Ladies and gentlemen, he's in the building. The "he" is Melvin Watkins, former A&M Head Basketball Coach and patriarch of perhaps the worst basketball season in Texas A&M history.
Melvin left A&M after that infamous season to become an associate head coach at Missouri (2004-2011) and Arkansas (2012-Current), and since that day his teams have yet to record a victory in College Station. Would the Melvin curse end for A&M vs. Arkansas? Would the Aggies decide to hit a few outside shots? Could they slow down the high-flying Razorback offense? Let's find out.
The Aggies went small, with Fabyon Harris replacing Antwan Space. A move surely designed to counter the Razorback attack, which came into this contest first or second in just about every SEC offensive category.
Full starting lineup: Harris/Caruso/Green/Jones/Roberson
Kennedy was rewarded by his decision to go small, as the Ags' quick perimeter movement led to three wide open layups/dunks, a wide open Harris three, and an early 12-6 lead. Unfortunately, the offense went stagnant (1-11 FG) after the opening 5-5 salvo, as A&M lost their identity trying to match the Arkansas pace. Same old story, right? Hot start followed by extended offensive ineptitude, right? Wrong. The team showed some passion during a feisty stretch of play punctuated by Davonte Fitzgerald taking offense to a hard Arkansas foul, an careless Hog intentional foul on Fabyon Harris, and the Fox Sports mic picking up an "And F***ing One!" by Roberson after a lengthy battle down low. For the first time in a while, the team was fired up.
The latter portion of the first half was best summed up by the aggression of Fabyon Harris (31 minutes; 15 points / 2-3 3PT / 5-8 FG), who had perhaps his best game of the season. His stretch of 7 consecutive points led an 11-0 A&M run, but Arkansas finally started hitting some shots on the other end and responded with a 9-0 run of their own. Neither team was really able to separate for the remainder of the half, and our Ags went into the break up 35-33.
Earlier this season, I was critical of the team's response coming out of the halftime break, so I need to give credit where credit is due. A&M started with a beautiful designed play for a Caruso layup and immediately followed with a Jamal Jones three for a quick 5-0 run. We went cold for a bit shortly after (mostly due to the pace again - we were simply playing too fast), but three consecutive Caruso assists (leading to a Fitz three, a Jones three, and a Roberson layup) finally allowed us to push the lead to double digits.
The middle portion of the second half was the Texas A&M defense show, and it's where the game started to get out of hand. Arkansas couldn't figure out how to attack this defense (1-8 3PT / 5-12 FT / 7-26 FG) in the 2nd half, and they were turning the ball over at a rapid rate. Three pointers. Layups. Free throws. It didn't matter where they were standing on the court, the shot was contested and ball wasn't going down. To be fair, they missed a handful of easy looks (including one possession with four missed putbacks) but our defensive pressure was fantastic.
The game was put to bed by a 10-2 run heading into the final media timeout, as three great team passing plays led to three wide open layups. Add that to a Jordan Green block + coast-to-coast layup, and the Ags were up 16 and this one was over. Final score: Texas A&M 69, Arkansas 53.
Game MVP: Alex Caruso (31 minutes; 11 assists / 7 rebounds / 4 steals / 2 blocks) had his best all-around game of the season. What a ridiculous stat line. And these assists weren't feeds for contested looks - they led directly to wide open layups/dunks/threes. His vision and ability to penetrate made the offense go.
Let me get a quick pet peeve out of the way: One thing I'd like to see improved (and I'm admittedly splitting hairs here) is our reaction to the full court press. While the combination of Caruso and Harris was able to get the ball across midcourt without issue, we made poor decisions after breaking the press. Too often we pushed the pace unnecessarily, and some TO's and bad looks were the result.
Ok, enough of that. Wow. What a pleasant surprise... there are almost too many positive individual performances things to highlight. Caruso was amazing. Jamal Jones (25 minutes; 14 points / 8 rebounds / 2-6 3PT / 5-15 FG) was very aggressive from the outset, showcasing a handful of strong moves inside the arc for perhaps the first time this season... it was a nice response to some prior efforts where early misses from outside made him all but invisible. Davonte Fitzgerald (19 minutes; 17 points / 4-7 FG / 7-8 FT) had a very effective game and hit free throws down the stretch to keep the game out of hand. Kourtney Roberson (28 minutes; 7 points / 6 rebounds / 2 blocks) was much more active down low, and Shawn Smith (22 minutes; 5 points / 3 rebounds / 2 steals / 2 assists) cemented his return to the 8-man rotation with a solid all-around game.
Most importantly, aside from that 1-11 stretch early in the first half, the Ags avoided stacking poor possessions. A turnover or forced shot was almost always followed by a controlled offensive set, and the result was no clear opportunity for Arkansas to jump back into the game. This game showed us that our defensive effort is something to be reckoned with, and a continued focus on offense can push this conference season in the right direction.
Can the offense keep it up? Will the defense keep us in the game at Tennessee on Saturday? Hit the comments below.