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A&M, Michigan battle for spot in Elite Eight
By: Staff Writer - StatFox
Published: 3/20/2018  at  9:36:00 AM
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NCAA Tournament – Sweet Sixteen – Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
Tip-off: Thursday, 7:37 pm ET
Line: Michigan -3, Total: 134

Through two rounds of Madness, Texas A&M has played better basketball than Michigan.

This year's group of teams in the Sweet Sixteen is among the weirdest—if not the weirdest—in recent memory, with the opening weekend of March Madness having fed college basketball fans a steady diet of upsets. One casualty of the four-day massacre was defending champ North Carolina, which was humiliated 86-65 at the hands of No. 7 seed Texas A&M. To get there, the Aggies had to first beat a red-hot Providence team, which they did by a 73-69 score. And while A&M made surprisingly quick work of the Tar Heels, there was plenty of drama elsewhere in the West Region thanks to Michigan. The No. 3 seed Wolverines barely escaped Houston, advancing thanks to a deep, contested three-pointer as time expired to steal a 64-63 win. It was an exciting win against a strong Cougars team, which is more than can be said about Michigan's 61-47 snoozefest of a first-round victory over Montana. While UMich fans likely feel good about playing a 7 seed in the Sweet Sixteen, they'll be playing one that was at one point ranked in the top five in the country early on this season.

As a 21-point victory would indicate, Texas A&M dominated UNC in pretty much all respects on Sunday. But one stat in particular demonstrated the primary advantage that A&M held over the Tar Heels: The Aggies blocked eight shots without having a single shot of their own turned away. The minus-8 margin in blocks was the biggest all season for Carolina. In their defense, Texas A&M has an enormous front line. In an era of college basketball that employs small-ball to a greater degree than ever before, the Aggies have three guys that are 6-9 or taller in their starting lineup: PF DJ Hogg, PF Robert Williams and C Tyler Davis. Davis, a junior, is the star of the team, leading the squad with season averages of 14.6 PPG and 9.0 RPG. Against UNC he had 18 and nine, plus three of those blocks. Williams is a possible lottery selection in the upcoming NBA Draft, and he was monstrous on the boards against the Tar Heels with 13 boards. He's had huge windmill dunks in each of A&M's two tournament wins, displaying his disconcerting combination of size and athleticism. But the Aggies' real star on Sunday wasn't even in the frontcourt, it was freshman G TJ Starks, who led all scorers with 21 and pitched in five assists. The game pushed him just over 10 PPG for the season, but he's averaging almost 20 in his last three games.

While Michigan lacks the kind of beef that A&M in its frontcourt, its best player is taller than anyone on the Aggies. That would be 6-11 junior F Moritz Wagner, a March darling last season who considered entering the NBA Draft before returning to Ann Arbor. Wagner isn't a bruiser like Davis or a jumper like Williams, but he's more skilled than either of them. Thanks largely to foul trouble, though, he's made a relatively minor impact in Michigan's two games thus far. Nonetheless, his 12 points against Houston were tied for a team hgh. Matching that was G Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who had a downright bad night with 4-of-15 shooting and a missed layup late in the game that looked like it would cost the Wolverines their shot at the second weekend. He did, however, make up for it with the assist on the game-winning three by freshman G Jordan Poole. At the end of the day, leadership from players like Abdur-Rahkman is why Michigan has been able to overachieve and now enters the Sweet Sixteen as a favorite. It was a tough shooting night for G Zavier Simpson, too, as he managed only four points on 1-of-7 shooting, although the six-footer did scrap for a team-high eight rebounds. G Charles Matthews, Michigan's second-leading scorer behind Wagner, had 11 points. He had a game-high 20 against Montana in the first-round. Sharpshooting G Duncan Robinson hit 3-of-7 from deep in 30 minutes off the bench against Houston.

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