COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When coach Gary Blair took over at Texas A&M in 2003, he went door to door begging people to come watch his struggling team play.
Blair has since transformed the team into a contender, and he led the Aggies to their first national title last season.
On Saturday, No. 3 seed Texas A&M will make its school-record seventh straight NCAA appearance, facing No. 14 seed Albany and hosting a tournament game for the first time since 1994.
Albany is making its first-ever NCAA appearance after winning the America East tournament.
Arkansas returns to the tournament for the first time since 2003, and will play Dayton in the first game in College Station. The Flyers are in the tournament for the third consecutive season after winning their first Atlantic 10 tourney championship.
Blair says his team is just starting to find its identity this season after losing last year's star Danielle Adams.
"We have to share who's going to be the go-to person on the court," Blair said. "There isn't one. It shows you there's a lot of we in us instead of a lot of me."
The Aggies will get leading scorer Tyra White back for Saturday's game after she missed the previous three games with a foot injury.
Kelsey Bone said playing without White helped several players improve.
"We got some really good wins without Tyra," Bone said. "I think that helped the rest of us understand what we were all individually capable of. Now we put Tyra back in and we keep the train moving."
The Great Danes aren't intimidated by A&M, but are a bit nervous about being in the tournament for the first time.
"I think we just look at it as an opportunity," Albany forward Julie Forster said. "It's going to be a tough game — they're a great team. But we need to play hard, that's what we can control."
Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson is always looking for ways to motivate her team. Her latest incentive came when she presented them with new Jordan warmups before the conference tournament championship game.
"They were like: 'Ooh, these Jordan sweats are sweet,'" she said. "And I said: 'There's nothing on them, it depends on what you want to put them on them. Do you want them to say 22-10 or 23-9?'"
The group wore those black warmups, emblazoned with gold embroidered letters that said "NCAA 23-9" on the shoulder and "America East Champs" in large block letters across the back on Friday before practice.
"I wanted them to be proud and walk around with their chests out and they've earned all that," Abrahamson-Henderson said.
Dayton's players believe the experience they gained in past trips to the tournament will be valuable on Saturday against Arkansas.
"Being here for our third time, we definitely have an edge because we know the level of intensity it will take in order succeed," Dayton senior Casey Nance said. "I think it's definitely going to help us."
Dayton coach Jim Jabir isn't sure how much the experience will aid his team.
"I think sometimes that can be overblown," he said. "I think if you're well-coached, well-prepared and you have an edge or attitude, you can overcome. The experience factor, you'd rather have it than not, but it's hard to tell that it really does play a role."
Though the Razorbacks haven't been to the tournament in almost a decade, they feel good about the chances with their veteran team. Arkansas has five seniors on its roster.
"They're a pretty confident bunch," coach Tom Collen said of his seniors. "Any nervousness that maybe the majority of our team might feel being in the tournament for the first time, I think hopefully our seniors can rise to the occasion and try to find a way to play their best basketball."
The Razorbacks opened Southeastern Conference play 0-4 before bouncing back with an eight-game conference winning streak. They aren't daunted by being in the tournament for the first time in their careers and believe they've been preparing for this moment for years.
"I don't think we feel any added pressure," Razorbacks guard Lyndsay Harris said. "We're new to this but it feels good because we know we've worked hard. It's exciting, but we're going to attack it head on and we're not worried about the fact that we haven't been in a while."Comment on this story
Dayton lost to Penn State in the first round of the tournament last season in a game where star forward Justine Raterman played with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Being ousted early last season has provided the Flyers with extra motivation for this year's tournament.
"We're not just happy to be here anymore," Raterman said. "Our first couple years, getting to the NCAA tournament was our goal, and so when we got there it was very exciting. This year is a little bit different. We have been here in the past and we're not done yet."