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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Photo by Photo by Robert O’Brien

Freshman guard Manny Obaseki (35) jumps to score in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, March 29.

Texas A&M men’s basketball has made it to the final stage of the National Invitational Tournament, and the last team standing in its way from bringing home the hardware is a squad the Aggies haven’t seen since 1965, where they lost the contest 98-86.

On March 31, No. 1-seed A&M will face off against No. 2-seed Xavier for the NIT championship in Madison Square Garden at 7 p.m. and have a chance to finish the job that graduate guard Quenton Jackson said is not yet finished.

This Big East opponent finished its regular season 21-13, 8-11 in conference play and lost in the first round of its conference tournament to Butler — the same team A&M defeated in late November, 57-50. 

This season marks the Musketeers’ 26th-straight winning season, which is the fourth highest in the NCAA just behind basketball powerhouses Kansas, Gonzaga and Duke.

After the firing of Xavier head coach Travis Steele, interim coach Jonas Hayes took over the role as head coach and led his team on a 4-0 run in the postseason. 

Hayes said Xavier’s run in the postseason has been filled with a wide range of emotions with the loss of Steele from the staff.

“Meeting adversity head-on the way our guys have done, that is what Xavier basketball is,” Hayes said. “I’m not surprised by the heart, the mettle, the desire, the commitment, the conviction that is in our locker room, because we see that every day.”

Hayes served as an assistant coach for Xavier for three seasons, five seasons at his alma mater at the University of Georgia and five seasons at Belmont Abbey. He also served as an assistant coach for one season at South Carolina State and one season at Morehouse.

As for the players, Xaviers’ team is filled with talent in all aspects of the game; however, it is missing a key component on the defensive end. 

Senior guard Paul Scruggs suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 72-56 win against Florida in the second round of the NIT. Scruggs led the team in assists this season, averaging 4.1 a game; more importantly, he was the Musketeers’ leading stealer, averaging 1.5 steals a game, and is seventh all time in the program’s history with 178 steals throughout his collegiate career. With his absence, Xavier is going to have to make major adjustments defensively if it plans on stopping A&M’s fast-paced offense.

With Scruggs out with an injury, sophomore guard Dwon Odom took his spot in the starting lineup. There’s not much to say about the Georgia native other than that he rarely makes mistakes. He has a 2.33 assist-to-turnover ratio in the last 15 games and is the team’s most accurate free throw shooter, knocking down 81.1% from the charity stripe.

The name that has been repeated throughout the tournament and praised in the streets of Cincinnati is that of a 7-footer who can hand you a bucket in the paint, splash one deep in the opponents’ eyes from behind the arc and can block about anything that comes his way on the defensive end.

Junior forward Jack Nunge is the team’s leading scorer and rim protector this season, averaging 13.4 points per game and 1.4 blocks per game. As for the NIT, he averages 13 points per game, is shooting 66% from behind the arc and has tallied 1.75 blocks in the four games played. He was named All-Big East Honorable Mention at the end of the regular season and has been an issue to opposing teams all postseason. If the Aggies plan on slowing down this Xavier squad, they must formulate a plan to stop this 247-pound goliath. 

One guard from Xavier has a similar play style to A&M’s junior guard Tyrece “Boots” Radford, with four extra inches added to his height. Sophomore Colby Jones is not the tallest player on this Xavier squad, nor is he the second, third or fourth tallest. However, he is the team’s leading rebounder in the regular season, averaging 7.4 rebounds per game this season, and he has also averaged 1.5 steals per game, 1.75 in the tournament alone. 

Senior guard Adam Kunkel is the team’s true point guard, and he is as quick and flashy as any guard at the collegiate level. When Kunkel is hot, he doesn’t cool down, and fans at the Xavier vs. St. Bonaventure game got to witness Kunkel at his hottest. 

“I love road games honestly,” Kunkel said after making a crucial 3-pointer late in the second half. “I like playing against a big crowd that is against us, and I like making that shot that quiets the crowd and gets our guys going.”

He matched Nunge as the leading scorer with 18 points against the Bonnies and shot just below 50% from the field in an arena filled with opposing fans. 

As for the rest of the squad, junior forward Zach Freemantle will come off the bench to relieve Nunge, as he leads the team in all categories in the NIT with 13 points per game, eight rebounds and 1.7 blocks while shooting an astonoshing 51.9% from the field. Senior guard Nate Johnson is one of the better ball handlers for Xavier and has averaged 11 points per game in the tournament so far. 

Xavier has defeated SEC conference opponents Florida and Vanderbilt, two teams A&M has either lost or had closer-than-comfortable games against, with a new head coach and the absence of one of its best players in Scruggs. Nevertheless, whether the Musketeers are talented enough to take down a No. 1-seed A&M squad that has defeated every team it has faced in the NIT by 12 or more points, held its opponents to at least 57.5 points per game in the tournament and has a chip on its shoulder from being excluded from the March Madness tournament earlier this month, is yet to be seen. 

“They didn’t make the tournament, and that’s really shocking,” Washington State coach Kyle Smith said after losing to A&M 72-56 in the NIT semifinals. 

Now, just two teams remain, and only one can come out victorious. It will either be coach Hayes and his versatile offense or A&M coach Buzz Williams and his Aggies who haven’t sniffed a competitive matchup since the SEC championship who will come out on top. This will mark the first time these two teams have faced off in 54 years and the first time ever in these conditions. 

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