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Texas A&M basketball team, fans come to Iowa for new March Madness memories
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Texas A&M basketball team, fans come to Iowa for new March Madness memories

DES MOINES, Iowa — The snow-covered fields of of central Iowa painted a bleak picture for anyone looking to celebrate the advent of spring.

However, as the Texas A&M men’s basketball team filed into Wells Fargo Arena for the first time Wednesday, smiles bigger than any spring break beach party could provide stretched from ear to ear on every player, coach and staff member.

With one region of NCAA Tournament staging out of Des Moines, there’s no place the Aggies would rather be than Iowa. Thursday, seventh-seeded A&M gets its first shot at the tournament in the Buzz Williams era, facing 10th-seeded Penn State.

“It’s the greatest tournament in any sport, in my opinion,” head coach Buzz Williams said. “I don’t really think of it for myself. I know I’m a part, but, just for everybody, it’s really cool.”

Before any one of Williams’ eight career March Madness appearances, he fell in love with the college basketball bracket when he was a child in rural Van Alstyne, searching for a game on one of the handful of over-the-airwaves channels his television antenna would pick up.

Most of his players can think back to a specific memory that epitomized March Madness.

It took A&M guard Andre Gordon less than a second to call out the name of Ohio State guard Aaron Craft and the buzzer-beating game-winner he launched against Iowa State in 2013 to push the Buckeyes into the Sweet 16. After draining the final seconds of the clock in Dayton’s UD Arena, not far from Gordon’s hometown of Sydney, Ohio, Craft jump stopped up at the arc and quickly fired off the distance shot that splashed into the net with two-tenths of a second remaining.

Now that Gordon has his chance at the field of 68, he hopes to bring the same survival mentality to the biggest stage in the sport.

“Obviously, it’s going to be looking around and seeing the March Madness signs and stuff like that, but I’m just trying to lock in,” Gordon said. “I want to win as many games as I can. This is my first time here and I don’t want to go out. I want to enjoy my time here and have fun.”

Forward Julius Marble can’t recollect what he learned in his high school classes during the month of March. Rather, he remembers finding ways to stream games unbeknownst to his teachers.

“I wouldn’t even be doing work half the time,” Marble said. “I’d be watching during class. This is the time of year where it feels like everything stops and people put their eyes on you. To finally be a part of that and have a footprint on that and a hand on what’s going on here is truly amazing.”

As the Aggies finally took the “March Madness” emblazoned court for Wednesday’s open practice, they drew the eyes and the cheers of maroon-clad Aggies from across the country.

Ted Cuffe and his son, Cooper, hopped in the car and drove 14 hours from Cypress to Des Moines in hopes to be a part of the week’s hoops magic. Each year, the duo plan out a first and second round trip to catch a piece of the tournament. With Cooper now a freshman at A&M, the Cuffe’s quickly altered their original plan to travel to Sacramento and booked it to Iowa to see what the Southeastern Conference’s second-best team could accomplish.

The drive was a piece of cake compared to the two night campout Cooper endured to get premium seating for the Aggies’ season finale win over Alabama in Reed Arena, he said.

“[I like] their personalities and they fight really hard,” Cooper Cuffe said. “They don’t back down from anybody, which is why I think they have a good shot.”

Aggie Shane Strand, class of 1998, had very little ground to cover to watch A&M battle through the postseason. The Des Moines native has lived back in his home town for more than 20 years after a brief jaunt down to Aggieland and relished the chance to catch the Aggies in his backyard.

“It’s very cool,” he said. “You don’t expect it to be up here. They’re never back in the midwest since we’re not in the Big 12, so it’s cool.”

The three Aggies were some of the dozens of A&M fans that made their way to the arena to cheer the team on to the court, roar when guard Hayden Henfer drilled a half-court shot and stick around for autographs after the team finished its time on the game court.

Whether on the court or in the stands, every college basketball fan has a history with the NCAA Tournament. For this edition of the Aggie basketball team, and the fans they bring in tow, Des Moines could prove to be the epicenter of March memories yet to come.

“Every year, trying to watch games super late or trying to watch games in class, that’s March Madness,” forward Henry Coleman III said. “I think it has an overall effect on everybody, whether you like basketball or not. I think some people are forced to watch it and I think it just brings the whole country together and for about three weeks everybody’s committed to basketball and it’s a cool experience.”

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The 15th-ranked Texas A&M baseball team will play Houston at 6 p.m. Tuesday at UH’s Schroeder Park. It’s the final game for the Aggies (12-4) before opening Southeastern Conference play this weekend against top-ranked LSU.

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