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Aggies Visit Austin With Big 12 Title On The Line

The #15 Longhorns (21-7, 11-3) have more than taken care of business over the last three weeks, running off five straight against a series of (mostly) Big 12 also rans. A real test awaits the Horns tonight at the Drum, however. #6 Texas A&M (24-4, 12-2) is one of the top teams - not just in the conference, but in the nation - and already pasted the Horns, 100-82, in College Station three weeks ago. Even with Texas' improvements on defense, it will take a near perfect performance to upset the Aggies.

Tonight's game is a sellout. PB and I are still hoping to fall into some cheap tickets, but we will likely be on the site with you tonight. For those not in Austin and those of you without the two Benjamins necessary to secure a ticket, tune into ESPN2 at 8 PM and log onto BON. With your help, we could break an Open Gameday Thread comment record, which was set earlier this year during the triple-overtime thriller in Stillwater.

The Aggies have lost just twice since their early January trip to take on UCLA, and both of those losses have come to the same team - Texas Tech. A&M has already won at Kansas, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State in Big 12 play. While the usually docile Austin crowd should be pumped for the biggest and final home game of the season, the Aggies are not likely to be intimidated.

From the review of the first game:

For the first three quarters of the game, Texas executed their game plan beautifully. With the pace in our favor, the Horns were attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and knocking down their free throws. Texas led 58-57 with about thirteen minutes left in the contest and was down just four points with seven minutes to go. It was not to be, though. A&M began to dominate in the paint and grabbed countless offensive rebounds on one end while Texas went cold from the line and from the floor at the other end. Texas was outscored 24-10 over the final 7:30.

Texas A&M's Tournament Resume
Like Texas, the Aggies control their own destiny in the Big 12 conference. With a win tonight and a home win on Saturday over Missouri, Texas A&M would finish an impressive 14-2 in conference, would secure the #1 seed in the Big 12 tournament, and could do no worse than a share of the conference crown. Texas A&M is also in good position to secure a #2 or possibly even a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament depending on how strongly they finish.

Reviewing Texas A&M
Refer back to the preview of the first A&M game, to refresh your memory of the Aggies. Briefly Acie Law IV is having an outstanding season. His play has been so solid, especially late in games, he could win Big 12 Player of the Year and possibly even earn 1st team All-America honors. Law is second in the Big 12 in scoring (20 ppg), second in field goal percentage (51%), and third in assists (5 apg). He also ranks in the top 15 in free throw percentage and assist/turnover ratio. If the Aggies win the Big 12, I wouldn't be shocked if Law took conference POY honors even though Kevin Durant will likely win national POY awards.

Sophomore Josh Carter adds to the offensive attack as a deadly three-point shooter. Carter leads the Big 12 in league games at 50% from behind the arc. Dominique Kirk will also start for the Aggies in the backcourt and is most valuable as a defensive stopper. Kirk, along with most of the Aggies, had trouble staying out of foul trouble in the first meeting. He could make things difficult for DJ Augustin and AJ Abrams if he is able to stay on the court.

What makes the Aggies' offensive attack so efficient is their balance. Both Joe Jones and Antanas Kavaliauskas are physical post players who can score both with their back to the basket on the low blocks or facing the basket with mid-range jumpers. Jones and Kavaliauskas are also efficient rebounders who hurt the Horns in the first meeting with 18 total rebounds, including eight offensive ones. Keeping these guys off the glass and limiting the Aggies to a single shot per possession will be essential.

Ken Pomeroy's Scouting Report
Texas A&M is rated as 3rd best team in the country according to Pomeroy's latest ratings, while Texas has moved up again to 20th after outlasting the Sooners on Saturday. Pomeroy's scouting report on Texas A&M shows the Aggies as one of just three teams in the nation ranking in the top ten in both adjusted offensive efficiency (7th) and adjusted defensive efficiency (6th).  On offense, the Aggies really don't have a weakness: they shoot the ball well, especially from behind the arc, protect the basketball, dish out an assist on 2/3 of their made baskets, and have no trouble knocking down free throws. Their defense has been even more impressive. A&M is second in the nation in effective field goal percentage and really limit second chance opportunities by grabbing a high number of defensive rebounds. The only really poor statistic on either end is their defensive free throw rate. Even the average college basketball fan knows how physical A&M plays on the defensive end. In a tightly officiated game, the Aggies are very vulnerable at the line because of both their defensive tactics and their lack of depth.

Keys to the Game: Texas
Protect the Paint. This is really a two part goal: one, limit the easy baskets by Jones and Kavaliauskas against the smaller Texas defenders, and two, control the dribble penetration from Law and Donald Sloan. Packing our defense in the paint will create open looks for Carter, Law, and Kirk from the outside, but in a game of pick your poison, I'll make the Aggies beat us with the outside shot before I let them destroy us near the basket.

Don't Let Law Beat Us Aggie fans won't let anyone who will listen forget "the shot." Honestly, I wasn't too impressed with Law last season, but he has grown into a tremendous point guard who really makes the Aggies go on both ends. He is quick and steady with the dribble, can attack the rim and finish with either hand or pull up for a mid-rang jumper, and is an above average defender. In a close game, Texas must do everything possible to get the ball out of Law's hands.

Attack the Rim. Just like in the first game, the key is to get the Aggie starters into foul trouble. Like Texas, A&M is not a deep team, and Billy Gillespie would prefer to play no more than eight players. The Aggie bench came up huge in College Station, but there is no way Gillespie gets a similar performance from them in Austin. Augustin, Justin Mason, and Kevin Durant must make conscious efforts to put the ball on the floor and make the Aggies defend the paint.  If the game is called appropriately, Texas should easily score 20 points at the line.

Stay Even on the Glass. Coming into this season Horns' fans knew there would be struggles on the glass as Barnes elected to start three guards under 6'3" and two post players more comfortable facing the basket. Texas has improved on the glass but must really compete strongly tonight. In the first meeting, A&M destroyed the Horns on the glass, 47-31, which led to countless second chances points. Connor Atchley, Damion James, Dexter Pittman, and Justin Mason must be valuable contributors on the defensive glass. Just staying even on the boards will put the Longhorns in a good position for the victory.

AW's Prediction
I wrote after the Texas Tech win that any victories in the final three would be bonuses. Well, despite tremendous second half offensive struggles in Norman, the Horns walked away with a ten point road win. With back to back games against the two best teams in the conference and two of the ten best in the country to close out the regular season, winning either would feel like stealing.

This Horns team has improved so much, especially on defense, in the last five games. They are holding opponents to lower field goal percentages, creating more turnovers, and securing more offensive rebounds. It will take a terrific effort on both ends of the floor to win this one or the next one in Lawrence.

It is terribly difficult for me to predict a home loss to anyone and even more difficult to predict a loss to the Aggies for the second straight time, but that is what I see. A&M will use their size and strength advantages in the low post, will have Carter bomb away from three, and watch Law create offense out of nothing. As painful as it is, A&M has a better overall basketball team this season. The Horns have so much talent at every position and have Durant but they tend to lose focus on defense, have problems executing in the half court against physical defenses, and, at times, forget they have the best player in college basketball playing for them.

The Horns are on a roll and the home crowd, Durant, and the improved Texas defense give them a great shot. I hope I'm wrong, but I'll say the Horns fall just short in a slugfest, 75-74.