Penn State in the Big Dance: Scouting opening-round opponent Texas A&M
Penn State gets its booty on the dance floor on Thursday, when it will play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years and just the 5th time since 1965.
The Lions won 8 of 9 games before losing 67-65 to Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament final Sunday, progressing from the bad side to the good side of the bubble and then some. Once projected for a play-in game as an 11-seed, they instead earned the No. 10 seed in the Midwest Region. They’ll open against Texas A&M in Des Moines, Iowa.
Here’s a look at the Aggies and a prediction of how far the Lions will advance:
Scouting Texas A&M
The Aggies (25-9, 15-3 SEC) finished 2nd to Alabama in both the SEC regular season and conference tournament, losing in Sunday’s final 82-63 just 8 days after beating the Crimson Tide at home in College Station, Texas.
How the Aggies got here: After a shaky 6-5 start that hit a low point with a loss to Wofford on Dec. 20, Buzz Williams’ team got hot, going 4-0 against Top 25 teams prior to Sunday’s loss. They’re in the Big Dance for the first time since 2018.
Top player: Sophomore guard Wade Taylor IV leads the team in points (16.6), assists (4.0) and steals (1.8). At an even 6 feet and 185 pounds, Taylor relies on quickness. In his first year as a full-time starter, he’s earned AP first-team All-America status. He poured in 28 points — going 10-of-10 from the free throw line — in a 67-61 victory over then No. 2 Alabama on March 4. For the season, he shoots a respectable 36.5% on 3s and an SEC-best 87.2% on more than 5 ½ free throw attempts per game.
What they do best: The Aggies have attempted and made more free throws than any team in the country, so Penn State will have its hands full trying to stay out of foul trouble.
Best win this season: The home victory over Bama to end the regular season tops the list, but the Aggies also have SEC wins over Missouri, Auburn and Tennessee while those teams were ranked in the Top 25.
Most important thing to know about the Aggies: The team’s tallest rotation player is 6-9 junior forward Julius Marble, so Penn State won’t face the match-up nightmare that Purdue’s 7-4 Zach Edey presented Sunday afternoon. The Aggies are guard-centric, with 6-2 senior Tyrece Radford their No. 2 scorer at 13.3 ppg.
Prediction: A&M averages just 6.1 made 3-pointers per game on 32.7% accuracy (262nd in the nation). Penn State makes 10.5 per game. If the Lions can avoid a big turnover number, superior shooting and senior experience might rule the day. After seeing the level of stamina and fight Penn State sustained over 4 straight days in the B1G Tourney, I like a refreshed squad to start another improbable run.
Penn State 68, Texas A&M 64
Beyond the opener
With a win, Penn State would advance to a likely meeting with No. 2-seed Texas (23-8 and ranked No. 7 in the latest AP and Coaches polls). The Texas 2-step in probably too much to hope for, as the Longhorns are coming off a 20-point pasting of Kansas in the Big 12 tournament title game.
Even if the season ends here for the Lions, this will be the most memorable hoops season for the program since the 2001 team made the Sweet 16. Fans are rightly clamoring for AD Pat Kraft to infuse the program with resources so this fun can perpetuate itself. Second-year coach Micah Shrewsberry has proven worth the investment. The school needs to reciprocate. This can be a turning point, or just another hiccup in a long history of irrelavence.