Throughout a season, pattern of expectations tend to develop with each game a team plays. The wins and losses plus the level of competition played usually results in an informed hypothesis of what the future results will be. Usually fans can use the previous equation while going through their team's schedule and be able to sort out a reasonable expectation for upcoming games and postseason hopes. The key word in this paragraph is USUALLY. This process USUALLY works for most teams, but at this point in the season, Texas A&M is not one of them.
There's a quote former wrestler Roddy Piper used to say (And yes, I'm using a wrestling quote. If you don't like it, well I got two words for ya!), "Just when they think they have the answers, I change the questions." The questions have certainly changed since Thanksgiving. "Is this team for real?" (Nov. 26)... "Can they beat an above-average opponent?" (Nov. 30)... "Is scoring that difficult?" (Dec. 21)... "Should basketball be cancelled?"(Dec. 31). A&M's victory at Tennessee this last Saturday led to our latest query: Should we take this seriously? The answer to the question depends on one's mindset.
If one asks looking at A&M's 2-0 start to conference play in a vacuum, then the answer's yes. Against Arkansas, the Ags shut down a top-10 offense and a McDonalds All-American. Against Tennessee, A&M overcame a 14-point deficit and grinded out a victory in a hostile environment.
If one asks in attempt to create a level of expectation for the games ahead, then the answer is no. Both games furthered A&M's status as a top-level defense (Arkansas and Tennessee were both held to season lows), but scoring on offense took incredible performances from unlikely sources. Against the Razorbacks, Devonte Fitzgerald scored a team-high 17 points. Against the Vols, Antwan Space, shooting below 20% from 3-point range, went 2-2 from beyond the arc, the second one of course being the game winner. Though the last week showed Alex Caruso and Jamal Jones taking their game to another level, A&M's offense still remains as Jekyl and Hyde as ever, capable of clicking on all cylinders and going on nine-minute scoring draughts at a moment's notice (as showing against Tennessee). It's because of A&M's bi-polar disorder that no game is safe, a bad thing for games like tonight but great for contests like the upcoming visit to Rupp Arena a week from today.
With that, here are three keys for tonight's matchup against South Carolina.
Tavario Miller & Antwan Space in the Post
While Space had the highlight of the game against Tennessee, Tavario Miller got the most playing time he's had all year and arguably was looked to over Space when the Ags were fighting back from their first-half deficit. Miller didn't provide much offense (3 points in 18 minutes) but snagged 5 rebounds (2nd most to Kourtney Roberson) and battled hard inside the paint despite being outsized against the Vols. This may lead to a battle for floor minutes, but this duo's progression is vital for the Ags when Roberson needs to take a rest.
Life without Caruso
Speaking of rest, perhaps the most obvious observation about the Ags is the drop off in production whenever Alex Caruso leaves the floor. Last Saturday, the College Station native could barely afford a minute of rest, spending 37 minutes on the court. When we sent in our player rankings Monday, I mentioned to our writing team that Caruso is the most important on the team by a large margin. With his court vision and basketball IQ, the sophomore makes all of his teammates better, but the rest of the roster needs to learn how to keep their heads above water when he's on the bench. There's still 16 games left in conference play, so if Coach Kennedy needs to play Caruso 40 minutes a game, this kid's legs will be jello by the end of the season.
Jamal Jones Driving to the Basket
A nice wrinkle introduced in the last two games is Jamal Jones evolving into a scorer rather than a spot-up shooter. Three's are still the primary weapon in his arsenal, but the junior has started to drive to the basket more as well adding a pump fake when he goes up from long range. These new additions played a pivotal role in Jones' 20-point second half against Tennessee and will definitely be needed in the matchups to come. The junior is still a tad erratic as a jump shooter so finding a way to get inside and earn easy buckets or free throws will make it much easier for him to be the consistent scorer A&M desperately needs him to be.
Like I said, you never know what to expect with this Aggie team. Coming off such an emotional victory in Knoxville, the Ags come out flat and give Reed Arena a classic scoring draught we know so well. Fortunately, the defense will remain stout and A&M earns their first 3-0 start in conference play since the 2010-11 season.
Aggies - 61, South Carolina - 56