Back in December, a Texas A&M versus Michigan matchup in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 was not a farfetched notion, as both teams enjoyed plenty of success and turned the heads of pollsters and college basketball fans.
Then the two squads’ scenarios split like a fork in the road.
The Wolverines got better as Big 10 play tested them, winning every game for the final month and a half on the way to the conference championship.
Meanwhile the Aggies struggled with injuries and suspensions and uncertainty that resulted in a break-even finish in the stacked Southeastern Conference and an early, albeit, last-second loss in the league tournament.
All that will mean little when the two teams square off Thursday in the West Regional Semifinal at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The two teams are a lot more savvy from the road they’ve taken to get to this juncture and will have to play their best to take another step on the road to the Final Four.
Texas A&M, the No. 7 seed, advanced to the Sweet 16 with a dominating 86-65 win over second-seeded North Carolina on Sunday in Charlotte, clinching their sixth all-time trip to the round of 16.
The Aggies (22-12) got 19 points from freshman TJ Sparks in the win as four A&M players scored in double figures. The Aggies overwhelmed North Carolina with a shooting barrage, connecting on 10-of-24 3-pointers as part of an impressive 31 of 60 showing from the floor.
Texas A&M also ruled the paint against the Tar Heels, recording eight blocked shots and forging a 50-36 rebound advantage.
It will be the second trip to the Sweet 16 for A&M senior guard Tonny Trocha-Morelos, who went as a sophomore in 2016
“It means a lot here in my senior year,” Trocha-Morelos said.” I wanted to do something with the young guys and it’s a great feeling. I talked to the freshmen — there’s nothing better than winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. So it’s a really good feeling to keep dancing.”
Starks has improved as the season continued for the Aggies, emerging as their top scorer and go-to player by year’s end, He’s been mercurial, for sure, and has had his freshman moments but A&M coach Billy Kennedy has often said he has to take the good with the bad when it comes to Starks.
“I’m just trying to get us a win every game, that is what I’m here for,” Starks said. “I got recruited to help us win so that’s all I’m trying to do.”
Third-seeded Michigan (30-7) is the highest-rated team on the left side of the NCAA Tournament bracket and advanced to the West Regional Semifinal with a thrilling last-second 64-63 victory over No. 6-seed Houston.
With Michigan down by two, Jordan Poole canned a long distance 3-pointer as time expired to give the Wolverines the victory.
Four Michigan players scored in double figures in that win, led by 12 points each from Mortiz Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. Charles Matthews and Duncan Robinson each added 11 points for the Wolverines in the second-round victory.
“I was thinking about how many great moments I’ve had in the past three years here, and this one is definitely up there, chasing Jordan Poole around the court — who would have thought,” Mortiz said. “The way we played and having this outcome, very proud of this team. And very, very happy.”
Michigan is enjoying its fourth Sweet 16 appearance in the past six years and is one of seven schools to have four Sweet 16 appearances since 2013, joining Arizona, Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Kentucky and Wisconsin.
The Wolverines have won 11 straight games, eight of which have come away from home. But Michigan has to improve, and do so quickly, to beat a Texas A&M team that’s peaking at just the right time.
“We’re doing some things that (are uncharacteristic), we’ve got to address them and get better at them,” Michigan coach John Beilein said after Saturday’s win.
“We’ve only lost seven games. But in those seven losses we did things that just don’t make sense, they’re not characteristic. We got into foul trouble again (Saturday), had some bad turnovers. We’ve got to shake out some of those things and get better.”