DES MOINES, Iowa — The thought of a potential battle to win or go home with Texas A&M didn’t strike many sparks in the Texas locker room late Thursday night at Wells Fargo Arena.
Truth be told, the dormant rivalry doesn’t mean much to a wide-ranging group that was in elementary school the last time the Longhorns and Aggies shared a conference.
“What, are we rivals?” quipped fifth-year senior Timmy Allen, a former Utah Ute and Arizona native.
Well, Allen and the second-seeded Longhorns (27-8) won’t have to worry about having “renewed rivalry” storylines atop Saturday’s second-round matchup. They’ll just have to worry about stopping a Big Ten program that seems to be peaking at just the right time.
Just hours after Texas knocked down the No. 15 Colgate 81-61 in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, the No. 1 seed. Then at 6:35 pm on Saturday, the Longhorns and the Nittany Lions will reunite for the first time to play basketball.
After witnessing Penn State’s assault on a Texas A&M team turn into a pumpkin at the worst possible time, it’s clear this new matchup will present a tougher test for Texas than the Aggies ever could.
The Nittany Lions hardly look like a team that will settle for “just” winning their first NCAA Tournament game since 2001. They’ve won nine of their last 11, one of the losses being a 67-65 loss to the top seed no. 1 Purdue East Region No. 1 in the Big Ten Tournament title game.
“We want to go for a run and go for a ride,” sophomore Penn State head coach Micah Shrewsberry said.
The crowd will almost certainly lean heavily in Penn State’s favor on Saturday.
There was ravenous energy inside Wells Fargo Arena Thursday whenever Colgate pitted against Texas. The mix of loyal Nittany Lions, persistent Aggies and folks craving madness should make for a compelling group of bedfellows all allied against the team in burnt orange.
Texas handled that rancorous storm well in the first round. The most pressing concern on Saturday will be the product Penn State actually fields.
All-American Jalen Pickett is a problem with a capital “P”. The fifth-year senior is averaging 17.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.7 assists and hitting 51.1% of his shooting and 38.5% of his 3-pointers. If there’s a hole in his game, no one has dug it up yet.
“It’s unique,” Allen said on Friday. “It’s not traditional. He is a guy who can score, rebound, pass. I admire his game because I see some similarities with me. So we have to try to make him uncomfortable in what he does. We know he will score; he is a great player. We need to get him out of the actions and spots he generally likes, limit his touches and see what happens.
Sharpshooters orbit Pickett. Fifth-year senior guard Andrew Funk buried eight 3s against Texas A&M. His teammates added five more. As a unit, Penn State gets 10.5 3s per game at a 39 percent clip, both in the top 10 nationally.
And while Texas lives to wreak havoc with its defensive pressure, hitting steals and throwing off passes, Penn State is as careful as can be. He averaged just nine turnovers per game, the fewest of any team left in the NCAA Tournament field.
“They’re a really good 3-point shooting team,” said Texas forward Christian Bishop. “We need to limit these attempts. They play rather slowly, so we want to speed up the game and this will benefit us. You have to play hard. The team with the most energy tomorrow will win”.
Texas has generally been the team with the most energy since interim head coach Rodney Terry took over on December 12 for ousted Chris Beard. And recently, that lively energy has spilled over to both ends of the court.
Starting with last week’s three-game run at the program’s second Big 12 tournament title, Texas limited its four postseason opponents to averages of 56.0 points per game, a . 250 from 3-point range. And if the Longhorns reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2008, they’ll have to defend Penn State with the same kind of toughness.
“I don’t want the trip to end,” Terry said. “We had a special year this year where we endured adversity and some challenges. I thought our guys stayed the course and worked through the season all year round. As a result, you want to ride this thing as far as possible.