THE OPPONENT: @ South Carolina
When Texas A&M last played South Carolina, Reed Arena resembled a sold out crowd (thanks to Corps of Cadets filling around 75% of the seats), and after a hard-fought win, Andy Katz made the following video about A&M's surprising 3-0 start to SEC play. Now as the last matchup came at the peak of the Aggies' hot streak, tonight's contest could not be more on the opposite side of the spectrum. After putting up a stinker against Vanderbilt last Saturday, a second victory against the Gamecocks is pivotal if the Ags want to keep their heads above water in SEC play, especially with a date at #3 Florida looming on February 1st.
Here are the three keys to tonight's matchup.
WHICH DEVONTE FITZGERALD WILL WE SEE?
Perhaps the biggest surprise from the Vandy debacle was the startling no-show by Devonte Fitzgerald (13 min, 0 pts, 0 reb, 0 ast). He put a similar performance when A&M upset Tennessee in Knoxville (8 min, 2 pts, 1 reb, 0 ast, 4 fouls). It seemed like he may have made a leap into a consistent playmaker after averaging 15 points in the three games after defeating the Vols, but after last Saturday the freshman may be more enigmatic than we previously thought.
Fitzgerald's proven to be one of the team's best players when he gets going and plays with confidence, but he's still a true freshman that's prone to the occasional lull in his game. If the Ags plan to salvage this season, Coach Kennedy must prevent Fitzgerald from disappearing on the court.
In the previous game with South Carolina, the Ags were saved by an out-of-nowhere performance from Shawn Smith who scored 14 points off the bench, including a clutch corner-3 late in the second half. The bench trio of Smith-Fitzgerald-Antwan Smith provided 35 of the team's 75 points in the victory against the Gamecocks, shooting 11-16 from the field along with an astonishing 17 attempts at the free throw line.
It'll be a long night in Columbia if A&M relies on a similar performance from the bench, but it will make matters much easier someone other than Fitzgerald could contribute. That responsibility most likely rests on Fabyon Harris. The senior came out firing against Vandy, scoring six points with a few minutes, but immediately cooled off afterwards. Harris' play has been erratic all season, but he can still provide a spark on offense and change the momentum of the game in moment's notice. If we can that side from Harris, the Ags' fate won't have to depend on the scoring prowess of Jamal Jones.
I won't get too down on Alex Caruso. The CS native clearly is the floor general and the only times the offense resembles an actual offense is when Caruso leads the charge. However, the burden has begun to show signs of wear on the sophomore. He's now fouled out in two of the last three games, had his first no-assist game in SEC competition against Vandy, and averages around two plays a game where he sails a pass into the opposing team's bench.
So much of the game plan revolves around Caruso so it's only natural that he goes through spurts of trying to do too much. Help must be provided from the other perimeter players like Harris, Jordan Green or Shawn Smith to take at least some of the pressure off Caruso. With the state of Aggie basketball right now, there's no reason for the other guards to sit back and wait for something to happen on offense.
The boys in maroon and white will want to redeem themselves for Saturday's egg-laying so expect aggression on defense and out-of-control play on offense. Though sloppy and probably not very pretty to watch, Texas A&M gets back to above .500.
Texas A&M - 59, South Carolina - 53