Preview: Texas A&M Aggies
Without star Elston Turner, Aggies hope to find production in backcourt
2013-14 SEC Projected Standings1. Kentucky | 2. Florida | 3. Tennessee | 4. LSU | 5. Alabama | 6. Missouri | 7. Arkansas | 8. Ole Miss | 9. Texas A&M | 10. Georgia | 11. Vanderbilt | 12. Mississippi State | 13. South Carolina | 14. Auburn
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2012-13: 18-15 (7-11 SEC)
In-conference offense: 0.99 points per possession (6th)
In-conference defense: 1.01 points allowed per possession (7th)
Last season in conference play Texas A&M recorded the slowest pace of any SEC team, averaging 61 possessions per 40 minutes. And that, of course, is fine. Wichita State's pace was slower than the average posted by a slow Missouri Valley Conference, and no one's yelling at Gregg Marshall at the moment. If it works, do it.
And the question for the Aggies offense going forward will indeed be just how well it works with its heavy emphasis on 2-point attempts.
The last time a Billy Kennedy team shot a lot of 3s, Carmelo Anthony was having a pretty good season for Jim Boeheim. Kennedy was coaching Southeastern Louisiana at the time, but ever since that season he has been reliably interior-oriented.
Last season Kennedy's degree of perimeter avoidance reached its peak, as the Aggies launched just 27 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc in SEC play. In itself that number is not all that extreme. (Compared to the total perimeter ban that Matt Painter enforced last season at the coaching equivalent of gunpoint, Kennedy is a regular Fred Hoiberg.) But it did mark Kennedy as the SEC's least perimeter-oriented coach, and in the context of an A&M offense that had turnover issues and wasn't getting to the line anyway it was an interesting choice.
A few makes from beyond the arc may have helped loosen things up, and the Aggies certainly appeared capable enough in that direction: Elston Turner, Fabyon Harris and J-Mychal Reese connected on 39 percent of their collective 377 attempts from beyond the arc. Harris and Reese return this season, and will be joined by reputedly sweet-shooting Florida State transfer Antwan Space. Kennedy may want to consider loosening the perimeter reins a bit.
That being said, replacing Turner (who graduated along with fellow starter Ray Turner and reserve Jarod Jahns) may prove difficult. Turner took excellent care of the ball, and every possession he used (and Turner used a lot of them) helped drive down an Aggies turnover rate that would have been worse without the senior's heroic suppressive efforts. As it was, A&M gave the ball away on 22 percent of its possessions in SEC play -- only Mississippi State and Georgia committed turnovers more frequently. In the post-Turner era, the Aggies will need to follow his example and treasure the rock.
In theory a rotation with this many point guards should be able to minimize turnovers. Start with Harris, a Windy City native who in high school was hailed by the Chicago Tribune as the metro's "angriest" point guard. Harris still labels himself as a "PG" on Twitter, but since arriving at A&M as a junior college transfer last season he actually has been asked to be more of a shooting guard. His unique shooting stroke dates from his days on the Hyde Park Academy JV squad, when he was too small and weak to shoot the ball any other way. The motion looks funny, but last season he made 45 percent of his 117 attempts from beyond the arc.
Point guard No. 2 is sophomore Alex Caruso. On offense he's a pass-first point who has a nice assist rate but is also a bit turnover-prone. On defense he's already one of the best on-ball defenders in the SEC -- Aaron Craft without the rosy cheeks. This season Caruso's first order of business will be lowering his foul rate. He fouled out four times as a freshman, including a notably brisk 19-minute DQ at home against Tennessee. (That was big, by the way. The Vols ended up winning 93-85 in four overtimes, rendering A&M Caruso-less for a full 41 minutes.)
Did I mention A&M brought a lot of new point guards on board last season? J-Mychal Reese was a top-100 prospect from Bryan, Texas, and as a freshman he made 25 starts. He was surprisingly reluctant to look for his shot, though, and indeed after Reese posted a zero-infested stat line in 16 minutes against LSU on March 6, he disappeared from the starting lineup entirely in each of the Aggies' final three games. For the season Reese came achingly close to shooting a better percentage on his rare 3s (36.4) than he did on his frequent 2s (36.7). Kennedy is no fan of 3s, obviously, but in Reese's individual case it would appear sophomore improvement could be helped along with a shift to more of a perimeter orientation.
Still another top-100 recruit out of high school, Antwan Space played a total of just 30 minutes for Leonard Hamilton at Florida State in 2011-12. (An early-season foot injury and the presence of Seminoles mainstays such as Bernard James and Okaro White meant he was a spectator as a freshman.) He arrives in College Station just in time to pick up the scoring slack created by Turner's departure. This season Space will be expected to knock down outside shots and inspire bad-pun headlines.
All of the above will be backed up by Jamal Jones and Jordan Green. Jones averaged 18 points and five boards per game last season for Lee College in Baytown, Texas. Kennedy likes that Jones can "score at a high level from the 3-point line and off the dribble." Green has seen steady minutes off the bench in each of the past two seasons as a combo guard. In the Aggies' 2012-13 regular-season finale he recorded 14 points and six boards in 25 minutes at Arkansas, but for the most part he has been content to be a supporting player. (Or Kennedy's content to have him be one.)
The Aggies will rely on Kourtney Roberson to patrol the paint. As a freshman reserve averaging 13 minutes a game for Mark Turgeon in 2010-11, Roberson was fairly assertive in looking for his shot. Then a broken ankle cost him his second season and forced him to take a medical redshirt. Which brings us to 2012-13, when it's not too much to say that Roberson was a rebounding specialist. And he was good at it, pulling down 21 percent of the rebounds on the defensive glass and 13 on the offensive boards during his minutes. However, Roberson attempted just 155 shots in 815 minutes. On an interior-oriented team that achieved merely average results last season on the interior, it could be worthwhile to throw a few more possessions the junior's way.
Caruso will harass opposing guards, Roberson will clean the glass and the Aggies will be solid on D. The concern in College Station is on offense. With Turner no longer leading the attack, A&M's high turnover rate could stay that way. In the meantime it's not clear which combination of players can provide the interior scoring punch that Kennedy prefers. A .500 finish in the SEC will count as a win for this group.
Projected 2013-14 conference finish: 9th
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2013-14 Insider College Hoops Preview
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