The Texas A&M Aggies and the Miami Hurricanes occupy the same basic positions entering the Sweet 16 of the 2016 NCAA tournament.
The routes taken by these two teams to get to this point — over the past week, yes, but also the season — could not have been more different.
A&M and Miami will both begin the regional semifinal round on Thursday evening — A&M in the opening West Regional semifinal in Anaheim against Oklahoma, Miami in the first South Regional semifinal in Louisville versus Villanova. The Sweet 16 will therefore start with the two most historically impoverished programs in the whole bunch. By 10 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday, we’ll be able to see just how new the Elite Eight will be.
Texas A&M and Miami are the only two programs in the Sweet 16 which have never reached the Elite Eight. It’s always especially exhilarating when a team can say to itself, “We’re one game away from doing something that’s never been done before.” The Aggies and Hurricanes will enter previously undiscovered territory if they can break through on Thursday.
Both seeded third against highly-touted 2 seeds — OU and Nova — neither A&M nor Miami can feel comfortable about its matchup. However, these two teams can feel comfortable about the idea that they have nothing to lose. A lot more Final Four and “win or else” pressure rests on the shoulders of their opponents on Thursday.
These are the same positions shared by Texas A&M and The U.
The paths to get to this point have markedly differed.
Texas A&M plays in the SEC, which was lucky to get even three teams into this year’s NCAA tournament. Vanderbilt represented a very shaky First Four selection, and the Commodores were promptly drummed out of Dayton by Wichita State. A&M benefited from its soft conference, but the Aggies sure made use of it, despite a four-game losing streak. They won their first league title since 1986, an extra measure of validation for everyone associated with the program.
Miami had to deal with the rigors of the ACC, a league which is the perpendicular opposite of the SEC. The ACC has placed six teams in the Sweet 16 and has the best high-end depth of any conference. Miami survived the punishing nature of the ACC regular season schedule, never losing four in a row the way A&M did. The SEC might as well be another planet compared to the ACC in 2016.
Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game before this season. Slowed by Parkinson’s disease early in his tenure at A&M, Kennedy has steadily gained strength and health over time; accordingly, his results have gradually improved, culminating in this big beautiful bouquet of a season. Kennedy is a skilled coach, but this is his first rodeo in the Sweet 16.
Miami coach Jim Larranaga has reached a Final Four (with George Mason). He turned Miami into the ACC Tournament champion in 2013. He didn’t need a long period of time in which to rebuild the Hurricanes. At age 66, Larranaga is 14 years older than Kennedy. These coaches represent two very different portraits in terms of overall achievement — while Miami doesn’t have much to lose against Villanova, Larranaga knows he can’t guarantee he’ll get as good a chance as this to make another Final Four.
Beyond conference affiliation and coaching, these two teams also differentiated themselves in the ways they fought through the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Miami dragged through its round-of-64 clash against Buffalo, playing a game that was mediocre at best but living to tell about it — that’s an important skill at this time of year. The U took a 21-point lead over Wichita State and then blew it before scrambling in the final few minutes of regulation to outlast the tired Shockers. This progression of emotions — from extreme glee to pronounced anxiety to locked-in seriousness — could underscore for The U the price it must pay to advance past each round of the Big Dance.
Texas A&M inverted Miami’s path to the Sweet 16.
The Aggies were razor-sharp in round one; they torched Green Bay and did just about everything they wanted. Then, their second-round game against Northern Iowa turned into a grim procession most of the way. An 11-0 rally early in the second half cut a 15-point deficit to four, but when Northern Iowa built its lead back to 54-42 with under eight minutes left, A&M faced what seemed to be (yet didn’t become) the defining period of its season.
With an appropriate level of desperation, the Aggies trimmed that deficit to six in the next few minutes. However, Northern Iowa answered every little push A&M made. With the Panthers in front, 69-57, with 35 seconds left, the Aggies couldn’t help but feel resigned to their fate. Sure, they might get one steal and an extra bucket, but they were down 12 — TWELVE! — with roughly half a minute left. No one in college basketball comes back from that — literally!
Well, until Sunday night in Oklahoma City.
ICYMI, Texas A&M's rally from 12 down w/less than 1:00 to play is the largest last-minute deficit overcome to win in college hoops history.
— David Worlock (@DavidWorlock) March 21, 2016
You might not have read our story on A&M’s rally at the aptly-named company called Comeback Media, but even if you HAVE read it, you might want to read it again just to make sure all those things really happened for A&M in the final half-minute.
Whereas Miami nearly squandered a 21-point lead and came THISCLOSE to an offseason of misery, Texas A&M’s players and coaches had ample opportunity to accept and contemplate defeat, to be at peace with the great season they had, and how they had achieved so much and put together a good run, and we’ll get ’em next year, and…
HEY, WE’RE NOT DEAD!
Miami thought it was about to lose something… and in a supremely shattering way.
Texas A&M thought it had already lost something… and somehow pulled off the basketball equivalent of a deathbed recovery, restored to full health.
Both programs want a first Final Four… and the first Elite Eight which must necessarily precede it. Both teams just played round-of-32 games against 11 seeds which ran the full gamut of emotions… but in different sequences. Both teams have to feel they’ve learned some lessons and are much more emotionally equipped to deal with the future… but only one of them has a coach who knows what it takes to reach the Final Four.
Miami. A&M. The Sweet 16 will begin on Thursday with the two schools whose March footprints are the smallest of them all… smaller than the Gonzaga program which is the only other one to not reach the Final Four.
Will the Hurricanes and Aggies use their round-of-32 escapes — achieved in diametrically different ways — to catapult them to basketball immortality?
We can’t wait to find out.