CHICAGO—Texas A&M players see that Texas-sized carrot dangling right there in front of them, knowing all they have to do is win two games and they’ll get to finish the season in their home state.
They also realize this. Getting there won’t be easy.
The seventh seed in the Southwest Region, the Aggies could be in for a tough time with 10th-seeded Florida State whether injured Seminoles star Chris Singleton plays or not on Friday. Win that, beat the Notre Dame-Akron winner on Sunday, and the 24th-ranked Aggies can head to the San Antonio Regional, with the Final Four in Houston beckoning.
"It’s kind of in the back of your mind, use it as motivation," Aggies forward Nathan Walkup said. "Obviously, you can’t look past your first or your second game. So that’s our main focus. But in the back of your mind, hey, if we can come out of Chicago with two wins going back home to Texas, two hours away from campus, it would just be an awesome place to play."
Guard B.J. Holmes said, "We know if we can get past Chicago, we’re going to have basically a home game."
That’s no small "if," even if Singleton remains questionable because of a broken right foot.
The team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Singleton was injured in the first half against Virginia on Feb. 12. He had surgery two days later, and the Seminoles (21-10) have split six games in his absence.
Coach Leonard Hamilton has been hoping all along that last year’s ACC defensive player of the year would return for the tournament.
Whether he will, though, remained up in the air on Thursday.
"That really has not been determined," Hamilton said.
"Obviously, when you’re out for a whole month without having any physical contact and a lot of repetitions in practice, there’s an adjustment period for you and he’s probably going through that a little bit."
Hamilton was going to consult with Singleton and medical personnel after a light practice on Thursday and was planning to decide Friday.
An effective Singleton would likely boost a team seeking its first NCAA tournament win since 1998. The Seminoles beat Texas Christian that year, lost to Valparaiso and didn’t make it back until 2009, when they lost to Wisconsin in overtime. They were one-and-done again last year, falling to Gonzaga.
"The first year, we finally got over the hump, and it was like we were just so happy to be here for the first time in a while," guard Derwin Kitchen said. "Last year, we just dumped out big time against Gonzaga. We really didn’t come ready to play. This time around, we have experienced guys that have been knowing what it takes to win at this level."
Both teams followed a similar approach to get to this point, relying on tight defense and scoring just enough to come out on top.
Florida State leads the nation in field-goal percentage defense at 36.4 percent, and the Aggies aren’t bad, either. They’ve held opponents to 41.1 percent shooting and defied expectations on the way to their seventh straight 20-win season and school-record sixth NCAA appearance in a row.
Picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 after losing Donald Sloan and Bryan Davis, the Aggies wound up tying Kansas State for third in the conference during a season with its share of ups and downs.
There was an early loss to Boston College before a 13-game win streak that put them at 16-1. Then they dropped four of the next five before a wild 73-70 overtime win at Colorado in which Holmes hit a long 3-pointer at the end of regulation. That shot, coach Mark Turgeon said, "changed our year."