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Aggie Hoops Roundup: Alive and Kicking

After an 0-5 start, Texas A&M is looking at a two week stretch that could solidify their return to the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Texas A&M Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Melvin Franchione (MF): Howdy everyone, I’ve just survived a BIG GAME-day trip to HEB, so I’m feeling like I can take on the world. Which in this case means try to reasonably discuss what’s happening with Aggie Basketball. So where do we even start?

Gigthem08 (GT): Let’s start with the simplest question. On a scale of “back” to “not back...” are we back?

MF: I think we’re definitely back at home. We’ve destroyed our last three home opponents, but to truly believe we have to do something on the road. We got obliterated by a mediocre LSU team and didn’t even compete against a not-that-great Kansas team in our last two road games. We haven’t won a road game since November, so I can’t say we’re “back back” yet.

GT: No argument here. We’ve looked great at home, but those pesky 0-5 starts tend to prevent you from enjoying an “all we have to do is hold serve at home” situation down the stretch. These home wins are nice, but they really just keep us alive to try to change our fate on the road.

Let’s leave it at “kinda back.”

MF: Yeah, I think that’s fair. Put another way, we’re definitely not dead, which is a big improvement over a couple of weeks ago.

GT: Yeah, I thought we were super dead.

MF: I guess the next question then is ‘how?’ What’s been the biggest difference in our home games lately?

GT: Are you ready for some elite analysis? We’re making shots. Our defensive intensity has been better, and it’s been nice to roll with a full complement of players, but the turnaround is really just about getting some shots to fall. It’s an easier game when you hit a three every now and again.

MF: Hard to argue with that, but I’d say that our better shooting is the result of having a point guard actually create some offense. When you have someone the defense actually has to guard, and they already know they can’t leave our post guys, it definitely makes things a lot easier on offense. So to me it’s been the guard play, specifically TJ Starks. He’s been like an injection of aggressiveness on offense. Though Duane Wilson is also starting to get back to the player he was earlier in the season.

GT: There’s an interesting sub-question here: How would you like to see the minutes split between those two moving forward? It’s hard to argue Starks’ impact, but it’s also hard to argue Wilson’s effectiveness when healthy. Personally, I’m fine giving Starks a slight edge on overall minutes while reserving the big possessions for Wilson. You?

MF: I like Wilson off the bench for a reason that isn’t directly related to how good he is, but it’s that it balances out the experience a little bit. You have Starks out there with your veteran players like Gilder and Davis, and you have Wilson out there as a calming influence when you’re subbing in younger guys like Chandler and Flagg. So I sort of like that split right now. But basically you give a slight edge in minutes to whoever has the hot hand or fits the same better. There are going to be times that Starks struggles or gets a little out of control, just natural with a true freshman. But man… it’s hard to not get excited about the kind of player he could become down the road.

Another reason we’re better is that Robert Williams is back. He’s been a one man wrecking crew on the defensive end the last few home games. It’s been nice to see him bounce back.

GT: Williams has been playing like a man possessed, and for my money he’s now working on three straight weeks of All-SEC level basketball. This past week he scored 21 points on 10-11 from the field, with 16 rebounds and 8 blocks. The two weeks prior to that? 15.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks on 70% shooting.

But it’s not just about the numbers, it’s his overall impact in the paint. We’re now seeing the type of rim protection we had all of last year, where opposing teams would start looking over their shoulder for #44 anytime they got within twelve feet of the basket.

MF: For sure. I will say though that to me this team still starts and ends with Tyler Davis, it’s just that he’s so consistent, and hasn’t been injured or suspended, that you almost take his seemingly nightly double-double for granted.

GT: My love for Davis makes these next questions a little complicated, because he deserves nothing but good things. However, during our sputtering SEC start, the “what does A&M need to make the tournament” whispers started to creep in. As that slow start continued to linger, those whispers became shouts, and the shouts became “do we even WANT to make the tournament.”

That second question is loaded, and we’ll get to it soon, but let’s start with the first. What do we need from here on out to go dancing?

MF: So, as you know, I fancy myself something of an amateur bracketologist, so my natural reaction is to say that every year the tournament is different and it’s hard to give definitive answers on making it or not. But I’ll fight that instinct for the sake of simplicity and just say that we need to win all of our home games and probably win two games on the road. If we do that, then it’s hard to envision a scenario where we don’t get in.

GT: I’ve been shouting 9-9 off a rooftop for quite some time. It’s confusing for my neighbors, but it helps keep me grounded when our team goes on these massive swings from week to week.

MF: Yeah, and really the conversation about this basketball season is difficult, because there’s some big picture questions about where the program is heading and what would constitute a “successful” regular season. But that’s really a different conversation than figuring out what we have to do to make the tournament.

I’ll start doing some posts on the tournament soon, but as a sneak preview of how weird this season is, I actually think we’ve got a decent shot at getting in at 8-10 in the SEC, which would be a historical first. No SEC team with a losing conference record has ever been an at-large team in the tournament.

GT: An 8-10 SEC team in the NCAA’s would truly be some Twilight Zone level stuff. It would also be another feather in the cap of a conference that has continued to build steam throughout the spring. Now, I’m not sure I could tell you who’s good in the SEC, but I’m confident seven or eight of our teams meet that description. As for A&M’s chances, specifically, we’ll know a great deal more in one week than we do right now.

MF: For sure. A win at Auburn would really swing things the other way where at that point you’d basically be off the bubble on the good side. I definitely agree about the SEC though, there are some weird teams in this league. Like, are Arkansas and Alabama good? No idea.

GT: Is Florida bad? Are they capable of getting it together and winning the SEC Tournament? What are Mizzou and Mississippi State, exactly? This league is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, and stuffed into a burrito of improved non-conference scheduling.

MF: Well it’s funny you say that, because while it’s definitely true, the team that’s probably going to win this league has a ridiculous schedule. Auburn is 21-2 and has only beaten (and only even played) one team in the KenPom top 30 all season. So I’m still not even sure how good I really think they are. They have a “don’t trust them in March” feel to them. At this point they’re basically a volume win team where even though they haven’t beaten that many good teams, they’ve beaten so many teams that it’s hard to argue against them.

GT: I’m prepared to take either Auburn narrative depending on Wednesday night’s result. If we lose, they were a certain Final Four contender and salvation will certainly come in our final seven games. If we win, the Aggie Narcissist in me will probably immediately try to pick holes in their game while mentally preparing for the worst. Sports are weird.

I do think we’ve arrived at the larger question, and it’s a doozy. Assuming that a tournament appearance keeps the current regime in place, is an NCAA Tournament appearance good for Texas A&M Basketball?

MF: Yeah, it is. And though I understand the argument against it, we’ve made the tournament so few times, that any time we do make it, it’s awesome. Maybe it’s just my love of college basketball and the fact that the tournament is a million times better when the Ags are in it, but I don’t bother myself much with thinking about about the long term implications of making it. I just want to make it.

GT: There’s no doubt that a tourney appearance would be fun, but I’d like to articulate some of the “against” points for arguments sake. Chief among them is the improved recruiting stature of the SEC, which is something that has caught me by surprise this year.

Billy Kennedy is a plus recruiter, which is something I’ve given him since day one, but we’re no longer in a situation where that level of recruiting can guarantee success. The entire conference is recruiting at a higher level, and the days of pointing at the conference and knowing we had “top half” talent are wearing thin. I think we’re headed for a world of increasingly tighter margins in conference play, and in that world I think I’m ready to roll the dice and go in a different direction. A tournament appearance would be amazing, but I think it’s something I can live without if I’m promised a Scott Woodward super-hire.

Now please feel free to screenshot this and throw it in my face when we make the second weekend of the dance and I’m doused in champagne.

MF: I think it’s because of my former career and that I used to live in the recruiting world a little bit, but one thing I’ve tried to do more the last couple of years is just be a fan of the moment. It won’t be up to me on if Kennedy gets fired, and I won’t get to help pick his replacement. And I think following recruiting every day can get people so focused on what could be in the future, that they forget the fun of the moment. So, while I do understand how us not making the tournament could be good for the future, I still want us to win every time we take the court and if I was given two buttons and one said “make tournament” and one said “Kennedy gets fired” I’m hitting the make tournament button every time.

GT: Please guard the “make tournament” button with your life. That’s a valuable artifact.

MF: I think Kennedy lost his.

GT: Nice. Also, probably accurate… but time will tell. I imagine we’ll know a great deal more about the location, effectiveness, and relative safety of the button the next time we chat.

MF: Yeah, I’ll close with this thought. For all of the big picture talk, we’ve got ourselves a bubble team, and we’ve got the Kentucky Wildcats coming in for a Saturday night game next weekend. If that doesn’t get your maroon college hoops hype going, then I don’t know what does. Hopefully the weather is nice and we can get a nice little basketball tailgating scene going next weekend.

GT: I’ve already got my tickets. Been looking forward to that one for a while. It has the potential to be a great atmosphere, particularly if we get a W on Wednesday night.

MF: I’m in. BTHO Everyone.