BOSSIER CITY, La. (AP) — Texas A&M coach Gary Blair offered fashion advice to anyone who might be inclined to wear dress shoes to Tuesday night's second-round NCAA tournament game between the Aggies and Rutgers.
"Wear your tennis shoes. There's going to be blood flowing out there," Blair said. "It's going to be a lot of fun. It'll be the best defensive game of the whole tournament."
Only Blair really knows if he truly expects such a ferocious contest, or whether it's part of his effort to ensure his players pay maximum respect to a team they trounced by 29 points back in December.
When Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer heard about Blair's comments, she suggested Blair might be trying to appeal to the sensibilities of the sizable A&M fan base living within driving distance of the Shreveport area in hopes of motivating them to attend the game.
Stringer said she hoped Blair's prediction of a hard-fought, defensive struggle proves correct, "but he knows he's got the upper hand."
At the very least, Blair has a painful history lesson to back him up as he tries to make his case that the second-seeded Aggies (28-5) won't have it so easy in their rematch with seventh-seeded Rutgers (20-12).
Only a year ago, A&M was stunningly eliminated in the second round of the tournament by a lower-seeded Gonzaga team that the Aggies had beaten comfortably earlier that season.
"When we played Gonzaga last year, I feel like the difference between our team this year is just that we all dealt with that pain after losing that game together," Aggies guard Sydney Colson said. "We're all motivated to not let something like that happen again."
There's also the matter of how impressively Rutgers handled their first-round game in Louisiana Tech's back yard. The Scarlet Knights dominated in a 76-51 triumph over the Lady Techsters, and the Aggies, who had played earlier, were able to watch much of it in person.
"We know that when we played them first, it was in December and nobody was at their highest peak," Texas A&M guard Maryann Baker said of the Aggies' 79-50 victory over Rutgers at the Maggie Dixon Classic in New York. "Just watching Rutgers yesterday and just watching some of their game film, we can clearly tell that the Big East has helped them improve greatly."
Baker added the Aggies need to "really put that game from December behind us in terms of how may points we beat them by, because both teams are better and I don't think that we're going to win by 29 points."
There's also the matter of A&M finally fulfilling its promise. The Aggies are in their sixth straight tournament — fourth in a row as a second seed — and have yet to go to a Final Four.
"It is time for us to live up to what everyone is saying we are capable of doing," Baker said.
The Scarlet Knights agreed that they were a work in progress several months ago and totally unprepared for the type of on-the-ball defensive pressure A&M applies, often for the full length of the court.
"We had a hard time even getting into our offense against these guys," said Rutgers leading scorer April Sykes, who had 22 points against Louisiana Tech in the first round. "We've just got to take our time and play within ourselves."
Stringer said the Scarlet Knights did not really find their identity until after consecutive road loses to Notre Dame and DePaul in mid-February, a skid that left Rutgers in danger of missing the NCAA tournament. The Scarlet Knights then rattled off five straight wins before losing to Connecticut in the semifinals of the Big East tournament.
"We've been inconsistent. We just found ourselves a couple of weeks ago. We put it together out of real fear," Stringer said. "I can just tell you that we have gotten better."
Sykes, a junior swing player, has had some of her best performances recently, scoring 18 or more points in four of five games, the lone exception being her nine-point outing in the loss to UConn.
"I have decided that she is that go-to player and she has the green light," Stringer said. "She did just begin to come into her own this year. People are just beginning to see the great player that we anticipated and knew that she was in high school."
It may not matter how well Sykes plays if Rutgers can't slow down Aggies' 6-foot-1 center Danielle Adams, who averages nearly 23 points per game and scored 18 in only 28 minutes in A&M's first-round 87-47 win over McNeese State.
Adams, whom Blair likens to a female version of Charles Barkley, has been giving opponents fits not only because she is so powerful inside, but also because her range extends beyond the 3-point line and because she passes the ball effectively out of double and triple teams.
"She is a great player and there is no way you can completely shut down a great player," said Rutgers power forward Chelsey Lee, a candidate to be the primary defender on Adams. "We will have to throw a lot of different lineups and defenses at her just to contain her."