Show Me My Opponent: Texas A&M

WHAT THEY BRING

The video of the big guy at what looks like an LA Fitness just chucking balls off the top of the backboard

Last year, Buzz Williams took Virginia Tech – a program with five NCAA Tournament appearances in my lifetime – to the Sweet Sixteen. This was the proper conclusion to a three-year run where the Hokies won 69 games, the most in a three-year span in school history.

It was the first Sweet Sixteen appearance in 52 freaking years for Tech. They’d come up two points short of defeating Zion Williamson and Duke. Every single member of the rotation, seemingly, could hit a three when needed.

It was pretty darn fun to watch. Buzz left for Texas A&M, his alma mater of a sort, and surely hoped to carry over something similar. It has not exactly gone that way.

Texas A&M ranks 349th of 353 teams nationally in three-point percentage; nearly 40% of their shots are from deep, but one player on the entire roster hits them at a 30% or better clip (Savion Flagg, 36.6%). Most members of the rotation attempt threes, to be sure, but just about no one hits them. The Aggies have shot 32.7% from three over their last five games, which has actually RAISED THEIR SEASON AVERAGE from when it was nearly 23% earlier this month, worst in the nation. They hit twos at an average rate and miss more free throws than anyone would like.

We’ll get into it, obviously, but at 264th in KenPom, you’re looking at the worst SEC offense since 2012-13 Mississippi State finished 322nd under Rick Ray.

Josh Nebo is the only guy worth saving here

The offense is a proper disaster, as I’m pointing out, but the Aggies do convert 61.3% of their attempts at the rim, per Hoop Math. Nearly a third of their makes have come from Josh Nebo, easily the team’s best player, though not one that necessarily takes a lot of shots.

Nebo knows what he’s good at, and he tries to do that over and over: posting up, cutting to the rim, and demolishing opponents on offensive rebounds.

In fact, if you remove Nebo, the rest of A&M’s roster converts at a 53.8% rate at the rim. (Nebo: 86.7%.) Tennessee’s defensive strategy should revolve around keeping him away from the rim at all costs.

One guy hits threes at a decent rate: Savion Flagg

The only other offensive player that even feels like a moderate threat is Savion Flagg, an inefficient forward that nonetheless is the only plus shooter on the entire roster. Flagg is 26-of-71 (36.6%) from three this season, though he’s a 34.3% shooter for his career.

He’s a solid-enough finisher at the rim, but he doesn’t go there very often on his own. He’s more likely to pull up for an ill-advised mid-range jumper instead.

The rest of the roster is laden with inefficient shooters galore; only Nebo and Flagg, among the seven players with 50+ shot attempts on the season, are above a 50% eFG%. That isn’t to say no one else can score, necessarily, but none of them are efficient enough to make an opposing coach truly worry. I say pack the paint and let Wendell Mitchell (22-of-96, 22.9%), Jay Jay Chandler (19-of-65, 29.2%), Andre Gordon (12-of-51, 23.5%), and Quenton Jackson (9-of-42, 21.4%) take as many threes as they’d like.

Defense: it’s better!

By comparison, the Aggie defense looks rosy. Ranked 93rd in KenPom’s Adjusted Defense Efficiency, Texas A&M offers up the SEC’s 10th-best defense – better than Ole Miss, Georgia, LSU, Vanderbilt. If you look exclusively at the Four Factors, you could really trick yourself into thinking of this as a decent-enough defense. A&M ranks 83rd in opponent eFG%, 59th in TO%, and 34th in FTA/FGA.

All of those are good; they don’t foul much, they have a good amount of steals, and you’d imagine they generally force tough shots. To an extent, they kind of do; Josh Nebo (who, regrettably, has about a 2% shot at an All-SEC nod) blocks a lot of shots and makes life tough at the rim.

That said, you have a massive opportunity ahead of you if you’re any good at all at rebounding or shooting. A&M ranks 301st in defensive rebounding, and a few different opponents have really cooked them on the boards. (LSU posted a 51.6% OREB% and South Carolina 43.8%, both in road victories.)

Tennessee’s only an above-average team on the boards, but hey, no reason a team that’s topped 30% on OREB% seven times this year can’t do it again. Also: A&M allows a ton of three-point attempts. This is by design. We’ll get into it in greater detail shortly.

Nebo is a one-man rim protection show

First: interior defense. Nebo blocks lots of shots because he’s a very good basketball player. He’ll probably pick up a couple of blocks in this one.

That should not keep Tennessee from rushing to the rim at all possible times. None of A&M’s last three opponents were particularly good in any way, but if Oklahoma State and South Carolina can combine to go 23-of-36 at the rim, surely Tennessee can get to about 12 layup/dunk makes in this one.

Nebo’s awesome, but there’s basically no one else on the roster that can consistently block a shot. (Seriously: what did Billy Kennedy have in mind with this roster had he stayed?) Any action that requires multiple movements – cut plays and post-ups, notably – A&M’s had a hard time stopping.

Perimeter defense is good, but not in the sense of actively stopping you from shooting threes

Buzz Williams made a conscious decision a little over two years ago to go all-in on forcing opponents to shoot over the top of his defenses. To an extent, it worked – Virginia Tech held opponents to below-average rates on threes his final two years there, and A&M’s opponents this year have shot 30.5% from deep.

Considering A&M’s ranked in the top 100 nationally in opponent 3PT% the last two seasons, I do have some reason to believe this isn’t just wide-open misses by opponents. To be sure, Synergy does have the Aggies as getting a defender to guard around 53% of catch-and-shoot attempts. That’s below the national average, but not as below it as Kansas was.

That said: they’re going to let you take as many threes as you want. It’s backfired on them a few times this year. They beat Oregon State and Missouri – their only Top 100 wins – because the two teams combined to shoot 12-of-56 from three. With this same strategy, though, they lost to KenPom #254 Fairfield (12-of-29), #90 Temple (10-of-27), #89 South Carolina (16-of-30), and Oklahoma State (8-of-19).

This strategy looks very smart when you’re playing poor-shooting teams, and it could very well look smart here. But: aren’t you at least a little curious to test this strategy?

NEXT PAGEThank you, Kobe.

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