GTFO Countdown, T-10 Days: Inside the Numbers, Aggie Basketball Edition

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During the month of June, BON authors will memorialize the final days of the UT-A&M rivalry through a series of perspectives, as seen through The Eyes of Texas, to include essays, personal reflections and commemorations of significant note.

There is a good reason why I don't have the same level of antipathy for Texas A&M basketball as I do for the football program. Up until fairly recently, Aggie basketball was not good. Losing season followed losing season. Things were at their lowest from 1990 until 2004. While the memories have faded, I can still picture Tony Barone patrolling the sidelines, frothing, smirking, yelling at officials -- as if it would help -- while his son Brian fumbled around with the ball. (During his freshman year at Texas A&M, Brian Barone turned the ball over in an estimated 38% of the possessions that ended with the ball in his hands.)

The Aggies were almost cute in their badness. You couldn't help but feel a little sorry for them. At the time, many Texas basketball fans wanted the Aggies to be better. We wanted the rivalry, which at that point was quite strong on the football field, to extend to the basketball court. But it just couldn't happen. From the 1990-1991 season through the 2003-2004 season, Texas and Texas A&M squared off 30 times. Texas won 27 of these games. The three Aggie wins came in 1993, 1994, and 2002. During my entire time on the 40 acres, Texas didn't lose a single basketball game to Texas A&M. That isn't what a rivalry looks like.

I have previously written about the recent rise of Aggie basketball. This article looks at the time before the rise. Going into the 1996-1997 season, the Aggies were over-matched in the newly formed Big XII. Texas A&M went 3-13 in conference play in that first season. The Texas Longhorns competed well, going 10-6 and finishing third in the Big XII. Texas basketball was starting down a road that would see it emerge as an national power. The Aggies were stuck, and would remain stuck for some time.

I think it is instructive to look back at the bad times in Aggie mens' basketball. When I started this project, I wanted to get a better understanding of how Texas A&M had turned their basketball program around in such a short period of time. In order to do this, it is necessary to understand the things that made them bad in the first place. In this special GTFO edition of Inside the Numbers, I use the Simple Rating System to track the progress of Aggie hoops over the last three decades, look back at the two games between Texas and Texas A&M in the first season of the Big XII, and then use those games to illustrate what made the Aggies so bad. I will also highlight some of the changes that took place once Billy Gillispie took over the program.

Benchmarking Aggie Basketball from 1980 on

I am fond of the Simple Rating System, or SRS for short. SRS attempts to tell us how many points per game above or below an average level each team is. An average team would have an SRS of zero. To give a feel for what "average" means in Division 1 basketball, in the 2011-2012 season North Dakota State came the closest of any team to an SRS of zero. Generally, a top 25 team has an SRS of 15 or better. Most NCAA champions finish the season with an SRS greater than 20.

One of the nice things about the SRS is that the ratings are available at sports-reference.com going all the way back to 1980. Using these data, I prepared the figure below. This figure plots the SRS of The University of Texas and Texas A&M by year. The focus of this article is the Aggies, but adding the Texas line helps provide context, and helps us track the evolution of these two programs.

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For much of the 1980s, the two programs played at a similar level. Texas had two very bad seasons under Bob Weltlich -- seasons much worse than anything the Aggies experienced over this time frame. Aside from this, the two programs generally had teams that ranged between an SRS of 0 and 10.

As the 1980s drew to a close, both Texas and Texas A&M made coaching changes. Texas A&M fired long-time coach Shelby Metcalf, and Texas dismissed Kaiser Bob. For Texas, the coaching change led to an immediate improvement, while for the Aggies, the program declined. During the 1990s, the Aggies staggered along as more or less an average Division 1 program.

The 1996-1997 basketball season was the first for the Big XII. For Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Texas Tech, the move to the Big XII considerably raised the level of competition. To understand this improvement, in the last season of the SWC, the average SRS for teams in the conference was 3.2. In the first season of the Big XII, the average SRS for teams in the conference was 10.2. The Big XII was loaded. The 1996-1997 Kansas Jayhawks seemed unstoppable, and were probably one of the most talented college teams of my lifetime. Four of their starting five would go on to play in the NBA, including all time great Paul Pierce. Colorado was a very good team, led by star guard Chauncey Billups. Texas, Iowa State, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech also had strong seasons.

During that first season in the Big XII, Texas finished in a three-way tie for third in the regular season standings. In the first season of the Big XII the Aggies finished 11th in the Big XII. They learned that average Division 1 teams (with an SRS of around zero) tend to get pounded in major conferences.

And then in 1998, the Aggies finished 12th.

In 1999, they tied for 10th place.

In 2000, they finished in a three way tie for 8th place.

In 2001, they finished tied at 11th (in other words, in last place).

In 2002, they finished 12th, again in last place.

2003 saw a glimmer of hope, as the Aggies won 6 conference games, and finished tied for 7th in the conference.

Those hopes were dashed in 2004, when the Aggies lost every single conference game.

For the first 8 seasons of the Big XII, Texas A&M was hopelessly over-matched in conference games. It is one thing to say that a team is bad, but it is more interesting to understand why. To start towards understanding, let's break down their two games against the Longhorns in the first season of the Big XII. These games help illustrate several points about Texas A&M basketball at the time.

Game Review -- Texas vs. Texas A&M during the first season of the Big XII

I believe that with the right sort of approach, we can unwind what happened in a game using information pulled from the box score. It makes no difference if this game happened a week ago, or 15 years ago. I am somewhat more limited in analyzing a 15 year old game, as there are not play-by-play logs of the game available (if you find one, please link it in the comments), but the box score still provides a lot of information. I can't tell how many times the Aggies got to the rim, or how often Texas scored in the first 10 seconds of a possession, but I can still pull out much of the information that I use to understand a more recent game.

Background information on the statistics and methods used is posted here and here.

TEXAS - 86 vs TEXAS A&M - 76 (OT)
Wednesday January 15, 1997
College Station, TX

CATEGORY

TEXAS

OPPONENT

DIFFERENCE

FGA

47

78

-31

FTA

48

24

24

FGA + 0.475 x FTA

69.8

89.4

-19.6

Off Rebs

10

19

-9

TOs

25

15

10

ORB - TO

-15

4

-19

TS%

0.616

0.425

0.191

ORB%

29%

34%

TO%

30%

18%

Points/100 Poss

101

89

This game mercifully has been wiped from my memory by time. The box score reveals a game that was 100% pure ugliness.

This game was played at a rapid pace, with an estimated 85 possessions for each team, or 76 possessions per 40 minutes. That is a lot of possessions, as a typical NCAA game usually has around 67 possessions. Both Texas and Texas A&M liked to run in those days. The Runnin' Horns earned their moniker, averaging about 75 possessions per 40 minutes in the 1996-1997 season. For whatever reason, the Aggies also preferred an up-tempo game, averaging 71 possessions per 40 minutes. (The following season Texas A&M would play even faster, averaging 79 possessions per 40 minutes.)

The Runnin' Horns had a way of completely self-destructing from time to time. This game was one of those times. Texas nearly gave the game away with turnovers, and needed overtime to beat the Aggies. 30% of the Texas possessions ended in a turnover, and as a result, the Aggies took nearly 20 more shots than did the Longhorns (here "shots" refers to a composite of free throws and field goals, FGA + 0.475 x FTA).

Texas was saved by the Aggie's inability to make shots (A&M managed an effective field goal percentage of 39%) and a lot of trips to the line (the Runnin' Horns took 48 free throw attempts). The result of this was that Texas ended up with a true shooting percentage (TS%) of 0.616, while the Aggies ended up with 0.425.

The large Aggie advantage in number of shot attempts wasn't enough to offset Texas' TS% advantage. Recalling that a 0.01 differential in TS% is worth approximately 1.3 extra shots, Texas' large advantage would have been enough to offset 24 extra shots for the Aggies. The Aggies only had about 20 extra shots, and so Texas was able to hang on and win in overtime. But this was a game where the Longhorns nearly beat themselves.

Reggie Freeman led the way for Texas with 8.8 Points Above Median (PAM), and Brandy Perryman had a PAM of 7.5. These are really high single game totals for PAM, and these two players made the most significant contribution to Texas' high TS%. Freeman did much of his work from the free throw line, going 15 of 17. Unfortunately, Freeman also turned the ball over in roughly 30% of the possessions that ended with the ball in his hands. These were the days of Reggie-ball, and a lot of possessions ended with the ball in Freeman's hands. He wasn't alone though, nearly all of the Runnin' Horns struggled with turnovers in this game.

The Aggies just couldn't shoot. At all. Only one Aggie, Jerald Brown, managed a PAM that was greater than zero. He had a PAM of 2.6. Poor shooting wasn't unusual for A&M, as we will see below.

TEXAS - 68 vs TEXAS A&M - 57
Tuesday February 25, 1997
Austin, TX

CATEGORY

TEXAS

OPPONENT

DIFFERENCE

FGA

61

48

13

FTA

28

27

1

FGA + 0.475 x FTA

74.3

60.8

13.5

Off Rebs

16

10

6

TOs

15

21

-6

ORB - TO

1

-11

12

TS%

0.458

0.469

-0.011

ORB%

36%

28%

TO%

21%

29%

Points/100 Poss

93

79

This game was a much more typical performance by the Aggies. In the 1996-1997 season, Texas A&M turned the ball over in approximately 25% of their possessions. This is terrible, and almost guarantees that a team will be bad.* The Aggies also struggled to score even in possessions where they didn't turn the ball over. On the season, they averaged a TS% of 0.49.

(* Here is the list of teams in the 2011-2012 season that turned the ball over in 25% or more of their possessions: Howard, Northern Illinois, Mount St. Mary's, Texas Southern, Arizona St., Texas Tech, Maryland Eastern Shore, and Towson. According to the kenpom.com rankings, Arizona State is the best team on this list. They were rated #223 by kenpom.com.)

Both turnovers and poor shooting were on display when the Aggies came to Austin in February of 1997. The Aggies ended up turning the ball over in 29% of their possessions, and had a TS% of 0.469. Only a poor shooting performance by the Longhorns prevented this game from being a 20+ point blowout.

The Aggie guard play was awful, with Brian Barone and Tracey Anderson becoming turnover machines. In Austin, Barone turned the ball over in 67% of the possessions that ended with him handling (or mishandling, in this case) the ball. This number is so high that I triple-checked the calculation, just to be sure. Anderson was only slightly better, turning the ball over in 52% of his possessions. The result of all of these turnovers was 13.5 extra shots for Texas.

Tracey Anderson did at least partially redeem himself, with a PAM of 4.7. Unfortunately, nearly all of the rest of the Aggies had PAM values less than zero. Jerald Brown was the worst, with a PAM of -8.1.

As poorly as the Aggies played, Texas only won this game by 11 points. What kept it close was Texas' poor TS%. Reggie Freeman (PAM=-2.7), Chico Vasquez (PAM=-6.4), and Brandy Perryman (PAM=-2.7) were all to blame. Only Kris Clack (PAM = 5.4) and Sheldon Quarles (PAM=3.3) were able to efficiently score in this game.

This game had 72 possessions for each team, which is still a fairly high total.

What made the Aggies so bad?

The Aggies were bad in many ways in the early years of the Big XII. The two games against Texas in 1997 serve as a window into some of their most significant problems. During this period, Texas A&M struggled to make shots, and they struggled with turnovers.

The graph below plots the Aggie turnover percentage (TO%) and TS% for the Aggies by season, starting from their first season in the Big XII (data source: statsheet.com). I have also marked on this graph Billy Gillispie's first season in College Station. Prior to Gillispie's arrival, the Aggies generally turned the ball over in more than 21% of their possessions (in some years, it was much more), and their true shooting percentage hovered near 50%. This is pretty terrible. It is just not possible to have a good team if you turn the ball over all the time and cannot shoot. You might be able to survive one of these problems if you are good defensively, but you can't survive both. The Aggies did some other things poorly prior to Gillispie's arrival as well. They typically didn't rebound on defense very well.

Gtfo2_medium

I really don't know how a team can turn the ball over so much, year in and year out, without making some effort to fix it. This isn't just a talent issue, turnovers are one of those things that really reflect the coaching. At some point the coach has to realize that his team is needlessly giving away 3-5 points per game for no good reason. Perhaps playing fast caused all of those turnovers. One of the main reasons to play up-tempo is to get easy shots. But even playing fast, Texas A&M's true shooting percentage was not very good, so they weren't getting results from playing this way. It is hard to see that they derived much benefit from their fast breaking style of play.

I need to add an important caveat here. The link between turnovers and tempo isn't clear when we look at data. If we look at all of Division 1, there isn't any correlation between pace and turnover percentage. It is entirely possible to play up tempo without having an unusually high turnover rate. For example, check out the box score from the 1990 regional final where Loyola Marymount played UNLV. By my calculations, that game had an estimated 110 possessions in 40 minutes. Despite playing at light speed, both teams turned the ball over in around 20% of their possessions, which is pretty close to what we normally expect for a Division 1 game. (This game also illustrates that it is possible to break 100 points, and still have a crappy offensive performance. Loyola Marymount scored 92 points / 100 possessions in that game, which is not a good total.)

As we see in the graph above, Texas A&M's true shooting percentage increased significantly in Gillispie's first season. Gillispie was also able to get the turnover rates down, and by 2007 A&M had one of the best team's in the nation, with a high TS% and low turnover rate. For what it is worth, Gillispie did slow down the tempo; in his three seasons the Aggies played at a below median NCAA pace, according to the adjusted tempo numbers available from kenpom.com.

What should we take away from this?

When I started this project, what I wanted to get at was how the Aggie basketball program went to losing every conference game in 2004 to finishing the 2006-2007 season ranked in the top 10. If I can conclude anything from this exercise, it probably is that Billy Gillispie is a hell of a basketball coach. This isn't much of a conclusion, as I think we already knew it. The job he did fixing the Aggie basketball program is remarkable when we consider where it came from. We will see if he can repeat the process at Texas Tech.

If there is greater meaning to take from this, it is that no program is truly hopeless if it has the potential to be attractive to decent recruits. The Aggies had fixable problems that required the attention of their coach to correct. In most years they turned the ball over too much and didn't get particularly good shots. Under Gillispie, these two weaknesses would eventually become strengths.

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