the returning players there’s a real will to win and they want to win this game.”
The Aggies are five years removed from a 7-21 record. They’re making their fourth straight NCAA tourney appearance, the longest streak in school history. A&M has advanced to the second round three straight years, including a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2007.
A month ago, it seemed the Aggies might not even get this far. They’d lost three consecutive games and were 3-7 in the Big 12 conference. But A&M won six in a row to end the regular season, before losing to Texas Tech in the conference tournament.
“I think our intensity level went to a whole other level,” Sloan said. “You got guys around that just don’t give up. Everybody seemed to be more in tune.”