After a sloppy win in their home opener against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi last Saturday, the Texas Longhorns head to the Bahamas for this season's holiday tournament: the Battle 4 Atlantis.
The 1-1 Texas Longhorns are yet to inspire, but the season has only just begun. The games haven't started off very quickly, as a trip to China to open the season led to an entire week off between the first two games of the year.
This is about to change, with three games to come over the next three days. The season is about to get more interesting, and the first game will be against an old friend.
The 4-0 Aggies of Texas A&M come into the Battle 4 Atlantis with high hopes for the season. When then head coach Mark Turgeon left College Station for College Park, Maryland in 2011, Texas A&M was on a run of six consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament. The Aggies haven't been back since, and this year appears to be their best chance in a while.
That is because Billy Kennedy appears to have his most talented group since taking over the the program after Turgeon left. Kennedy's roster blends several strong upperclassmen with a talented group of freshman that has so far decimated its admittedly weak schedule. (The Aggie's closest game this season was a 25 point victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.)
The Aggie Roster
The Aggies' most menacing offensive weapon so far this year has been 6-7 wing Danuel House. The former Houston Cougar is starting his second and final year in College Station, and is a dangerous shooter from long range who last season knocked down 40 percent of his 155 threes; so far this season he is 12-29 from distance. House has been particularly dangerous in the newly up tempo Aggie attack (the Aggies are currently in the top 25 nationally in percent of FGAs taken in transition, per Hoop-Math.com), with six of his 12 made threes coming in the first ten seconds of live ball transition possessions. He will also look to attack the rim on the break when the opportunity is there.
The biggest key for a defender guarding House is to consider that he immediately becomes a far less dangerous player once he is forced to put the ball on the floor. House has struggled to finish around the rim in half-court settings since moving to Texas A&M (he was more effective going to the basket during his freshman and sophomore seasons at Houston).
While I view House as the most likely Aggie to burn an opponent, he isn't the only one that can play. The guard play of senior South Florida transfer Anthony Collins, freshman Admon Gilder, and sophomore Tonny Trocha-Morelos has been effective so far, although the three players have somewhat different styles. Collins is the sort of player who rarely looks for his own shot (and can sometimes get into trouble with turnovers). Trocha-Morelos has looked to score much more when on the floor, with a knack for getting to the hoop and also a new found willingness to shoot from distance.
Gilder is someone who deserves a little more discussion. The 6-3 freshman is second on the team in shot attempts so far this season, with half of his shots coming from three point range. Much like House, leaving him open from long range looks like a bad idea in our limited sample so far. But unlike House, Gilder is more prone to give a team trouble when he puts the ball on the deck, as he has so far done well getting to the basket and creating for teammates.
6-5 Senior Alex Caruso will also take on a heavy load of minutes, and is a good all around player who can shoot from outside, is decent scoring around the rim, and is the Aggie most likely to assist on a teammate's basket. With more talented teammates, his importance to the Aggies this season may be somewhat diminished (so far his minutes are down), but he is still a key for A&M.
As we move closer to the basket, we find that Coach Kennedy is now blessed with a trio of talented freshman. One of those freshman, 6-8 D.J. Hogg, spends less time near the basket than a player of his size might typically do, but that is for a good reason. Hogg prefers to shoot from the perimeter, with 21 of his 31 field goal attempts so far this season coming from beyond the arc. So far he is 10-21 from long range, which is not at all a bad way to start a college basketball career.
Hogg spending time out on the perimeter leaves room for 6-10 freshman Tyler Davis to operate inside. Davis is much more of a traditional big man, controlling the glass on both ends of the floor and scoring near the basket. So far this season Davis is 20-25 from the floor (this, I understand, is considered a good shooting percentage) and is 21-27 from the free throw line. He runs the floor hard, which leads to some transition baskets as well. The only thing missing from his game is that he has not so far shown much indication that he is a shot blocker.
The rim protector of the group is 6-9 freshman Elijah Thomas. He block shots, so far turning away about 11 percent of opponent two point attempts while in the game. Thomas has also been good on offense, and like his teammate runs the floor hard. The thing he hasn't done well early is shoot free throws -- he is a Prince Ibeh-like 6-18 at the line.
The fourth big man in the rotation is 6-7 junior Tavario Miller, who was born in the Bahamas. He is a solid rebounder who doesn't shoot very much. That isn't a problem, as the Aggies have plenty of guys who do shoot.
This makes A&M sound like a pretty good team
If your impression after reading through this preview so far is that Texas A&M sounds like a good team, than your impression is similar to mine. The Aggies haven't beaten anyone particularly good yet (all four wins came against teams outside of the kenpom.com top 200), but they have beaten the absolute tar out of everyone that they have played, dominating every aspect of the game.
The Aggie defense has been strong, forcing turnovers, blocking shots, and controlling the defensive glass. Like all of Kennedy's prior A&M squads, the Aggies have allowed teams to get off a decent number of threes, but this so far hasn't hurt them. (Interestingly, most seasons it has not.)
On offense, the Aggies have looked to score quickly and are absolutely murdering opponents shooting from the floor, converting so far on 61 percent of their twos and 47 percent of their threes. And they have additionally been beating up on their overmatched opponents on the offensive glass.
What can we expect to see?
The two biggest weaknesses of the Aggies through their first four games has been a tendency to turn the ball over and a willingness to let opponents fire away from long distance. Meanwhile, the Texas Longhorn defense is now focused more on turning opponents over under first year head coach Shaka Smart, and Smart's history is that he is eager to let his players launch the ball from three point range.
If Texas A&M is able to get out and run in transition, can stay away from turnovers, Danuel House heats up, and the shots aren't really falling for Texas, then the Longhorns will have a difficult time coming away with a victory.
I think we also need to consider what is a very interesting match up on the interior, between A&M's talented freshmen and Texas' far more experienced quartet of Cameron Ridley, Connor Lammert, Prince Ibeh, and Shaquille Cleare. The Aggie big men have so far mostly beaten up on smaller opponents and now for the first time this year will be going up against players who match their size. It is possible that one team will gain a decisive advantage on the inside (it is conceivable that the more experienced Longhorns will be able to push their teenage opponents around), but these groups are more likely to play to some sort of draw, leaving the game to be decided on the perimeter.
So let the games begin. Tip off will be shortly after 6 PM CST. The game airs on AXS TV.