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Hoops Preview: Texas A&M aren’t great, but they’re good enough

Two of the SEC’s weaker teams square off to jockey for position in the middle of the conference pack.

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NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to SEC basketball - It just means more! - where the teams picked 11th and 14th in the preseason are currently 2nd and 5th, respectively. There have already been buzzer-beaters, road upsets and crying in locker rooms.

When the conference slate started, Sam and Matt talked on Dive Cuts about where the different programs in the SEC slotted in by tiers. Sam specifically mentioned the fact that the SEC has a soft middle where teams are good enough to beat up on each other, but also flawed enough to lose to anybody on any given night.

There may not be any elite teams outside of Tennessee or Kentucky, but anybody can find themselves on top of the standings. Ask South Carolina.

Which brings us to Saturday’s tilt in College Station, one of the — how do we go about this nicely? — lesser match ups of the weekend, slating two teams vying for position in the soft middle and hoping to get themselves out of the basement.

In his seventh season as the Aggie head coach, Billy Kennedy’s program is coming off of a high — the Aggies appeared in their second Sweet 16 in three years, led by first round NBA Draft pick Robert Williams and long-time contributors Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg. A&M brings back All SEC freshman T.J. Starks and touted sophomore Savion Flagg, but it’s been even more of a transitional year for the Aggies than for the Tigers.

Kennedy’s took non-conference losses to UC Irvine and Texas Southern (at home!) and are one Starks heroic moment away from joining Missouri and Vanderbilt as the only SEC teams without a win in conference play.

The Aggies are young though. Only one senior — Christian Mekowulu — plays meaningful minutes, and Kennedy’s program may be primed for a major bounce back next year, when Flagg, Starks and small forward Brandon Mahan all enter their junior seasons. They’ve also got an exciting recruiting class (including former Mizzou target, Kobe Brown) on the way, meaning the Aggies probably won’t be going anywhere for the near future.

For now, though, it’s a year in the doldrums. Sounds familiar, right? If only Missouri had a few deep March runs to hang their hats on...

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Texas A&M vs Michigan
Due to his strong efficiency and rebounding numbers, sophomore Savion Flagg has played more minutes than anyone in the Aggies’ rotation.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Starters

Position Missouri (9-6, 0-3 SEC) Texas A&M (7-8, 1-3 SEC)
Position Missouri (9-6, 0-3 SEC) Texas A&M (7-8, 1-3 SEC)
PG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) TJ Starks (So., 6-2, 196)
CG Mark Smith (So., 6-4, 220) Wendell Mitchell (Jr., 6-3, 185)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Brandon Mahan (So. 6-5, 200)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Savion Flagg (So., 6-7, 217)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Christian Mekowulu (Sr., 6-8, 245)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | Over the past few games, we’ve seen Missouri’s offense stalled when its key guy — Jeremiah Tilmon — isn’t on the floor. Even three-point shooting north of 38 percent hasn’t been enough to keep the Tigers particularly close in any of their games so far. Much of it has to do with dip in Jordan Geist’s production (only 36 percent on field goals in SEC play) and the lack of dimension once Tilmon is forced to sub out. The Tigers have seen valiant efforts from Javon Pickett and Mark Smith, who continues to shoot the lights out, but only Tilmon has the size and strength to create his own shows down low. Reed Nikko is what he is, and KJ Santos hasn’t developed enough to out-maneuver bigger defenders in the paint. So if Geist isn’t creating shots for his teammates and Tilmon isn’t working things on the block, Missouri has to go motion until a lane or a three-ball opens up.

Texas A&M Defense | Missouri should be able to create some second chances on the offensive glass, and won’t have to worry too much about the Aggies creating too many turnovers. However, Missouri’s size advantage amongst the bigs won’t mean a lot if they can’t take advantage of those opportunities. The Aggies have a very good two-point defense and two good-to-elite shot blockers in Mekowulu and Josh Nebo, whose block percentage (16.1) ranks third in the NCAA. It’s old hat at this point, but if the Aggies can find a way to get Tilmon on the bench early — and Mekowulu draws 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes — they could make Missouri’s sluggish offense one-dimensional early. If that happens, Missouri may have to rely on an elite shooting day.

Missouri offense vs. Texas A&M defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 106.0 (120) 18.8 (322) 51.3 (165) 21.0 (289) 31.4 (84) 31.9 (224) 39.1 (20) 46.2 (290) 68.4 (231) 9.7 (201) 7.9 (79)
Texas A&M 100.6 (117) 16.4 (38) 47.9 (73) 18.5 (207) 33.1 (322) 31.2 (123) 33.1 (127) 46.6 (50) 66.2 (41) 14.9 (13) 8.8 (179)

When Texas A&M has the ball...

Texas A&M Offense | With a usage rate and shots taken percentage in the Top 50 nationally, the Aggies offense typically runs through T.J. Starks. He has proven himself an adept passer, but sports a turnover rate that’s actually higher (23.5 to 24.5 percent). His offensive rating sits at a paltry 83.5 coming into Saturday, so he might not be the Tigers’ biggest concern. That distinction doesn’t go to any one player in particular, but the Aggies do have a host of threats. Flagg has been the Aggies’ most efficient scorer from close and Mekowulu ranks in the country’s top 40 in offensive rebounding percentage. The Aggies aren’t a talented shooting team, which works in Missouri’s favor, but they are close to elite at cleaning up their own misses. The outcome could be determined by which team is able to take better advantage of their second chances.

Missouri Defense | The Tigers’ defense is far from elite, but thus far in the season it has been effective in slowing down the pace of the game to Cuonzo Martin’s liking. What could be a major boon to the defense is preventing easy buckets from offensive mishaps. A&M isn’t overtly skilled in any one offensive area (save rebounding), so the Tigers would be wise to prevent the Aggies from getting any easy run outs or transition buckets. The Aggies do find a way to get to the line more often than the average team, though, so surprise surprise the Tigers will have to find a way to stay out of foul trouble. This goes beyond Tilmon, though. Mark Smith and Kevin Puryear have given themselves over to silly fouls in the recent past, and Martin will need all hands on deck to win any SEC road game.

Missouri defense vs. Texas A&M offense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 99.5 (103) 18.0 (311) 50.1 (160) 19.6 (144) 27.8 (142) 33.9 (190) 32.9 (118) 50.6 (186) 67.6 (81) 5.2 (332) 7.2 (292)
Texas A&M 107.3 (96) 17.1 (148) 49.6 (222) 19.2 (196) 33.8 (38) 36.9 (100) 28.6 (338) 53.3 (95) 69.8 (186) 13.1 (338) 8.9 (185)

KenPom predicts...

Texas A&M 70, Missouri 66 | This seems about right, given the way the two teams have played so far in conference. A&M isn’t a great team, but they did find a way to stay close enough to Alabama to be bailed out on a running bank three from their star player. Missouri has yet to get a game within 10 points, and it’s hard to imagine them doing so on the road. If Tilmon stays out of trouble, Missouri will have a chance to outplay its offensive peripherals, but it would be unwise to expect that outcome until we’ve seen it a time or two. Given the Tigers proclivity toward the deep ball (and their skill in doing so), this should be close until the end. Still, it’s tough to ask a young team to steal a game on the road this early in the conference schedule, and A&M could get back to .500 with a win. It’s probably closer than the 63/37 split KenPom has currently listed, but it’s no coin flip either.