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Texas A&M's Tyler Davis slowly approached a group of reporters gathered just off the main floor of Reed Arena on Wednesday afternoon. The Aggies would soon depart College Station for Oklahoma City for their first-round NCAA Tournament contest against Green Bay. The freshman took a big gulp of water and several deep breaths before he stepped in front of the microphones. Sweat rolled down his face, darkening the maroon shirt hanging snugly across his thick shoulders.
If you didn't know better, you would think the Aggies (26-8) had just concluded a fast-paced, two-hour practice in preparation for the fast-paced tempo their opponent will try to instigate on Friday night.
The reality was that the A&M basketball team hadn't even begun its practice.
Yet, there was Davis, already drenched in sweat a full 30 minutes before the team's workout was set to begin.
"It's like that every day," says A&M assistant coach Mitch Cole. "He has a fire in his belly."
Davis certainly plays with a unique fire. He has drawn spectacular reviews from national analysts and--more importantly--opposing coaches throughout the season.
After Davis bull-rushed a long, athletic Florida frontcourt last Friday in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, Gators coach Mike White raved about the 6-foot-10, 265-pound first-year player. Davis rolled to 15 points, eight rebounds and three blocks to help his team win and deny perennial powerhouse Florida a much-needed victory.
"It's hard to believe he is just a freshman," said a shell-shocked White. "He's enormous, he's strong, he's physical, he likes contact, he has good feet, and he has great instincts. He seeks contact when he gets the ball, and he knows how to draw fouls. He is mature beyond his years."
An SEC All-Freshman selection, Davis will have his next chance to befuddle an opposing coach and team on Friday at 6:20 p.m. on TBS.
Third-seeded A&M will take on 14th-seeded Green Bay in a game the Phoenix hopes will feature more run-and-gun than ground-and-pound. Green Bay (23-12) averages 84 points a game and takes a lot of quick shots, meaning Davis may find himself in some unfamiliar situations.
"He is going to have to go out on the floor and guard some, which is something he hasn't done a whole lot of," said A&M coach Billy Kennedy. "The other part of that is they are going to have to guard him."
Thus far in the season, teams that haven't done a good job guarding Davis have lost. Conversely, teams that have bottled up the budding A&M star have captured wins.
Just how important is he to A&M's success?
In A&M's eight losses, Davis has failed to score in double figures seven times.
Conversely, the Aggies have won 17 of the 18 games in which Davis scored 10 or more points.
During the team's four-game losing streak in the middle of the season, Davis averaged just 7.0 points while attempting only 5.0 field goals and 1.25 free throws per game. In A&M's six wins against power teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament, his production improved to 13.5 points, 7.0 field goal attempts and 6.0 free throw attempts per game.
Davis' 64.7 percent field goal percentage is the best on the team by a long shot. Simply put, lots of good things happen when he touches the ball on the block.
His game-changing abilities don't stop on offense, however.
Against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament championship game last Sunday, A&M found itself down three points during overtime with 2:15 remaining. The Aggies had yet to score a field goal in the OT period and had just committed a crucial turnover. While two Kentucky players corralled the ball near the free throw line, Davis hustled past in an effort to get back on defense.
As the Wildcats' Isaiah Briscoe attempted a lazy handoff to point guard Tyler Ulis, Davis sensed an opportunity and swatted at the ball, knocking it out of bounds. After a lengthy review, officials determined the ball had been last touch by Kentucky. The play barely registered a blip on the box score, but it earned the Aggies another possession in crunch time. Danuel House quickly hit a big three-pointer after the A&M inbounds to tie the game.
The Aggies eventually lost, but Davis' hustle play was a big one.
"I've done my job the same every game," said Davis. "I've done what coach Kennedy has told me to do, and that's be a big inside presence on defense and offense."
He certainly has. Davis has yet to foul out of a game, and only once since late January has he picked up four fouls in a game. That gives Kennedy the option to keep the bruising forward in the game more often than not down the stretch.
"He has gotten to where he doesn't get in foul trouble lately," Kennedy said. "He's not having as many cheap fouls, so that's a part of (his success). He's putting fouls on the other team and we're getting to the line. He brings a lot to the table for us."
This is my way of telling Texas A&M 'Thank you.'"