We need to talk about Texas A&M.
For the first two weeks of SEC play, the Aggies’ recent slump could be sourced to personnel issues. D.J. Hogg sat three games as a result of a suspension. Admon Gilder missed time with a knee injury. Then Duane Wilson was hobbled. Oh, and Robert Williams missed a game after coming down with the flu.
At the same time, a pair of losses looked a tad flukish. Tremont Waters drilled two improbable 3-pointers to lift LSU to a win in college station. And this past Tuesday, Kentucky’s Wenyen Gabriel avoided the basketball equivalent of pass interference when he mugged Aggies forward Tyler Davis in the waning seconds to preserve a win.
Yes, the Aggies entered the weekend winless in conference play, but there was a case you could make to explain the slow start: Billy Kennedy’s roster was in flux, and if two late games break the other way, the Aggies would have been sitting level in the standings. In a season where the SEC lacks a clutch of elite teams, a bumpy start isn’t fatal.
After Saturday and a 13-point loss to Tennessee, sounding the claxon siren isn’t unreasonable. The 24th-ranked Volunteers didn’t need a sterling effort to get the win, and that might be more disconcerting.
Billy Kennedy’s ball club continued to play lazy. Tennessee grabbed 14 offensive rebounds and forced 17 turnovers. A&M surpassed double-digits in turnovers just 12 minutes into the game. Overall, the Volunteers won the rebounding battle 38-29 despite being a smaller team.
The Aggies were at full strength for this game. They shot 40 percent from behind the 3-point arc, getting the kind of offensive production this team needs from wings like Gilder and Hogg. But it was an off night inside for Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, who combined for just 17 points on 7 of 16 shooting and committed five turnovers.
Put simply: A&M has no excuses moving forward when it lays an egg.
Resting at 0-5 and in the SEC cellar, speculating about the Aggies’ chances to reach the NCAA tournament isn’t unreasonable. Before the loss in Knoxville, Kennedy’s team had slipped to a No. 8 seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest projection, while CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm had the Aggies as one of the last four teams to miss the cut. Now, Texas A&M remains 33rd in the RPI and 29th in KenPom—territory usually considered safe when it comes to bubble teams. Yet Aggies haven’t looked the part, and of their non-conference wins, only their season-opening romp against West Virginia has aged well.
Normally, I lament using the eye test, but the Aggies don’t look like a team trending in the right direction. Even under the best of circumstances, the start of their SEC slate was daunting, featuring road trips to Alabama and Kentucky with a visit from Florida plopped in the middle. Instead, the worst case scenario has unfolded.
On Tuesday, the Aggies have a chance to halt the bleeding when Ole Miss comes for a visit. They should be a favored next Saturday when they host Missouri. But a trip to a better-than-expected LSU follows those games. Oh, and did we mention a trek to Phog Allen for a date with Kansas in the Big 12-SEC Challenge.
Who knows, though? Maybe the Aggies can get their mojo back. Over non-conference play, the Aggies showed what kind of team it can be when every part is clicking. If Kennedy can get the tuning right, he’ll have a group whose seeding in March belies its ability.
The clock is ticking.
We get it: You may not have the time (or inclination) to load up your schedule with games to watch. That’s why we single out the game you should carve out to time to see each week.
No. 6 West Virginia at No. 10 Kansas | 8 p.m. CT Monday, ESPN
If only Barry Brown played with a tad more urgency Saturday, the Kansas State guard could have made history. Instead, his stroll up the court cost the Wildcats. And it spared this edition of KU from a fate that hadn’t occurred in two decades: losing three games at Allen Fieldhouse.
(Seriously, looking at the 1998-1999 season probably induces nausea for Jayhawks fans.)
No, Bill Self’s group isn’t likely to wind up as a No. 6 seed, it’s fair to say this team might be at risk of ending his 13-year run of conference titles. Now comes a trip to West Virginia on Monday is just the latest test in the always rugged Big 12. The team Self will take into Morgantown is also different in its construction.
It’s almost entirely perimeter-oriented. When we think of Self-coached teams, our minds immediately go to his high-low offense, which usually relies on having a pair of veteran and reliable post players. Well, this roster only touts forward Udoka Azubuike, with sophomore Mitch Lightfoot seeing spot minutes—a depth issue resulting, in part, from the absence of Billy Preston due to eligibility issues. On Saturday, freshman Silvio De Sousa was cleared to join the roster, but what immediate impact he provides is unclear.
A veteran backcourt, led by Devontae Graham, shoulders most of the burden. For example, 42 percent of KU’s shots come from behind the 3-point arc, ranking 81st nationally and by far the highest of any team in Self’s career. Quibbling, though, about shot selection seems silly when Graham (43.7 3-point-field-goal percentage), Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (48.0) and Lagerald Vick (44.9) knock them down at a high clip. Meanwhile, Graham is still an able slasher, and Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman, whose scoring has been inconsistent, can still slash to attack gaps and seams.
On its face, KU’s lack of depth—it ranks 344th in bench minutes—might seem cause for alarm. On second look, though, a small rotation isn’t uncommon for Self. Over the past decade, six KU teams finished lower than 250th nationally in bench minutes, including four lower than No. 300. The difference this season? Again, it’s size.
Defensively, KU has managed to hold its own. The Jayhawks don’t give up a ton of initial shots inside, but sitting at No. 237 nationally for opponents’ offensive rebound percentage means its possible to generate extra possessions. On top of that, KU’s offense is subject to volatility. A bad shooting night from the perimeter narrows the gap a team has to overcome.
And so we come to West Virginia, who we’ve discussed before. The Mountaineers are also a veteran-led team, with Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles as figureheads. If you were to come up with an antidote to KU in a lab setting, Bob Huggins’ crew is the result. They can apply steady on-ball pressure to Graham and try to force it out of his hands. And if turnovers aren’t a steady supply of transition offense, the Mountaineers, who are ninth nationally in offensive rebound percentage, can hammer the backboards for extra possessions—a task that got easier with the return of forward Esa Ahmad over the weekend.
Doubting Self’s ability to adjust is never a good idea. As currently built, however, wondering whether the Jayhawks can swipe a road win isn’t silly. A road loss wounded doom KU’s pursuit for a(nother) Big 12 crown, but early losses to Texas Tech and West Virginia—and two games against Oklahoma left—certainly narrow the margin for error.
THE CONFERENCE CALL
The SEC is trying to be better at basketball. Schools are assembling tougher schedules, hiring better coaches and recruiting at a higher level. We want to spotlight one matchup, and not always the one that first comes to mind, that’s interesting, could influence national perception or have major implications for the league race.
Florida at No. 18 Kentucky | 7:15 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN
How good is Kentucky?
Even now, in the middle of January, I’m not really certain what to make of the Wildcats. One method I’ve tried is to compare its standing in KenPom against previous rosters put together by John Calipari, and I’m left with one takeaway: the ’Cats might have reached their ceiling.
On Monday, UK sat at 24th in Pomeroy’s rankings, trending down from No. 15 over the past month—a period when the schedule coarsened and data from last season was finally expelled from the model. The question is what direction it moves from here on out. Five years ago, the injury to Nerlens Noel sent UK, whose roster featured top-tier talent but no transcendent player, spiraling off into oblivion and an NIT loss to Robert Morris. Or maybe they follow in the footsteps of the 2015-16 squad, which started 16-6 and rallied to win SEC regular season and tournament titles before bowing out in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Still, Kentucky starts this week at 4-1 in the SEC, and a win Saturday over rival Florida would give them a leg up in the standings. However, they haven’t looked inspired along the way. Kentucky barely escaped Baton Rouge with a win over LSU, got boat-raced in the second half at Tennessee, needed Gabriel’s grabby hands to avoid a full meltdown against Texas A&M and, finally, looked uninspired at Vanderbilt.
Aesthetics aside, the Wildcats do have an advantage: size. For example, freshman combo forward Kevin Knox has four inches on Egor Koulechov. Hamidou Diallo is three inches taller than KeVaughn Allen. And if Shai Gilgeous-Alexander runs the point, he’s a half-foot taller than Chris Chiozza.
That size and length, in theory, should help Kentucky, which is best in the SEC for 3-point defense, on closeouts against Florida squad that shots 39.0 percent behind the arc. And while the margins aren’t as bad, UF still ranks 12th in the SEC at keeping opponents off the offensive glass. Forcing Florida to take contested shots and offsetting any turnovers by a young backcourt with offensive rebounds is a path Calipari’s team can use.
The question, though, is how well UK can execute the game plan. At times, Calipari has resorted to zone defenses or rolling out a full-court press. By speeding up opponents or forcing them to navigate a sea of limbs, UK can mask issues it has in man-to-man rotating on the perimeter and shutting off driving lines. Enough lapses by UK’s youth and the sound play by UF’s veteran guards can mitigate the differences in personnel.
Pulling the lens back, UK-UF is the capstone for another important week in the SEC. Take a look at Wednesday’s schedule. The Iron Bowl unfolds on the hardwood as Auburn visits Alabama. Missouri, which is still scouring for a marquee win, hosts Tennessee. And Arkansas can put its 1-3 start completely out of mind with a road victory at Florida. Lastly, keep an eye on LSU, which is ahead of schedule under Will Wade. The Tigers are .500, but they have winnable games on deck against Vanderbilt and Georgia.
THE DEEP CUT
We at Rock M Nation believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, and those are the wells of rising coaching talent and potential Cinderella teams. As a true hoops connoisseur, you should see the players, coaches, and teams long before the spotlight finds them in March. So, we will bring you one game that might otherwise be considered off the grid.
Saint Mary’s at No. 13 Gonzaga | 8 p.m. Thursday CT, ESPN
Gonzaga’s presence obscures a fact of life for its peers in the West Coast Conference. For them, they still live a one-bid existence. Even Saint Mary’s, which over the past decade entrenched itself as the conference’s second in command.
Despite the best five-year run in school history, culminating with a 29-5 record last season, the Gaels’ have never been seeded higher than No. 7 in the NCAA tournament. A year ago, they entered the dance at No. 12 in KenPom—an area of the rankings usually occupied by programs slotted in as No. 3 or No. 4 seeds. The result: a second-round date with second-seeded Arizona and hard-fought battle that ended with a trip home.
So much of the Gaels’ fate intertwines with its two meetings each year with the Bulldogs because, without those wins, their resume looks thin. Even now, Randy Bennett’s program still doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.
This year, Bennett’s offense, a testament to well-drilled precision, is third in adjusted efficiency. What’s changed is the defensive end of the floor, where the Gaels have tumbled to 128th from 26th. The Gaels don’t give up many looks at the rim, they still rank 122nd in the country, with one in three shots coming from point-blank range.
Obviously, letting opponents have free reign in the paint isn’t ideal when you’re tasked with slowing Jonathan Williams III. But he’s also getting help from sophomore Killian Tillie. On the perimeter, Josh Perkins has transitioned from a reserve role into the Zags’ starting point guard and steady jump-shooting. While the cast of characters has changed, coach Mark Few’s roster is still balanced, with six players averaging more than 10 points per game.
The past can be prologue in this game, too. The Gaels are just 2-8 in the past decade when they’ve visited Spokane and a minus-11.6 scoring margin. That being said, the WCC race often comes down to two games a year, and it’s worth seeing whether Saint Mary’s can take a brief turn atop the heap.
And in the event this matchup is a wipeout, there are plenty of other mid-major games worth checking out on Thursday.
Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 matchups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and other matchups that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences. All tip-times are CST.
- No. 5 Duke at No. 25 Miami (Fla.), 6 p.m., ESPN
- Maryland at No. 24 Michigan, 5:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1
- No. 4 Oklahoma at Kansas State, 8 p.m., ESPNU
- No. 12 Cincinnati at UCF, 6 p.m., CBS Sports Network
- No. 20 Clemson at No. 15 North Carolina, 6 p.m., ESPN3
- Louisville at Notre Dame, 6 p.m., ESPN2
- Georgia at LSU, 6 p.m., ESPNU
- SMU at No. 7 Wichita State, 6 p.m., ESPNU
- No. 8 Texas Tech at Texas, 8 p.m., Longhorn Network
- No. 17 Auburn at Alabama, 6 p.m., SEC Network
- Creighton at No. 19 Seton Hall, 7:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1
- No. 21 Tennessee at Missouri, 8 p.m., SEC Network
- Arkansas at Florida, 6 p.m., ESPN2
- Fresno State at San Diego State, 10 p.m., ESPNU
- East Tennessee State at Furman, 6 p.m., ESPN3
- Murray State at Belmont, 6 p.m., ESPN3
- FGCU at Lipscomb, 6 p.m., ESPN3
- Louisiana-Lafayette at UT-Arlington, 7:15 p.m., ESPN3
- USC at Oregon, 8 p.m., ESPN2
- UAB at Western Kentucky, CBS Sports Network
- St. Bonaventure at Dayton, 6 p.m., ESPN2
- No. 4 Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, 1 p.m.
- Texas at No. 6 West Virginia, 1 p.m., CBS
- No. 7 Wichita State at Houston, 11:30 a.m., ESPNU
- Baylor at No. 10 Kansas, 5 p.m., ESPN Classic
- No. 11 Xavier at No. 19 Seton Hall, 1:30 p.m., Fox
- Notre Dame at No. 20 Clemson, 3 p.m., ESPN
- No. 24 TCU at Kansas State, 3 p.m., ESPNU
- Florida State at Virginia Tech, 11 a.m., ESPN 2
- Rhode Island at Dayton, Noon, CBS Sports Network
- LSU at Vanderbilt, Noon, SEC Network
- Georgia State at Georgia Southern, 1:15 p.m., ESPN3
- Missouri at Texas A&M, 3 p.m., ESPN2
- Missouri State at Drake, 3 p.m., ESPN3
- Middle Tennessee State at Western Kentucky, 6 p.m., Stadium
- Boise State at Nevada, 9 p.m., ESPNU
Catch up on prior editions of The Watch and look back three months from now to see how foolish all of these ideas actually are!
- The Watch: The Pilot
- The Watch: Where have all the home games gone?
- The Watch: Let’s Gorge on Neutral Floor Games!
- The Watch: Hey, the SEC is actually good at basketball
- The Watch: Getting by with a little help from your foes
- The Watch: What do we know, and when do we know it?
- The Watch: If Selection Sunday were today...
- The Watch: The time has come to resolve identity crises
- The Watch: The SEC race will be tight
- The Watch: In a topsy-turvy SEC, could Auburn (yes, really) be a favorite?