|#10/11 Texas A&M Aggies (16-1 overall, 3-0 Big 12) at #11/10 Texas Longhorns (14-3, 2-0)|
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 8 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN2
They say there’s no sure thing in sports. But when it comes to the basketball rivalry between Texas and Texas A&M, home-court advantage has been as close to a lock as you can find. The Longhorns have won the last eight meetings played at the Frank Erwin Center, while the Aggies have claimed six straight victories at the friendly confines of Reed Arena.
For the Longhorns, defending that home-court advantage tonight is a must. As deep as the Big 12 Conference is this year, each team will likely pick up a handful of losses on the road. Winning the games at home is the best way for any Big 12 team to keep itself in contention for the four first-round byes in the conference tournament. And for a Longhorn team that heads to Lawrence on Saturday, a win tonight would also make this weekend’s showdown a battle for first place in the league.
By the numbers
As always, the Aggies are a well-disciplined team with a stingy defense that loves to slow it down into a half-court affair. Texas A&M averages just 65.4 possessions per game, a tempo that’s more than three possessions per game slower than Texas. That may not seem like a large number, but in the world of tempo-free stats, it’s a wide chasm.
Texas A&M plays a nearly impenetrable pack-in style of defense. The Aggies slide and help quickly, cutting off dribble penetration time and again. They are allowing just 0.889 points per possession, a miserly number that makes them the 24th-best defense in the country. Of course, the Longhorns are fifth-best in the country with just 0.841 points given up per possession, so we could be in for a very low-scoring affair tonight.
Khris Middleton leads an efficient Aggie attack
(Photo credit: Otto Greule, Jr./Getty Images)
On offense, the Aggies are a patient bunch who take good shots and don’t force the issue. They have the 33rd-most efficient offense in the country, putting in 1.13 points each trip down the court. The biggest contributor to the offensive success is a dominating offensive rebound percentage of 41.1, the fifth-best in the nation. When the Aggies are actually forced into a bad shot, they often get it back and make the possession count. Fans have seen the Longhorns struggle with defensive rebounding as of late, so this could be a huge problem for Texas tonight.
That rebounding prowess extends to the defensive side of the ball, as well, where the Aggies are the 11th-best team in the country. They claim nearly 75% of their opponents’ misses, limiting teams to a ton of one-and-done possessions. While the Longhorns are a fairly good rebounding bunch, the numbers the Aggies have posted so far are simply dominant. If Texas A&M owns a wide rebounding margin tonight, it could make things tough for the Horns. Keep the rebounding battle close, though, and it should be an equally-close ballgame.
Finally, it should be noted that the Aggies are masters at getting to the line. They have a free-throw rate of 48.9% so far this season. In layman’s terms, that means that Texas A&M earns a pair of free throws for every two shots that they take. The Longhorns have a thin frontcourt, and the drop-off in talent from Tristan Thompson and Gary Johnson to Matt Hill and Alexis Wangmene is a big one. The Texas bigs have to avoid picking up fouls early, or Coach Rick Barnes may have to cobble together a hodgepodge lineup.
Meet the Aggies
Texas A&M is led by sophomore star Khris Middleton. He’s a long, athletic wingman that is averaging nearly 16 points per game, and he’s going to provide a tough matchup for Texas tonight. Middleton can score from anywhere on the floor, and at 6’7″, he can easily put it up over shorter guards.
Texas’ best defender is Dogus Balbay, a 6’1″ guy who definitely can be described as a shorter guard. But if the Longhorns try to use the taller Jordan Hamilton to shut down Middleton, he can easily attack off the dribble and finish at the rim. If Texas is married to a man-to-man defense tonight, the best plan of attack is probably to use Hamilton and provide solid help defense when Middleton inevitably beats him off the dribble.
It should also be noted that Middleton has great hands on defense, and he earns a ton of points with steals and the resulting open-floor layups. Texas can’t afford to give the high-scoring Middleton even more points by being lazy with the basketball.
Dash Harris loves the drive-and-dish
(Photo credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
At the point, the Aggies rely on Dash Harris, a junior guard from L.A. who is truly a facilitator. Harris is a pretty poor jump shooter, and his 27.8% field goal mark is a testament to that fact. If you let him attack the lane, he can certainly finish at the rim, but he prefers to make defenses react when he penetrates, leaving his teammates open for good looks. Harris is averaging nearly four assists a game, so Texas should work to keep him in front of them on D and make him beat them with his weak jumper.
Joining Harris in the backcourt is, B.J. Holmes, one of the team’s two senior leaders. He’s very quick with the ball, but thanks to his 5’11” frame, prefers to do his scoring from outside. At 40% behind the arc, Holmes is the team’s best three-point shooter, and Longhorn fans are well-aware of that fact. In the the last two meetings between the Horns and Aggies at Reed Arena, Holmes was 5-of-5 from long range. Fortunately for Texas fans, he was just 1-for-8 at the Erwin Center over the same two-year stretch.
The team’s other senior leader is big man Nathan Walkup. Four years ago, he was known as a three-point marksman, but now is a hard-nosed scrapper who leads the team in rebounds. Walkup can still knock it down from long range, where he’s made 38.6% of his shots this year, but he earns most of his points by tracking down rebounds and going up strong. To trot out a few clichés, he simply has a nose for the basketball and does the little things to help his team win.
Rounding out the starting five for Coach Mark Turgeon is Miami product David Loubeau. At 6’8″, he’s a quality rebounder, but he’s much more than the prototypical forward. Loubeau can knock down jumpers with ease, and he prefers to face up his man, rather than posting up on the blocks. There have been games where the Longhorns’ Thompson has been abused by athletic forwards, so it will be interesting to see how the Texas defense handles Loubeau tonight.
Off the bench, the Aggies are getting a ton of production out of sophomore wing man Naji Hibbert. He’s averaging just 20 minutes a game, yet still puts in seven points a night and grabs a few boards. He’s another quality three-point shooter, but he can take it inside if defenses play up in his shirt on the perimeter.
Big man Kourtney Roberson is already playing well as a freshman, and with the career had at A&M by his big brother, Bernard King, we can expect even more from him in the future. He’s an incredible rebounder, grabbing more than four boards per game despite seeing the court for just 12 minutes a night. In the tempo-free world, he’s actually the best defensive rebounder on the Aggies, save for Keith Davis, who has only appeared in 13 games. Roberson probably won’t play a lot tonight, but he’ll definitely have an impact when he’s on the floor.
Another option in the frontcourt is Ray Turner, a 6’8″ sophomore who moves really well for a guy his size. He’s a natural shot blocker, having racked up 13 swats so far this year in just 15 minutes per game. That equates to a 6.3% block percentage, which would put Turner just outside the top 100 nationally if had he played enough minutes to qualify.
Fans will also see Andrew Darko for a few minutes tonight. The senior was a longtime walk-on before earning a scholarship this season, but he doesn’t make a huge dent in the stat sheet. Darko prefers to take jump shots, and is in fact so averse to attacking the paint that he has yet to take a free throw in seventeen games.
Mark Turgeon and the Aggies own a 13-game win streak
(Photo credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Keys to the game
Without a doubt, the biggest thing Texas must do tonight is control the defensive glass. The Aggies are going to get offensive rebounds, but the Longhorns can’t allow them to dominate like Connecticut did. The poor defensive rebounding performance cost Texas a win against the Huskies, and if they allow A&M to extend possessions with offensive boards, it could likely cost them another win tonight.
In addition, Texas must avoid foul trouble in the frontcourt. We’ve already touched on this, but the Aggies know how to get to the line. Middleton and Loubeau combine to draw more than 11 fouls per forty minutes, so Thompson, Hamilton, and Johnson will have to avoid being the recipients of those whistles. If Hill and Wangmene are having to play significant minutes against the Aggies, Texas will have a very hard time winning.
Finally, the Longhorns will have success if Gary Johnson knocks down the jumpers. Prior to the Oklahoma game, GJ had taken 42.5% of his shots from the “danger zone,” located from 17 feet out to the three-point line. Since it’s the longest shot in basketball that isn’t worth three points, it’s considered the least-efficient place to shoot on the court. But despite that, Johnson has found a way to make the shot profitable for the Longhorns. Prior to the Sooner contest, he was averaging 1.2 points per shot in the “danger zone,” an absolutely incredible number.
What does that have to do with the price of tea in China? When Gary is knocking down that long jumper, it forces an Aggie big to defend him further from the glass. You might make the argument that GJ is one of the Longhorns’ best rebounders, and that shot also takes him away from a rebounding opportunity. But the stats show that Gary’s biggest contribution is as a defensive rebounder, so having him pull Aggie big men away from the paint is a net gain for Texas. And when you also consider how often Johnson knocks down that long-range shot, it can easily help Texas pile up the points.