The 2021-22 season for Aggie basketball was guaranteed to be a transition to a new foundation. Seven players from last year’s team transferred to other schools and were replaced by seven incoming transfers and four inbound freshmen. While it wasn’t a new beginning, the massive roster turnover this season presented an opportunity to move the program in a better direction.
Buzz Williams’s new look team has finished the non-conference portion of the schedule at 11-2, but the impressive thing is the way that they’ve done it. The quality has improved on both ends of the floor, but the tempo and pace of play have increased only marginally. Shooting percentages are better, turnovers are down, and assists have increased, leading to a substantial improvement in adjusted offensive efficiency, On the defensive side, steals are up, and, despite a smaller roster, blocks and offensive rebounds have improved over last year. This had led to a modest improvement in adjusted defensive efficiency.
On the flip side, there are still many opportunities for improvement. Despite the improvement in turnovers, A&M still ranks in the bottom half of the country in turnover percentage. The defensive rebounding continues to be a struggle. After a good start to the season in the free throw department, percentages from the charity stripe have fallen off a cliff, leaving the Ags ranked 332 out of 358 Division I teams. Finally, the strength (or lack thereof) of the non-conference schedule calls into question whether these results are fool’s gold, especially considering that the SEC currently has six teams ranked in the top 25.
The Aggies opened the season with four wins in eight days over North Florida (64-46), Abilene Christian (81-80), A&M Corpus Christi (86-65), and Houston Baptist (73-39). The one-point victory over the ACU Wildcats required double overtime, raising eyebrows for some; however, this I view this win as a strong point, especially considering it was the just the second game of the season for a very young team that was missing its head coach due to suspension and was facing one of the most experienced rosters in the country in a team that was coming off of a round of 32 appearance in last season’s NCAA tournament.
The Aggies traveled to Las Vegas for the Maui Jim Invitational, playing three games in the three days before Thanksgiving. A&M opened the tourney with a disappointing 11-point loss to Wisconsin (58-69) after leading the Badgers by as many as 16 points in the first half. The Ags followed up that loss with wins over Butler (57-50) and Notre Dame (73-67). Meanwhile, the Wisconsin loss looked better after the Badgers knocked off Houston and Saint Mary’s to win the tournament title.
A&M followed up their trip to Vegas with a win at home over New Orleans (85-65) before traveling to Houston to face TCU. The Aggies played perhaps their most disappointing game of the season to this point, losing to the Horned Frogs 68-64. A&M turned the ball over 18 times (second highest game this season), went 8-18 from the free throw line (worst percentage this season), and were outscored 19-15 in the final 7:00 of the game, the segment when the Ags’ have been especially adept at closing games out this year.
The Aggies followed up the loss with a trip to Corvallis to take on Oregon State and picked up the road win, 83-73. They tacked on home wins over Northwestern State (80-61), Dallas Christian College (102-52), and Central Arkansas (85-59). The Aggies were scheduled to host Tulane, but the game was cancelled due to COVID issues with the Green Wave program. The A&M Athletic Department was able to schedule a last-minute game with Dallas Christian as a replacement.
The Aggies’ strength of schedule is currently rated at 327 out of 358 Division I teams according to kenpom.com. This obviously calls into question whether A&M’s results can be trusted as an indicator of future performance. Four of the opponents in A&M’s non-conference schedule have been ranked in the top 100 when adjusted for location and home court advantage - Wisconsin, Notre Dame, TCU, and Oregon State. The Aggies are 2-2 in those games. What the Ags have going in their favor even with an easy schedule is the fact that the decisive way in which they have won games against inferior competition. Removing the aforementioned top 100 opponents, the only games that have been decided by single digits were the wins over Abilene Christian (ranked #121 by kenpom.com) and Butler (ranked #103). This leads one to believe that the Aggies current kenpom ranking of #62 is a reasonably trustworthy indicator of this team’s quality.
As previously mentioned, the Aggies’ adjusted offensive efficiency has improved significantly this year, reaching its highest point in Buzz Williams’s tenure. The improvement in field goal percentage has a heavy influence in this, especially the increase in 3 point accuracy. A&M is shooting 37.8% from beyond the arc, its best percentage since the 2006-07 season. This ranks the Aggies #24 in the country in three point shooting.
I have been charting the Aggies’ shots for most games this season. Below is a shot chart for the games that I have had a chance to analyze; it excludes North Florida, Abilene Christian, A&M-Corpus (these game recordings were removed from ESPN+ before I started charting), and Oregon State (because the Pac 12 Network doesn’t believe that anyone actually wants to watch their conference). The zones highlighted in green indicate the areas where the Aggies are shooting above the NCAA Division I average (33.2% for 3 point field goals and 49.5% for 2 point field goals).
As previously mentioned, A&M’s turnover percentage has dropped to 18.9% this season, down from 21.3% in 2019-20 and 22.3% in 2020-21. In fact, this is the best turnover percentage for Aggie basketball since 2016-17 and puts the Ags in the top 50% of teams in Division 1. Buzz Williams teams always crash the offensive glass hard, and this year is no exception as the Aggies are currently ranked 38th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. The biggest detriment to the Ags’ offensive game remains their free throw shooting. After shooting 74.5% from the line in the first five games of the season, A&M has since shot 58.1% over the next 8 games. It clearly cost the Aggies a victory against TCU, and it could be a factor in conference play as bigger, stronger SEC teams scout this roster for obvious weaknesses.
On the defensive side, A&M currently ranks #49 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. This includes holding opponents to 39.9% from the field. Below is a shot chart of opponent field goal percentages for the same set of games as the chart above. Opponents are only hitting above the national average from beyond the arc in each corner as well as from the left elbow.
Opponents shooting well from the corner makes sense when looking at the evolution of the A&M defense. In the two prior years under Buzz, the Aggies focused more on keeping their man in front and preventing dribble penetration. The Ags didn’t play in the passing lanes as much and relied on traps and ball pressure to create steals. This has changed in 2021-22 as the Aggies have ratcheted up the pressure on the ball and in the passing lanes. The help-side rotations that have been created by perimeter traps are giving opponents more wide open looks in the corner. However, this is a small price to pay when your defense ranks #9 nationally in turnover percentage and #10 in the country in steal percentage.
Despite being the shortest Power 5 roster in the country, A&M ranks #93 in block percentage. However, this size disadvantage comes into play on the defensive glass, where the Ags are allowing their opponents to gather offensive boards on 30.5% of all defensive shot opportunities. This ranks #249 in the country and is definitely a concern as the Aggies move into conference play against 13 opponents who all have average heights taller than A&M.
During A&M’s 13 non-conference games, twelve different players have logged substantial minutes for the Aggies, and Buzz has put 161 different lineup combinations on the floor. Let’s take a look at the lineups that have logged the most time on the floor for A&M so far this season.
Top Non-Conference Lineups in Minutes Played
|Marcus Williams, Henry Coleman, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford, Javonte Brown||37:31||11|
|Marcus Williams, Quenton Jackson, Ethan Henderson, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford||35:14||22|
|Marcus Williams, Quenton Jackson, Henry Coleman, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford||34:55||18|
|Marcus Williams, Ethan Henderson, Henry Coleman, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford||21:24||10|
|Marcus Williams, Quenton Jackson, Ethan Henderson, Henry Coleman, Tyrece Radford||17:56||19|
|Marcus Williams, Hassan Diarra, Ethan Henderson, Henry Coleman, Tyrece Radford||17:12||9|
|Aaron Cash, Marcus Williams, Quenton Jackson, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford||09:59||-6|
|Marcus Williams, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford, Javonte Brown, Manny Obaseki||09:30||0|
|Quenton Jackson, Wade Taylor, Ethan Henderson, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford||08:42||3|
|Wade Taylor, Ethan Henderson, Henry Coleman, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford||08:10||4|
Now, let’s take a look at the lineups with the highest cumulative +/- for the season to this point.
Lineups with Highest +/- in Non-Conference Play
|Marcus Williams, Quenton Jackson, Ethan Henderson, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford||22||35:14|
|Marcus Williams, Quenton Jackson, Ethan Henderson, Henry Coleman, Tyrece Radford||19||17:56|
|Marcus Williams, Quenton Jackson, Henry Coleman, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford||18||34:55|
|Aaron Cash, Marcus Williams, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford, Manny Obaseki||17||07:03|
|Quenton Jackson, Wade Taylor, Andre Gordon, Javonte Brown, Manny Obaseki||12||02:06|
|Marcus Williams, Hassan Diarra, Andre Gordon, Javonte Brown, Manny Obaseki||12||06:37|
|Marcus Williams, Henry Coleman, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford, Javonte Brown||11||37:31|
|Marcus Williams, Ethan Henderson, Henry Coleman, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford||10||21:24|
|Aaron Cash, Quenton Jackson, Wade Taylor, Andre Gordon, Manny Obaseki||9||07:34|
|Marcus Williams, Hassan Diarra, Ethan Henderson, Henry Coleman, Manny Obaseki||9||03:03|
|Marcus Williams, Hassan Diarra, Ethan Henderson, Henry Coleman, Tyrece Radford||9||17:12|
|Aaron Cash, Marcus Williams, Hayden Hefner, Hassan Diarra, Tyrece Radford||9||02:41|
What you will notice is that 6 of the 10 lineups that have played the most minutes also lead the team in cumulative +/-. This seems intuitive, but it’s a good sign that the coaching staff recognizes which lineups are most effective and is making a concerted effort to get those combinations of players on the floor together.
Now, let’s take a look at the lineup combinations with the lowest cumulative +/-.
Lineups with Lowest +/- in Non-Conference Play
|Wade Taylor, Ethan Henderson, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford, Manny Obaseki||-8||06:19|
|Marcus Williams, Quenton Jackson, Hassan Diarra, Tyrece Radford, Javonte Brown||-7||02:13|
|Aaron Cash, Marcus Williams, Henry Coleman, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford||-7||03:40|
|Aaron Cash, Wade Taylor, Hassan Diarra, Henry Coleman, Manny Obaseki||-7||06:29|
|Quenton Jackson, Wade Taylor, Hassan Diarra, Ethan Henderson, Henry Coleman||-6||02:49|
|Quenton Jackson, Hassan Diarra, Ethan Henderson, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford||-6||07:08|
|Aaron Cash, Marcus Williams, Quenton Jackson, Andre Gordon, Tyrece Radford||-6||09:59|
|Marcus Williams, Quenton Jackson, Henry Coleman, Andre Gordon, Javonte Brown||-5||01:46|
|Quenton Jackson, Wade Taylor, Hassan Diarra, Henry Coleman, Javonte Brown||-5||02:50|
|Marcus Williams, Quenton Jackson, Wade Taylor, Ethan Henderson, Manny Obaseki||-4||01:00|
|Aaron Cash, Marcus Williams, Quenton Jackson, Tyrece Radford, Javonte Brown||-4||01:31|
|Marcus Williams, Hayden Hefner, Quenton Jackson, Hassan Diarra, Ethan Henderson||-4||01:34|
|Hayden Hefner, Wade Taylor, Hassan Diarra, Ethan Henderson, Manny Obaseki||-4||02:13|
The good news here is that only one of these lineups is included in the top ten of minutes played - Aaron Cash, Marcus Williams, Quenton Jackson, Andre Gordon, and Tyrece Radford. Digging deeper, this lineup has been on the floor together eight times, and two of those stretches were for a combined 3:38 in the Wisconsin game where they had a cumulative -10. Since then, this group has take the floor four additional times for a combine 3:56 with a +/- of 0. One can hope that the issues that were revealed for this lineup in the Wisconsin game were an anomaly that has been resolved. There are three other lineups included here that have more than 6:00 of time on the floor with a low +/- rating; in two of these cases, one opponent went on a major run that pulled down the overall +/- rating. Only one (Aaron Cash, Wade Taylor, Hassan Diarra, Henry Coleman, and Manny Obaseki) demonstrates a repeated pattern of being consistently outscored by different opponents in a repeated fashion.
In part 2 of this mid-season review, we’ll take a look at individual player statistics and see what insights we can gather that might be useful when looking ahead to conference play.