Imperial Arena | Paradise Island, Bahamas
Tip: 6 P.M. CT | TV: AXS (find your channel)
Vegas: Texas A&M -3 | KenPom: Texas A&M, 74-72 (57%)
The break-up of the old Big 12 was a messy and very public affair, full of flirtation with other conferences, grandstanding, and even court orders. As often happens with bitter endings of long relationships, partners swore to never see each other again. Historic rivalries like Kansas-Mizzou, Nebraska-OU, and Texas-Texas A&M went by the wayside.
For the Longhorns and Aggies, that has meant that the teams haven’t met in basketball or football since the Texas hoops team won their final conference match-up in February of 2012. Despite friends — the media, legislators, even that random drunk at your favorite watering hole — imploring the two to get back together, the programs have held staunchly to their insistence that they just won’t do it.
With bowl games and the SEC-Big 12 Challenge not renewing the Lone Star rivalry over the last three years, it finally came down to an exempt November basketball tournament to break the ice. Sure, it’s on a channel nobody ever watches, and yes, it’s more than a thousand miles from either campus. In a sports remake of Forgetting Sarah Marshall that subs the Bahamas for Hawai’i, your personal allegiance probably dictates which school you think is Peter Bretter and which is Sarah, but the important thing is that Texas and A&M will finally be playing something again over Thanksgiving weekend.
If you hated that intro, I appreciate you sticking with me. There was another angle involving dysfunctional families coming together at Thanksgiving, but you’ll have to settle for Jason Segel. On to the hoops…
By the numbers
Through their first four games, the Aggies have posted some eye-popping numbers. They haven’t played a team ranked higher than 242nd out of 351 Division I teams, according to Ken Pomeroy, so the Longhorns will provide the first real test for Texas A&M. Still, the Aggies managed to score in triple-digits in their first two ballgames, the first time the program had done that since the 90’s. Regardless of opponent, and even taking into account the offense-friendly rule changes, that’s still something worth noting.
In terms of raw offensive efficiency, the Aggies are currently ranked 11th in the nation, scoring 1.24 points per possession through their first four games. Their raw tempo clocks in just a hair under 75 possessions per game, while their effective field-goal percentage of 64.5% is third in the nation. That eFG is driven by a scorching three-point attack, with the Aggies draining more than 47% of their long-range attempts, and scoring nearly a third of their points from behind the arc.
To date, the only weaknesses of the Aggie offense have been ball control and free throws. Texas A&M has turned it over on 21% of their possessions, although they did manage to cough it up on just 13.4% of their possessions in their most recent game, against UNC-Asheville. From the charity stripe, the Aggies have made just 67% of their free throws, although that number is buoyed by an outlier performance against TAMU-Corpus Christi, in which the Ags made their first 22 freebies, and missed only a pair in the final minute.
Defensively, Texas A&M has been solid. It’s difficult to know how much stock to put into their defensive numbers, as they’ve played some teams that are clearly outclassed, but the eye test shows that they are well-coached. The Aggies have an adjusted defensive efficiency that is Top 25 in Division I, and they’ve forced opponents into a 23.3% turnover rate, also a number that ranks in the Top 25.
The only defensive number that has even been average through the first four games for A&M is a free-throw rate of 40.8%, meaning that the Aggies give opponents roughly two free throws for every five field goal attempts. The Longhorns are a much bigger group than any squad that Texas A&M has faced to date, so that trend is likely to continue tonight.
Meet the Aggies
Texas A&M has looked like a well-oiled machine in its first four games, thanks in large part to an August exhibition trip through Europe in which the team played four games. The Aggies have a solid mix of returning players and an excellent recruiting class, and the extra practices and competition gave the team a chance to work out the kinks.
As a result, the team already looks great on both sides of the ball. On offense, the Aggies immediately look up after closing out a defensive possession, hoping to find easy points in transition. If the defense can get back and stop Texas A&M from chalking up fast-break points, the Aggies move the ball quickly and try to catch their opponents scrambling on the secondary break. In possessions where the Aggies have to settle for half-court sets, they make smart passes to find their shooters open looks, or to set up their solid post players in good position.
That high-powered offense starts with senior transfer Anthony Collins (No. 11; 6’1″), who comes to College Station from USF. Although Collins is a quick point guard in a more traditional mold, he also can knock down the outside shot when defenders are napping on the perimeter. Collins is averaging one triple per game, and has made 66% of his limited long-range attempts this year.
With Collins at the point, that allows senior do-everything guard Alex Caruso (No. 21; 6’5″) to move to his more natural position off the ball. Caruso displayed fantastic court vision when he was the team’s point guard over the last few seasons, and he’s still making great feeds this year. Without the need to run the offense, he’s also shown an ability to get the corner and drive to the bucket, where he has a knack for finishing even the toughest of looks.
Defensively, Caruso is a pest. He consistently has his hands up to limit angles, and does a great job timing his breaks to zip into passing lanes and steal the ball. He tied for the SEC lead in steals-per-game last year, averaging an even two per contest, and his steal rate through four games is currently ranked 43rd in Division I.
On the wing, senior Danuel House (No. 23; 6’7″) is a scoring machine. This season, he’s been more perimeter-oriented, with roughly 70% of his attempts coming from behind the arc. Although House has made more than 41% of his three-point attempts this year, his game is much more than that. House has no qualms about taking a 17-footer after getting a defender airborne on the perimeter, and has the midrange game to make them pay. His quickness and explosiveness also make him a constant threat to get to the rim when defenses pressure him at the arc.
Joining House on the wing is senior Jalen Jones (No. 12; 6’7″), who will be making his season debut tonight after sitting out four games for playing in two closed scrimmages at SMU before transferring in the fall of 2013. Texas A&M wisely scheduled four non-conference games prior to the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, allowing their slashing senior a chance to come back for the entire tournament, rather than missing a game or two of it.
Jones is expected to once again join the starting lineup, but it remains to be seen whether Coach Billy Kennedy elects to go with two traditional bigs to match the size of Texas, giving them length from positions two through five, or if Jones is slotted in as an undersized four.
If the Aggies go with a pair of 6’7″ wings, they’ll really be able to stretch the floor when Tonny Trocha-Morelos (No. 10; 6’10”) is on the court. The sophomore from Colombia was already known as a solid rebounder and a defensive presence, but he’s upped his game this year with great passing and a newfound outside threat. Trocha started all four games for the Aggies and drained 6-of-9 threes, all coming in the last three contests. On top of adding a three-point shot to his repertoire, Trocha has also posted an assist rate of nearly 25% this season with a barrage of slick high-low passes.
With Jalen Jones back from suspension, it may be freshman Tyler Davis (No. 34; 6’10”) that loses a spot in the starting lineup. Davis was part of Plano West’s state title team, and he clearly plays beyond his years. Davis has really nice footwork for a true freshman and has been able to finish through contact in his first four games. Davis definitely needs some work on his conditioning, and it still remains to be seen if he’ll be strong enough to finish against major-conference opponents, but his early performances have been impressive.
Another impressive freshman in A&M’s stellar 2015 class is DJ Hogg (No. 1; 6’8″), who was also a member of that Plano West title team with Davis. Hogg’s size and outside threat give the Aggies a ton of lineup versatility off the bench, and it makes him a tough cover. Hogg is second on the team in three-point attempts behind House, but his 47.6% success rate is tops on the squad. Even though he’s a great outside shooter, the freshman doesn’t just camp out on the perimeter, often making fantastic cuts to the rack. He’s also great at finding space on the break, and is a big reason why their transition game is so potent.
The Aggies also have a pair of reserves inside that will help them do battle with the size of the Longhorn frontcourt. Bahamian junior Tavario Miller (No. 42; 6’7″) will surely have a good crowd in attendance. Although the offense drops off considerably when he’s on the floor, Miller knows how to use his body in the post, and is a solid rebounder and defender. Freshman Elijah Thomas (No. 15; 6’9″) is still unpolished, but has shown the ability to score with both hands in the post, and will likely be a difference-maker in future seasons, once the frontcourt logjam has cleared out.
The final member of A&M’s core rotation is freshman combo guard Admon Gilder (No. 3; 6’3″). Although Gilder can run the point, with both Anthony Collins and Caruso in front of him on the depth chart, he’s mostly seen action off the ball. He’s made 47.1% of his threes this season — second-best on the team — and harasses opposing guards on the defensive end.
Keys to the Game
1. Limit transition damage – Tonight’s match-up is one between two teams that like to push the tempo, but Texas A&M has proven to be more consistent on the offensive end. Although the Aggies have yet to face tough competition, they have been much more disciplined than the Longhorns.
Let it be clear, simply stopping the transition attack won’t be enough against A&M. Their offense is well-coached and their players will find good looks in half-court sets or on the secondary break. However, if this games becomes a true track meet with transition points lighting up the scoreboard, it seems highly unlikely that Texas can keep up.
2. Improve shot selection – Coach Shaka Smart told reporters on Monday that he has four categories for his team’s shots — great, good, decent, and bad. While shot selction has left quite a bit to be desired through the team’s first two games, Smart was pleased that the team took better shots in their second game.
As a result, three-point percentage went way up, and the team’s raw offensive efficiency increased by nearly 12%. The Longhorns took less shots off the dribble and found open teammates for good looks. Their assist ratio from the Washington game to the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi game jumped from roughly 25% to more than 56%. That wasn’t only a reflection on the level of opponent; team basketball and improved shot selection played a huge role.
Texas A&M plays sound defense that makes it difficult for opponents to penetrate, and they will spring traps when the ball is moved to bad positions on the floor. Couple their frustrating defense with the likelihood that this game is played at a very high tempo, and it would be very easy for the Longhorns to again fall into the trap of taking quick, poor shots. To keep up with an efficient Texas A&M team, the Longhorns must build upon their most recent performance, and avoid regressing to the type of isolation basketball they played in Shanghai.
3. Steal possessions – The trademark of Shaka Smart basketball is stingy defense that generates extra possessions and easy buckets for his offense. Through the first two games, the Longhorns haven’t relied on much high-pressure defense, but have still managed to post a respectable 20.2% turnover mark.
A few miles down the road, the Aggies coughed up quite a few possessions in their first three games, with many of the errors unforced. Although Texas A&M can make Texas pay if they over-extend on defense, the opportunity is certainly there for the Longhorns to eke out a few extra possessions by winning the turnover battle. If the Longhorns can apply pressure at the right times and force Texas A&M into making its usual type of mistakes, they should be able to stay in this game and be in a position to move into the winner’s bracket.