Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Texas A&M

OPPONENT Texas A&M (15-6, 4-4 SEC, #72 KenPom)
(8-10, 2-8 SEC, COVID-19 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Tuesday, February 1
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -11.5
KenPom: Tennessee -11

Torvik: Tennessee -9.3

If you’re one of the growing number of Twitter people who preach the benefits of dropping a salad fork in your eye over watching Tennessee basketball games, maybe skip this one. Texas A&M has lost four in a row, has an offense ranked two spots ahead of ETSU’s, and has built off of a 15-2 start that looked legitimately promising by taking a blowtorch to their NCAA Tournament hopes. Also, their offense is still pretty rough to watch.

The great news for Tennessee is that I can’t imagine a better time to draw A&M: four losses in a row, can’t score very much, and their defense has sprung a serious leak in both rebounding and fouling. The opportunity for a get-right game is very much here. We’ll see what Tennessee does with it.

Texas A&M’s offense

More or less what it always is. A&M plays a little faster this year and isn’t quite as recklessly terrible at hitting threes, but they’re one of the worst free throw shooting teams alive (64.3%, 344th) and generate offense by way of crashing the boards and getting fouled a lot. I am sure you’ll be floored to hear this is not my favorite SEC team to watch.

Buzz Williams runs a ball-screen heavy offense with the fewest post-ups of any team in the SEC. That…basically gives you the gist. I’m trying hard to make this interesting! Similarly to Texas, A&M doesn’t have a true #1 scorer – the team leader that we’ll get to scores 12.9 points a game – but they have about six third bananas. There are two that stand out from the pack, but A&M is mostly scoring-by-committee.

The top dog is Quenton Jackson (12.9 PPG), who predictably never starts and comes off the bench in a Tari Eason fashion. Just under half of Jackson’s makes are unassisted, with the heaviest amount of his shots coming at the rim. Jackson takes a lot of jumpers, most from three, and is a decent-not-great shooter (32.9% 3PT%). The main threat here: despite mostly playing the 3 & 4, Jackson is a quality ball-handler that has proven very good at dribbling off a pick to the rim. (Same with spot-ups.) A weird thing that is true: Jackson is only 11-for-16 on dunks.

Jackson has the second-highest usage rate on the team (26.7% USG%), so you can expect him to be a major contributor. The other double-digit scorer is Henry Coleman, who has a usage profile of a plus role player (20.4% USG%, 18.8% of shots when on the court) but is super efficient with his shots. Coleman is A&M’s center by default at 6’8″, 243. He never posts up, but his shot selection is a who’s who of high-PPP process: cuts, OREBs, and plays in transition. Coleman is a very poor jump shooter, but he’s so good at the rim that it rarely matters.

Beyond that, A&M has four players that score between 8.2 and 9.4 PPG. In order of most to least points:

  • Marcus Williams (9.4 PPG) is the starting point guard. He is an okay deep shooter (31.2% 3PT%), but his main feature is an alarming 26.2% TO%. Also kind of a bad finisher at the rim.
  • Tyrece Radford (9.3 PPG) transferred from Virginia Tech and has taken a bizarre step back in fouls drawn (1.2 fewer per 40) while still being a bad jump shooter. Excellent finisher at the rim, though.
  • Wade Taylor IV (8.2 PPG) is atrocious at the rim (39.4% FG%) but hitting 35% of threes. Both the team’s best passer and team’s most aggressive offensive player (33% USG%).
  • Andre Gordon (8.2 PPG) is the closest thing to Just A Shooter A&M has. 31-for-65 (47.7%) on threes, 51% on twos.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

Texas A&M’s defense

A same-but-different thing? Texas A&M’s signature as long as Buzz Williams has been head coach is a defense that shifts between a 2-3 zone and a man-to-man defense, often within the same possession. It makes charting them quite difficult, but there are a couple of noticeable differences with this year’s unit:

  1. Texas A&M has stopped allowing as many three-point attempts, dropping their 3PA% all the way to 36.9% after 47.4% last year;
  2. They’ve also tightened up their rim defense and have made it really, really hard to score.

Essentially, A&M’s goal is to win as many games by a 66-65 score as humanly possible. This year alone, nine of their 21 games have been decided by six or fewer points. What’s interesting about A&M’s defense is that a lot of the same hallmarks are still there: lots of catch-and-shoot attempts, lots of attempts down low, not many off-the-dribble jumpers, and a genuinely monstrous amount of turnovers forced. In particular, ball-handlers, whether in pick & roll or isolation, have had a whale of a time simply holding onto the ball.

When you can get off a shot against them, the results haven’t been optimal. You’re certainly able to score against them if you get shots off – Synergy rates A&M as 28th-percentile in catch-and-shoot defense and in the 59th-percentile at the rim – but it’s just not been easy. #3 (by KenPom) Kentucky posted just 0.898 PPP against A&M, while #39 Arkansas went for only 0.966 PPP. Both were losses because of the anemic-as-always Aggie offense, but the amount of havoc plays they produce are remarkably high. There’s not just one blocksmith on the team, but several; everyone gets a share.

The good news is that there’s a path to success here. A&M has played eight Top 100 opponents; six went for 1+ PPP. Top 100 offenses have gone for an average of 1.045 PPP, with a lot of damage being done on the boards. A&M has allowed opponents to go for a 31% or higher DREB% 12 times; they are 6-6 in those games and 9-0 in all others. All you can do is what the system would suggest: attack the paint with cuts to the basket, kick out for open threes, and avoid taking mid-range twos.

How Tennessee matches up

It would frankly be nice if Tennessee’s offense kicked itself into gear so I could stop writing the exact same thing twice a week on a loop. Tennessee probably doesn’t have a roster that fits the new rim-and-threes philosophy very well, but the results should be better than what fans have seen thus far. Anyway, this matchup presents a couple of get-right opportunities: the chance to take and make a good amount of threes while driving to the rim out of spot-up situations after you hit a couple.

Justin Powell should be taking more shots. If you would like one “Will, what fix do you propose?” answer to the question I get every week, it is that. Think about it: today is February 1. If on November 1, I had told you that Justin Powell would rank in a three-way tie for third on the team in made threes, fifth in three-point attempts, and seventh in minutes played, I imagine you would be either disappointed or truly blown away at how well the rest of the roster developed in one offseason. It is okay to be disappointed.

For Powell to make these final two months count, he has to shoot. Period. Rick Barnes is right when he claims Powell passes up several open looks every game. If Tennessee wants to squeeze everything they can out of a bruised, rotting lemon that they call an offense, Powell’s over/under for three-point attempts over the final ten games of the season should be 45. It starts here, against a defense that’s below-average at closing out on true catch-and-shoot possessions.

The other thing that’s gotta turn is something that should be borderline obvious by now: the starting (and in close games, closing) lineup. Understandably, Barnes has fiddled with this lineup for a while because the team has two standout players (Chandler/Vescovi), five “let’s see where the night takes us” guys, and four players somewhere between fledgeling and farting on any given night. My proposal is this: embrace the fact that you mostly have no center. Play Nkamhoua at the 5. Play James at the 4. Play Chandler, Vescovi, and Rotating Guard/Wing of the Day at 1/2/3. It works. God, I promise it works.

Do it, and I promise things will get better sooner rather than later. Here’s Kennedy Chandler driving to the basket as a bonus.

The defensive section is becoming pretty easy to write. Texas posted a 63.5% eFG% on Saturday – a number that normally translates to, like, no worse than 1.15 PPP (AKA 66ish points) – and had one of their worst offensive games of the year because Tennessee dominated the boards and forced 19 turnovers. The defense is rock-solid and remains the very opposite of The Problem. If Tennessee shuts down the deep balls A&M wants to loft up and forces low-quality shots on the whole, which isn’t that hard to do, this should be a get-right win. Given the high amount of shots A&M wants to take at the rim, I would like to see Tennessee post at least five blocks.

Just win.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • How often does Tennessee play a James/Nkamhoua frontcourt? Really, how often does Tennessee play James at the 4? The Fulkerson/Plavsic frontcourt, for reasons beaten to death, is an offensive black hole. Nkamhoua/Fulkerson is producing a 0.97 PPP (not schedule-adjusted) offensively because Nkamhoua doesn’t take enough threes to create the offensive spacing necessary for such a lineup. (Look at Fabian White at Houston for how a 6’8″ back-to-the-basket player with a similar build can still take 2-3 threes a night.) Of Tennessee’s four best frontcourt combinations (min. 100 possessions), three have James at the 4. There shouldn’t be a question anymore because the answer exists. How soon Tennessee realizes it is up to them.
  • Shot volume. Tennessee should own an advantage in both TOs + rebounding, but to what extent will be determined by Tennessee’s own offensive turnover struggles.
  • Tennessee’s pass deflections. This is tracked internally, but Tom Satkowiak (Tennessee SID) reports Tennessee averages 28.5 pass deflections per game. That’s an insanely high number; if Tennessee gets to 28 or more in this one they may win by 20+.

Key matchups

Olivier Nkamhoua vs. Henry Coleman. I guess this could be any number of centers, but Nkamhoua should be getting the most minutes at the 5. Coleman is a bear to deal with at the rim, but Nkamhoua could exploit Coleman’s foul troubles (4.3 per 40).

Quenton Jackson vs. Basically Half of the Tennessee Roster. Jackson splits his time at the 3 & 4; across the last five games, six different Tennessee players have seen at least 8+ MPG at either the 3 or 4.

Andre Gordon vs. Santiago Vescovi. Shooter vs. Shooter. The goal here: Vescovi either ends with more made threes or Gordon is held to fewer than four three-point attempts.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins three of the Four Factors (losing Free Throw Rate);
  2. Dane Bradshaw correctly uses part of the second half to start a Santiago Vescovi First-Team All-SEC campaign;
  3. Tennessee 70, Texas A&M 59.

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