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What Happened to Texas A&M Basketball?

The guys attempt to recap a truly unique (and underwhelming) hoops campaign

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Texas A&M vs Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Gigthem08: Sir, we have the unenviable task of recapping the single most bizarre season in program history. It started poorly, somehow became worse, had a quick resurgence... and then fell into a pit of despair rife with snakes, wasps, and “undefeated February!” jokes.

Our first question is probably the most important: Does this season mean anything?

Pmotftac07: It’s honestly hard to say. There was certainly some player development, but losing effectively a month of your season to COVID protocols and a generational winter storm is certainly a bad break that hindered the development of some younger guys. Why don’t we briefly recap the season to get started and set the stage for those who didn’t take the journey with us?

GT: As with all sports in the latter portion of 2020, the primary question approaching this season was “will this season exist?” That question eventually became “when will the season start,” which of course yielded questions like “how will conference play look” and “will non-conference play even exist?”

It’s wild to type that out, but there really was an almost day-to-day uncertainty about the proceedings. When the dust settled, we cobbled together a haphazard six-game non-conference slate with precisely zero teams in the KenPom Top 125. Not exactly an “iron sharpens iron” scenario.

PM: The Aggies were simply trying to make the best of an unfortunate situation. Ending the non-conference schedule with a 5-1 record in a normal season would be at least a reason for mild optimism, but there wasn’t anything impressive in those five victories, the most significant of which ended up being an 18 point victory over Wofford in the final tune-up before conference play. The most appropriate predictor for what was to come ended up being the Aggies 18 point loss to TCU at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth.

GT: I hate to say it, but that final deficit was misleading. TCU led 58-25 at one point in the second half, which was extraordinarily disappointing considering that this was our one attempt at a legitimate data point prior to SEC play. We knew we were better than the dregs of college basketball, and we knew we weren’t ready for legitimate P5 opposition… but that’s it. That’s all we knew.

I don’t think I’ve ever known less about a team as we started conference play.

PM: The Aggies opened conference play with a loss at LSU followed by a win at home over Auburn. The win over Auburn felt like something for the team to build on, but I think this is one of those “styles make fights” situations where games against Auburn are always going to feel like a heavyweight title bout even when both teams are just middle of the pack.

Buzz’s team proceeded to drop 3 or their next four with the only win coming from a 1-point victory in Starkville over Mississippi State. We then experienced our first cancellation of the season when a mid-January trip to Vandy was postponed (and never actually played). From there, a couple of losses to Ole Miss and LSU led us to the Big 12 Challenge and a showdown with Kansas State.

GT: The Wildcats recovered nicely to close their season, but at the time of this game… they were comfortably the worst P5 team in college hoops. And for the first 20 minutes, this rock fight threatened to break my television. But then something interesting happened. Staring down the barrel of a truly inexcusable home defeat, we started to play with a little fire. The COVID-distanced crowd started getting loud, the COVID-distanced bench was jumping around, and the end result was a 68-61 victory that couldn’t help but make me feel like better things might be on the horizon. Sure, it was a weak opponent. But for the first time all season, the program had energy.

And then February hit.

PM: And the hits kept coming all month long. COVID protocols forced the team to pause activities after the K State victory. Just as the team was getting ready to resume practice just over two weeks later, snowmageddon turned Reed Arena into a shelter for BCS residents who were left without power. In the aftermath of the storm, the team was unable to resume practice because they weren’t able to complete the necessary COVID testing because their designated testing lab was reeling from the storm. Charles Dickens himself couldn’t have written this one.

The end result was 28 consecutive days without a full team practice and 32 days without a game. It’s really tough to assess where you are and where you’re going when you are forced to drop 7 games from a 25 game schedule and lose a month’s worth of practice.

GT: To our credit, we played well in our remaining three games after the break. We lost all three, but we showed a fair amount of fight. Particularly in a tough road loss at Arkansas.

It’s a season that almost felt doomed to fail, and we’ve both questioned the nature of its’ very existence. Which leads us to the tricky part. How do we put on a bow on this? How do we recap something that was so utterly screwy?

How do you eulogize something that never lived?

PM: It’s certainly an interesting question. After watching the NCAA tournament, I think it’s safe to say that we’re nowhere near ready for that caliber of play. After the way the Aggies surged to close out the 2019-2020 season, I think a lot of people had high expectations for this year, but some of the crucial pieces that you needed to emerge as star contributors never materialized. The defensive effort was there, but this group really struggled offensively. What you’re left with is the realization that Josh Nebo and Chuck Mitchell were really the driving engine last year, and their graduation created a substantial void that this team never really replaced.

GT: When Nebo was ignored during the SEC postseason awards, I was annoyed at the time. Now I’m downright livid. This season’s campaign is the best possible retroactive “SEC Defensive Player of the Year” and “First Team All-SEC” support you could possibly construct!

As to your other point, you’re exactly right. No one stepped up. Kevin Marfo was brought in to be the Nebo replacement (presumably because Aku wasn’t ready for a full load in year two), but he wasn’t even close to Nebo and now he’s out the door. Savion Flagg and Jay Jay Chandler were supposed to be two of our contributors most likely to replace Mitchell’s efforts on both ends of the floor… and they weren’t close, either. Coincidentally, they are also both transferring out.

When you mix “a larger outgoing impact than you realized” with “the next man up isn’t quite ready to take the baton,” you’re gonna have a bad time. A really, really bad time.

PM: The good news is that your most consistent offensive weapon, Emanuel Miller, returns next year. He improved on a nice freshman campaign and became the leading scorer, top rebounder, and most effective offensive weapon for Buzz’s team. Quenton Jackson pushed his way to the forefront as well, and there’s at least a chance that he could return next year since the NCAA won’t be counting this year for eligibility purposes. Andre Gordon solidified his place as the starting point guard, and while his shooting was inconsistent, you certainly saw his maturity and decision making take strides forward, especially in the last 5 or 6 games of the year, where the team as a whole cut down on turnovers in a pretty remarkable way from what we’ve seen over the last 4 years.

I hate to keep harping on this point, but the departure of Josh Nebo may represent an inflection point in the Aggies’ style of play. For the last 15 years, Texas A&M has consistently had a substantial post presence in the frontcourt. Basketball has evolved, and that inside-out style of play has become a relic of a bygone era. So that begs the question - what pieces are the Aggies adding to next year and what can we expect in 2021-2022?

GT: The “what are we adding” piece is a fun one, because it gives me an excuse to talk about our most decorated incoming recruit since DeAndre Jordan — Manny Obaseki.

Obaseki recently received his 5th star in the 247 composite rankings, presumably on the back of his first team all-state recognition. He’s the 24th ranked player in the nation, the 5th ranked shooting guard in the nation, and the 3rd ranked player overall in the state of Texas. A player who one scout referred to as “arguably the most athletic player in the Senior class.” We’ve had a handful of freshmen take their time to make an impact lately, and that’s not going to happen with this kid.

Aside from that, we’ve got incoming transfer help down low from UConn (JaVonte Brown-Ferguson), 4 star PG Wade Taylor, and 3 star C Ashton Smith. When you add that to a truly once-in-a-lifetime transfer portal pool (per the “free COVID year of eligibility), Buzz Williams should have no trouble completely remaking this team in his image. With the departure of Flagg and Chandler, no Kennedy holdovers remain.

PM: I think this sets the foundation for Buzz Williams to start to build this program in his own image. I would be lying if I said that this season’s results don’t worry me because there is certainly a cause for concern. However, I think we’re far from hitting the panic button at this point. Buzz Williams came here with a proven track record of building winning programs, and I have no doubts that he’ll do the same here. I think the Aggies will take significant steps forward next year. Ultimately, the measure of success for this program in its current state is the NCAA tournament, and to make a return to the Big Dance, they must find consistent perimeter scoring. I think one key unknown player we haven’t mentioned here is Cashius McNeilly. After suffering an injury that kept him out of the 19-20 season, McNeilly opted out of this year. As a heralded long-range scoring threat, he could be a key piece of the puzzle to opening things up on the inside for Miller by keeping opposing defenses honest and forcing them to defend the 3 point line. If that happens, Obaseki, Gordon, and Taylor should also benefit by finding open lanes to get to the rim.

GT: Next year is critical, because it can set two wildly different tones for the first three years of Buzz’s tenure. If we make the NCAA tournament next season, the narrative becomes “growth interrupted by the COVID+Winter season of doom.” That’s workable. But if we don’t improve next year, our 2019-2020 campaign gets called into question. That was a fun year, and I really enjoyed that 5-2 run down the stretch against mostly NCAA tournament opposition, but that momentum will be dead and gone if we don’t start relatively hot next season.

I like your point about McNeilly, and his situation hammers home an important point — this was not our intended personnel grouping. I do disagree a bit in terms of where that should have left us this season (my take = not as bad as we showed) but the larger point remains. This was a team that was not put in a position to succeed.

We have choices in this life, and I choose optimism. Obaseki, Eman, McNeilly, and friends will significantly improve next season and remind us why we were so excited at the start of the Buzz Williams era.

With that, we’ll sign off for now.