Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Texas A&M

Texas A&M defense

Better, almost simply because of how weird it is to prepare for

This is actually quite a difficult scout, because of three very important pieces:

  1. Texas A&M plays man-to-man;
  2. Texas A&M plays something that resembles a 3-2 zone;
  3. Texas A&M can play man-to-man and the 3-2 zone on the same possession.

What Buzz Williams does is very weird, but I can’t deny that it works. Last year’s defense ranked only 77th nationally on KenPom, but it did its job of rarely fouling, getting a good amount of blocks at the rim, and forcing tons of turnovers. It’s a really difficult thing to read, because A&M is sort of a shape-shifter defensively. Multiple times, a coach has said after facing A&M that they weren’t entirely sure what style of defense they just played.

Buzz is happy to do all sorts of things defensively, because he has one of the longest leashes imaginable and because he doesn’t have his players yet so experimentation is allowed. Texas A&M is happy to run a few different looks, even in the same game. Against South Carolina, they ran a full-court man-to-man press that looked like this:

In the second half, though, they ran this completely different press coverage that I’d call a 1-3-1 full-court look:

The fact that they can offer all these different looks makes preparation pretty hard, even if you’re preparing for what’s objectively the worst or second-worst team in the SEC. It’s why, despite still allowing a good amount of points in their press defense, A&M is forcing turnovers on about 25.8% of press defense possessions, per Synergy. Tennessee’s struggled at times with breaking the press, so I need to see them improve a bit in this game and get into a rhythm in half-court offense.

Half-court defense is nice, but very reliant on forcing turnovers

Now, about that half-court defense: it’s pretty darn good. A&M’s actual eFG% allowed in the half-court setting is below the national average for reasons I’ll touch on shortly, but they’re still ranking out in the 81st-percentile nationally. Why? Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers.

In particular, A&M’s done a fantastic job decimating the ball-handlers in ball-screen settings, forcing a turnover on 41% of possessions. They’re able to do it in “man,” as shown above, but even when in their “zone,” it’s still working pretty fantastically, forcing turnovers on 24.1% of possessions, per Synergy:

If you take care of the ball, this obviously gets much easier. That said: teams haven’t taken care of the ball terribly well. A&M has only played one KenPom Top 50 team, but they’ve done good work against some solid-enough names: a 23.8% TO% against TCU, 20.5% by South Carolina, 25.4% by Auburn, 26.3% by Wofford, etc. The only two teams to stay below the 20% line are UT Rio Grande Valley and LSU.

If a team forces this many turnovers, you’re well within reason to think that the rest of the defense would be equally amazing, like Tennessee’s. Well….not really. The shot selection A&M surrenders is genuinely unlike anything else in the SEC. 49% of all opponent shot attempts are threes, and A&M is barely above the national average at pushing out to guard these. They don’t force many dribble jumpers; they’re just kind of fine with you shooting over the top of them.

This made more sense to me when they had Josh Lebo, a guy who blocked an Yves Pons-level of shots while an Aggie. They don’t exactly have that level of rim protection this year, which was what helped sustain the defense’s play last year. Now, A&M’s allowing 29.6% of all shots to come at the rim, where opponents are converting at an alarmingly bad 65.5% hit rate:

This hit rate actually gets far worse in half-court and sustains being bad even deep into the shot clock, which is kind of baffling for a team so protective of everything inside the perimeter that they’re willing to let you take half of your shots from 21+ feet. This is a strategy that can generally work fine against teams that either don’t shoot well or don’t have guards/forwards interested in perusing the paint. That wasn’t the case for TCU (14-for-22 at the rim):

Or LSU (13-for-17):

Or even South Carolina (16-for-23):

Obviously, A&M’s strategy would make more sense if they worked opponents into a snail’s pace, protected the paint well, and really did force you to take guarded threes over the top of them to beat them. (I guess I’m describing Virginia here, but this also applies to the final Virginia Tech team Buzz coached.) I don’t know that they’re able to do all three.

Tennessee has to do three things well in this game: patiently break the press down, don’t get caught napping with the ball in your hand, and drive the ball inside to both open up opportunities at the rim and from downtown. If they do these three well, it really shouldn’t be a stressful affair.

NEXT PAGE: Please hit open shots

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