Texas A&M vows it won’t take SEC tournament appearance for granted

COLLEGE STATION — The immediate future prompted a glut of reflection from Texas A&M’s Emanuel Miller and Andre Gordon, even concerning what a dozen other teams in the SEC consider a near meaningless game Wednesday.

“I think about the blessings in our life and the things we can’t take granted,” the sophomore Miller said. “We took that game at the SEC tournament (last year) for granted. We didn’t get to play because of COVID, so now we’re more excited than ever.”

No. 13 seed A&M (8-9, 2-8 SEC) is scheduled to face No. 12 seed Vanderbilt (8-15, 3-13) at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the opening salvo of the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn. “Scheduled” is a key word here, because the Aggies were scheduled to play seven games in February that they ultimately did not because of COVID-19 issues within the program (they made up one February postponement this past weekend at Arkansas).

A year ago, A&M was on a roll entering the SEC tournament, having won five of seven games to close out the regular season, and already was in Nashville preparing to play Missouri when the rest of the season was called off because of a then-new virus taking hold across the globe.

“We had just gotten done with shoot-around, and we were eating a meal before the game, and all of a sudden it got canceled,” the sophomore Gordon recalled. “It was heartbreaking. … It’s a big deal to (be back), so we’re going to take advantage of it the best we can.”

Last year’s A&M squad entered the SEC tournament in much better position for an outside shot at a tournament title: as a No. 7 seed with plenty of momentum.

This team enters the SEC tournament as the last seed and has lost five consecutive league games, including the last two against Mississippi State and Arkansas following the unexpected February hiatus. It all had second-year coach Buzz Williams speaking this week of taking it “one practice at a time” even over the cliché of one game at a time.

“When these 20-year-old kids are 40 years old, they’ll look back at their 20th year and realize there were more lessons to learn for life than at any other point in time in their first 20 years on earth,” Williams said. “(And) these kids want to play.”

Since the SEC added A&M and Missouri and expanded to 14 members in 2012, no 13th or 14th seed has made the tournament title game. Either the first or second seeds or first and third seeds have advanced to the championship contest in five of the seven seasons.

There is no 14th seed this year because of Auburn’s self-imposed ban prompted by an NCAA investigation involving former assistant Chuck Person.

The Aggies are the final seed, even with a better league winning percentage than Vanderbilt (a gloomy 25 percent compared to a slightly gloomier 23 percent), because of not playing enough league games, according to the SEC.

Based on history and having to win four consecutive games in four days just to make the title game, the Aggies realize they have a minuscule chance of earning the league’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament by winning the SEC postseason. Just don’t remind them.

“We know every game matters,” Miller said. “The second we lose, we’re going home; we win, we get to live on for another day. … No one wants to go home.”

A&M has drawn hope from its two games following the month-long pause. The Aggies led MSU by double digits following the long layoff before running short of steam in the second half at Reed Arena on March 3 and falling 63-57.

Last Saturday, the Aggies led No. 8 Arkansas 78-76 with 1:13 remaining in Fayetteville, Ark., before everything went the Razorbacks’ way in the final minute of their 87-80 victory.

“I know we didn’t win our last two games, but the path and direction we’re on is (positive),” Miller said. “We’re experiencing more growth than we have since the beginning of the season, and we want to continue on that path.”

At the very least, the Aggies figure a late push can help them spring into next season. They’re expected to return 13 of 17 players, although a handful of seniors might have the choice to return based on the NCAA’s not counting a year of eligibility this season because of the pandemic.

“I like to be the underdog,” said Gordon, who like Miller is finally participating in his first SEC tournament. “So this is gonna be fun.”

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