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SEC Basketball Preview: Buzz Williams is restarting his rebuild

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Previewing the No. 12 team in the SEC, the Texas A&M Aggies.

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

When the coaching carousel is spinning, you can get caught up in grading hires—and declaring winners and losers—before a game is ever played. That was the case for Texas A&M after it landed Buzz Willams, a hallmark and the start of a sea change for a program that’s experienced highs but has never realized its full potential.

In College Station, basketball will never come first, but its football program and alumni base mean Texas A&M’s athletic department is swimming in cash. Investment isn’t a problem. Are they doing so wisely? That’s another issue. With more revenue coming in after a move to the SEC, Billy Kennedy, a perfectly fine coach, was shoved out the door. In came Williams, a Texas native who succeeded at Marquette and (more impressively) Virginia Tech.

Things haven’t entirely gone as planned.


Previous SEC Previews

TAMU Record

#12 Texas A&M Aggies

Last Season: 8 - 10 (2-8 in conference) No. 137 KenPom

My Prediction: 15 - 15 (5-13, 12th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 4.3 - 13.7 (13th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 12th in conference

KenPom Projection: 16 - 13 (8-10 in conference) No. 78

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Buzz Williams | Third Season, 24-24

Buzz Williams is no stranger to College Station, where he worked as an assistant for Billy Gillispie and helped rejuvenate the Aggies. Texas A&M went to six consecutive NCAA tournaments over a period spanning Gillispie and Mark Turgeon—evidence that the program could excel with the right person in charge. So, it makes sense Williams would want to come home.

His rebuild, however, has gone awry. In Williams’ first season, the Aggies struggled during non-conference play but overachieved once it moved into its SEC schedule, going 10-8. Yet the Aggies had the conference’s second-worst efficiency rating. When they didn’t squeak out case wins, there were on the end of blowouts. That magic went missing last year as COVID hit the program hard, putting it on multiple pauses, including one lasting all of February.

Then, nearly everyone left. The result: Williams, who is locked into a rich contract, is redoing Year 1.

Seat Temp: COOL, MAYBE

texas A&M preview 10 year look

If Gillispie and Turgeon overachieved, then Kennedy’s time in charge will be seen as the opposite. When you look at Texas A&M’s overall history, you can draw the line at 2004. Before then, the Aggies owned a 51.2 win percentage and made just six trips to the NCAA tournament. But over the last 17 years, the program’s won 62.4 percent of its games, won a regular-season SEC title, and reached the big dance eight times, including three Sweet 16 appearances. Money isn’t an issue. Texas is full of talent. What the Aggies need is someone to put all the pieces together consistently.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Emanual Miller transfer 17 74.86% 23.85% 29.30% 19.34%
Savion Flagg grad transfer 17 62.78% 12.96% 15.61% 12.85%
Jay Jay Chandler grad transfer 17 48.33% 12.01% 7.99% 11.68%
Kevin Marfo grad transfer 17 30.42% 3.89% 6.44% 4.50%
Jaxson Robinson transfer 14 19.03% 2.59% 2.12% 2.45%
Jonathan Aku transfer 18 35.69% 2.77% 2.19% 4.31%
LaDamien Bradford transfer 14 13.61% 0.35% -0.06% 1.23%
56.94% 58.42% 52.90% 43.87%

Is losing a lot from a bad team a bad thing? For some of these departures, I’d say no. Still, this kind of turnover isn’t healthy overall. For example, graduate transfer Kevin Marfo didn’t really pan out as a rebounding machine and replacement for the underrated Josh Nebo. Instead, Marfo used his extra season of COVID eligibility to go back to Quinnipiac.

Guard Jay Jay Chandler served as a steady reserve, but he bounced for a larger role at South Alabama. Meanwhile, Savion Flagg, a once-heralded recruit who posted 13.8 points per game as a sophomore, flamed out a bit as a senior. Rather than run it back, he’s spending his COVID year at Sam Houston State.

However, losing Emanual Miller was a surprise. On an offensively challenged roster, Miller was a key piece. Not only did he leave, but he stayed in-state and signed on at TCU. Jonathan Aku was a former four-star big man whose development stalled and resulted in spot time. He followed Flagg to the Southland Conference and Stephen F. Austin.

Perhaps the biggest shocker was Jaxson Robinson, who had been a hard-fought recruiting win for Williams. Once on campus, though, Robinson struggled to crack the regular rotation, and his body needed to mature and develop. Now, he’ll do that at Arkansas, although it’s hard to see him getting more minutes in a loaded Razorbacks rotation. Finally, Cashius McNeilly was never healthy while at A&M. He opted out of the season and then transferred to TCU with Miller.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Andre Gordon JR CG 18 69.58% 12.96% 45.10% 11.48%
Quenton Jackson SR WING 18 57.78% 16.25% 60.10% 15.61%
Hassan Diarra SO PG 18 49.17% 9.08% 45.20% 6.20%
Hayden Hefner SO WING 15 24.44% 2.68% 47.30% 1.88%
Luke McGhee* SR POST 10 10.83% 0.61% 59.50% 1.50%
Zach Walker* SR WING 9 3.47% 0.00% 0.00% -0.27%
43.05% 41.58% 36.40%
NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Hassan Diarra | SOPHOMORE | POINT GUARD

I loved Hassan Diarra’s fit when he signed with Texas A&M, and I’m sticking with it. Diarra still shows promise as an initiator and creator for Williams, but doing so consistently will be the key. If Diarra can take that step forward, so will the Aggies. The biggest area for improvement: shooting. Bluntly, Diarra wasn’t good last year, posting an ugly 45 percent true-shooting percentage. However, just reaching average would be enough because his assist and steal rates tell you he can make things happen at both ends.

It’s tempting to put Andre Gordon in a featured role because he’s made his share of big plays over the last two years. But Gordon’s never been all that efficient, especially as a jump shooter. That gets covered up, though, by the fact he spends the bulk of his time bringing the ball up or acting as an attacker. With fewer possessions, can Gordon find more efficiency?

Hayden Hefner offers spot minutes, a few starts, and some occasional shot-making. But the big surprise was the return of Quenton Jackson, a high-flying wing who is also surprisingly good in spot-ups — despite a bit of an awkward release. With Jackson, Gordon, and Diarra, Williams has enough exciting pieces in his backcourt. And if Jackson leaves the floor before you, don’t jump.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Manny Obaseki 6'4 175 ★★★★ 33 WING
Fr Wade Taylor 5'10 180 ★★★★ 119 PG
Fr Ashton Smith 6'9 230 ★★★ 214 POST
R-Fr Javonte Brown-Ferguson 6'11 230 Transfer UConn POST
So Henry Coleman 6'8 240 Transfer Duke CF
So Marcus Williams 6'2 180 Transfer Wyoming CG
Jr Tyrece Radford 6'2 200 Transfer Virginia Tech CG
Jr Aaron Johnson-Cash 6'6 200 Transfer JUCO WING
Sr Ethan Henderson 6'8 210 Transfer Arkansas POST
G-Sr Jalen Johnson 6'6 210 Grad Transfer Mississippi St WING
NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Virginia Tech North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Tyrece Radford | Junior | COMBO GUARD

The Virginia Tech transfer was a late addition but a big one. Since Williams showed up, he’s needed a reliable scorer as a focal point in his rotation. Now, he has one in Radford, a slashing combo guard. His handle is tight enough to deal with pressure, but he’s best used as a secondary ball-handler and working to get downhill. Radford ran into a little legal trouble at Virginia Tech, so reconnecting with the coach who recruited him to Blacksburg is a good opportunity to reset. He should immediately become a key offensive cog.

Like most of the SEC, Texas A&M nearly reset its entire roster, so the list of incoming names is long.

Williams went out of his way to try and bring in intriguing talent, and there’s a lot of pieces here. Manny Obaseki is an athletic lefty at his best when attacking the rim, but a developing jumper and improved feel would help him find a place in the rotation. The Aggies’ other freshmen may find minutes harder to come by, but Wade Taylor is a playmaking point guard while Ashton Smith offers upside as a big with long arms and a quick first jump.

Henry Coleman didn’t work out at Duke. Still, he’s a talented forward who should fit into the long-term plans at A&M. Joining Coleman in the frontcourt, UConn transfer Javonte Brown-Ferguson only stuck around Storrs briefly before entering the portal. Marcus Williams is an intriguing transfer point guard from Wyoming, where he led the Cowboys in scoring as a freshman. Aaron Johnson-Cash played last year in junior college and shot the ball well, and scored at a high clip.

Lastly, Williams also added two graduate transfers. Jalen Johnson, who started his career at SLU, followed by stops at Louisiana-Lafayette and Mississippi State, is wrapping things up in College Station. He’s a good player as a low-usage spot-up shooter. And I always felt Ethan Henderson got a bit of a raw deal at Arkansas, an in-state product who provided defense, rebounding, and rim protection off the bench. He’s not a guy you want to funnel the ball to on the block, but he should fit well as a safety valve in the dunker’s spot.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Hassan Diarra Wade Taylor
(2) Combo Guard Tyrece Radford Andre Gordon Hayden Hefner
(3) Wing Manny Obaseki Marcus Williams Jalen Johnson
(4) Combo Forward Quenton Jackson Aaron Johnson-Cash Ashton Smith
(5) Post Henry Coleman Ethan Henderson Javonte Brown-Ferguson

I’ll be honest: I have no idea what is going to happen with the depth chart. There’s talent here, some of it outstanding talent. But how does it all fit? What’s Buzz’s blueprint?

At the very least, there are going to be some very interesting camp battles. How those shape up will tell you a lot about how the season is going to go. A couple of major questions need answering. Who gets the bulk of the minutes at lead guard? And how do minutes get divided up on the wing?

Inside, we’ll see whether Williams stays true to a lineup featuring two traditional bigs or shifts toward smaller, more athletic options. If you’ve read my previews long enough, you likely know which I would think might be more successful. You know I like Diarra at the point, and he could funnel possessions to a trio of talented wings in Radford, Obaseki, and Jackson.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 15-15 | KenPom Projected Record: 16-13

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 10 Home North Florida 235 W
Nov 12 Home Abilene Christian 173 W
Nov 14 Home A&M Corpus Christi 344 W
Nov 17 Home Houston Baptist 348 W
Nov 22 Neutral Wisconsin 44 L
Nov 23 Neutral Butler / Houston 55 / 11 W
Nov 24 Neutral TBD -
Nov 30 Home New Orleans 321 W
Dec 11 Neutral TCU 75 L
Dec 14 Home Tulane 123 W
Dec 18 Away Oregon State 73 W
Dec 21 Home Northwestern State 331 W
Dec 29 Home Central Arkansas 332 W
avg 218.09 10-2

The Aggies crafted an appropriate non-conference schedule for where this program currently stands. Four early games should pose no problem, allowing Williams’ group to build early confidence. The season will already be off the rails if A&M sits at 3-1 or 2-2 before facing Wisconsin. As for the Badgers, they’re a good team but not unbeatable. If the Aggies are 5-0 after Wisconsin, this preview is going to look horrible. On the other hand, it’ll signal this team is ready to compete for a spot in the upper half of the SEC. A potential hiccup could come against TCU, which has multiple former Aggies on its roster—and something to prove.

There’s the potential for a 10-2 start, not including a mystery game in an MTE featuring Oregon, Chaminade, Saint Mary’s, and Notre Dame on the other side of the bracket. If that happens, the Aggies will be ecstatic walking into SEC play.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 4 Away Georgia 159 L
Jan 8 Home Arkansas 15 L
Jan 11 Home Ole Miss 57 W
Jan 15 Away Missouri 96 L
Jan 19 Home Kentucky 17 L
Jan 22 Away Arkansas 15 L
Jan 26 Away LSU 43 L
Jan 29 Home South Carolina 86 W
Feb 1 Away Tennessee 13 L
Feb 5 Home Missouri 96 W
Feb 8 Home LSU 43 W
Feb 12 Away Auburn 28 L
Feb 15 Home Florida 25 L
Feb 19 Away Vanderbilt 79 L
Feb 22 Home Georgia 159 W
Feb 26 Away Ole Miss 57 L
Mar 2 Away Alabama 19 L
Mar 5 Home Mississippi St 65 W
avg 59.56 6-12

There’s also a real opportunity for Williams and A&M to carry over the momentum from a fast start in non-conference play. They open with a trip to Georgia, which we have forecasted to finish last. Next, they host Arkansas and Ole Miss before visiting Missouri. Now, I’ve got them starting 1-6, but flip the game in Athens, hold serve against Ole Miss and steal a win at Missouri, and you’re looking at a team feeling good at 3-1. That stretch is followed by hosting Kentucky and trips Arkansas and LSU. Finding a way to split the first four games might make the following three bearable. But again, you can see why beating Georgia is so important.

OVERVIEW

As someone who thought the hire of Williams at Texas A&M was a home run, the early returns have been ugly. And that’s a shame. Unlike Nate Oats at Alabama or Eric Musselman at Arkansas, Williams attempted to build with youth and integrate pieces he inherited from Kennedy. Sure, the Aggies had plenty of luck his first season, but there was reason to think the Aggies, who added pieces like Robinson, wouldn’t need as much last year. So I picked them to finish near the middle of the pack.

Now, I’m a little more skeptical. Williams’ best teams have had plenty of experience and continuity. At Virginia Tech, his best team featured seven players who’d spent at least two seasons together. The same principle held at Marquette.

This should have been the year both of those were present in College Station. But this season, Williams is hitting a full reset.

tennessee synergy 2020

Now, Williams isn’t unfamiliar with pivoting. He did so his last season at Marquette, and the Golden Eagles finished 17-15 and .500 in the Big East. When he arrived in Blacksburg, he tried a similar reboot, resulting in Virginia Tech only winning 11 games. While he tried to avoid that at A&M, it’s happening this season.

Again, there’s raw talent here—even if the plan doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense right now. If Williams can make it all fit together, this is a team quite capable of making noise.

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The only true head-scratcher is the addition of Jalen Johnson. Sure, he’s a reliable role player. But Williams already had Jackson and Hefner, and Johnson didn’t exactly break out last season when Mississippi State was in a similar situation. Williams profiles as a combo guard, but Johnson-Cash, Obaseki and Radford are all jockeying for playing time. That’s a lot of wings to keep happy.

We know Buzz Williams’s playbook: lean on messaging, brand loyalty, and energy to get everyone on the same page. That works well when roles are defined. With this team, some of them are among veterans like Jackson, Gordon, and Diarra. But those guys are also potentially at risk of taking a back seat to a host of newcomers, especially Gordon, whose role might have been over-inflated the last few seasons.

But winning tends to cure a lot of ills. So long as that happens, rotational concerns may not be an issue. It’s also a potential rub. Williams’ offenses have typically been efficient. But that’s not the case at A&M, and on top of that, the Aggies have played at a slower tempo. That means fewer touches to go around. That style works when you have future pros in Kerry Blackshear, Justin Robinson, and Nickeil Walker-Alexander.

But who are those guys for the Aggies? If Williams finds answers, the Aggies will insert themselves in bubble chatter. But another mediocre season will create another interesting offseason.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

Obaseki is a pro, and Diarra has plenty of potential. If both get off to fast starts, Williams’ rotation will have a stable core. He really needs a big man to step forward, and the most talented candidate is Coleman, a former top-60 talent. If all three of them hit, the ceiling for this team rises dramatically.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

It’s been two long seasons under Williams so far, and now comes an offseason where the roster radically changed. We’ve seen Williams’ plans succeed elsewhere, but sluggish offense, inconsistent defense, and plodding pace are all we’ve seen so far. As a result, the Aggies have been stuck in the 130s of KenPom. So, why should we expect a roster assembled without a clear plan to make a big jump?


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in “the Masses” picks. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.