Fresh off the heels of one of the most frustrating Aggie basketball weekends in recent memory, the Ags welcomed the Houston Cougars to Reed Arena on Wednesday night. Did the good guys fall victim to yet another feline-themed enemy? Let's take a look.
Our Aggie Basketball preview advocated that we shake up the starting lineup, and Coach Kennedy obliged. Out were Antwan Space and Shawn Smith, replaced by Davonte Fitzgerald (second start) and Jamal Jones (first start). One could argue that this move was made solely with three point shooting in mind (A&M was 5-26 from deep in their last two games), but I think it was a message from the Corpus fiasco: If we play that poorly, nobody's spot is safe.
Full starting lineup: Caruso/Green/Jones/Fitzgerald/Roberson
The game started rather slowly while both teams tried to feel the other out. Multiple missed threes by A&M (here we go again?) along with some nice interior passing from UH led to an early lead for the bad guys. The Ags caught up and forged ahead behind some smooth Jamal Jones shooting (more on this later), Alex Caruso defense (tons of early energy on D), and a very aggie-like drought from the outside by UH (1-13 stretch at one point).
Midway through the first half we caught a glimpse of the new 8 man rotation, as Reese/Harris/Space checked in. The second unit (if you can call them that... who knows which unit is which at this point) looked pretty good early, and a handful of easy Kourtney Roberson buckets slightly extended the lead as they hit the final media timeout. Quick note on another fantastic game by Roberson (26 minutes; 14 points / 7-9 FG / 7 rebounds): The guy is still shooting almost 70% this late into the season, and it's not all putbacks. He knows how to find space down low, has very reliable hands, and always goes up strong.
The Ags closed the opening period with a series of great looks from downtown. Fitzgerald (26 minutes; 10 points / 3 blocks / 3-12 FG) had an off shooting day, but he led this charge with two threes from the right wing to keep the lead at six heading into the break. A&M shot 55% for the first half, including 50% (5-10) from downtown.
The ugly trend continued. For the third straight game, Texas A&M came out of the break looking very poor and UH slapped a quick 5-0 run on our lethargic Ags. The damage could have been worse, but the Cougars missed a couple of short looks and a wide open three (about time we caught some breaks) before an early Kennedy timeout diffused the momentum. Caruso (21 minutes; 4 points / 4 assists / 0 turnovers) steadied the ship coming out of that break, finding Roberson for two layups in quick succession. A Jamal Jones three (you'll see a theme here) and yet another good look for Roberson down low capped what might have been the smoothest series of team offensive possessions we have seen all year, and it completely killed the UH momentum. That series was soon followed by a great out of bounds play (Space layup) and a Green (25 minutes; 6 points / 6 assists / 1 turnover) steal of the ensuing inbounds pass, which had the Cougars reeling.
Enter J`Mychal Reese (16 minutes; 10 points / 4-5 FG). UH did an admirable job recovering from the Aggie second half run, and was threatening to stick around and make things interesting. Reese responded by putting together one of the most impressive stretches by any A&M player this season, and I believe my raw game notes tell the story:
- Reese hits a deep three against a UH 2-3 zone
- Great take by Reese against man. Fantastic.
- UH switches D again, nice mid-range look Reese
- UH switches D AGAIN (1-3-1 trap), great patient ball movement, great take Reese AND ONE
- Jones three (kid is unconscious now 6-8). Lead is 16
Just like that, the game was out of reach. Fabyon Harris (25 minutes; 2 points / 5 assists) ran the second unit (or unit 1B?) effectively and kept the Cougars at arms length for the rest of the game. The day was perhaps best summarized by Jones' final three, which clanged off the back iron and got the sweetest shooter's roll you'll ever see. For the first time in a while, things were bouncing our way.
Game MVP: I don't care if it's a lazy comparison, Jamal Jones (31 minutes; 21 points / 7-10 3PT / 7 boards) looked like Josh Carter tonight. The same number, similar release, and similar build reminded me of a simpler time when a kick out to #23 was guaranteed money. A fantastic first start for the JC wingman, who surely earned a starting job moving forward.
The day did not come without its challenges. Aside from Roberson, the low post was a problem. Antwan Space (14 minutes; 7 points / 2 rebounds) and Tavario Miller (13 minutes; 0 points / 2 rebounds) just couldn't create much on their own. We also had a tough time containing UH forward TaShawn Thomas (34 minutes; 16 points / 11 rebounds / 5 blocks), who kept the Cougars in the game throughout the first half. He was a handful, and was perhaps a harbinger of what competent SEC bigs (there are plenty) could do to us down low.
Additionally, it seems we're still trying to carve out the ideal role for Caruso. He was commendable at the point, but he continues to struggle from the outside. With today's second half in mind, it might be time to let Reese and Fabyon split duties at the point and shift Caruso to the wing full-time. This would play to Caruso's greatest strength - creating opportunities from chaos. We don't want him motionless at the point, we want him to get the ball on the wing and attack an adjusting defense.
Having said all that, it's pretty tough to complain about a 17 point victory. Coming off of a game where they only had four assists, A&M had 22 team assists on 29 field goals. Their spacing and ball movement were spectacular. And for the first time in three games they hit their outside shots, going 10-23 from beyond the arc. That dependability from the outside led to more openings in the lane. Which, in turn, led to more open looks. It was the exact portrait of Kennedy ball we all hoped to see preseason.
Will the hot shooting last forever? Of course not. But if Kennedy continues to be flexible with the rotation and ride the hot hand, this team can minimize the slumps and hopefully put the Corpus experience in the rear view mirror for good.
Any thoughts on your preferred rotation moving forward? Thoughts about the game last night? Hit the comments section below.