Earlier this week, we looked at the roster construction for the 2022-23 season. As discussed, Buzz and his staff utilized the transfer portal to bring some additional size and to the frontcourt while also improving the perimeter defense. The addition of an extremely athletic freshman forward will also help to fill the gaps left by some key departures. Now it’s time to examine how those changes might impact the strategy and execution this year.
Style of Play
Last season saw the Aggies transform into a heavily guard-oriented offensive approach. The Aggies three point field goal percentage improved substantially to 32.5%, up from 29.9% in 2020-21 and 29.4% in 2019-20. While this may not seem like a huge jump, it moved A&M firmly into the “average” range for college basketball, forcing teams to extend their perimeter defense. This created more opportunities for dribble penetration as well as one-on-one opportunities inside. A&M found themselves playing in more four guard sets while masquerading Manny Obaseki and Aaron Cash as hybrid forwards. This was largely out of necessity as Henry Coleman was the Ags’ only real big that posed an offensive threat. Fortunately, this approach worked to decent effect, and the improved three point shooting opened things up on the interior. A&M’s guards were able to get to the rim for higher percentage shots instead of settling for midrange jumpers.
This season, I expect the offensive style of play to be a continuation of last year. If the three point percentages continue to improve, the offensive efficiency should improve even more substantially with the addition of Julius Marble, Dexter Dennis, and Solomon Washington. The tempo should continue to increase for the Aggies, who averaged 58.3 field goals and 66.7 possessions per game last season. Again, these were substantial improvements over Buzz Williams’s first two years, where the team averaged between 52 and 53 attempts and 64 possessions per game. Embedded in those pace of play statistics, you’ll notice that the number of empty possessions (where a field goal was not attempted) went down. This can be attributed to the Aggies eliminating turnovers, specifically the unforced errors represented by non-steal turnovers. I would expect this reduction in turnovers to continue as well as with a very veteran backcourt rotation.
On the defensive end, expect more of what we saw last year: pressure. A&M finished 2021-22 with the highest number of total steals in the country, ranking third nationally in steal percentage and fourth in steals per game. Steve Roccaforte joined the staff last season and had a significant impact on the defensive style of play. The Aggies extended their perimeter pressure and ran tighter man-to-man defense, utilizing level switches on ball screens with intermittent traps to keep ball handlers off balance. The team also implemented a 3⁄4 court press to ramp up the stress on opponents and get the ball out of the point guard’s hands. A&M also simplified the off-ball switches and help-side rotations, leaving their defenders more comfortable and confident in the system. I don’t anticipate any significant changes on this front, but I would like to see an improvement in defensive rebounding. The Aggies ranked 340 out of 358 Division I teams last season in defensive rebounding rate, a number that must improve for the team to have success this year.
When the Aggies were left out of the NCAA tournament last season, many casual observers pointed to the 8 game losing streak in the middle of conference play as the selection committee’s primary point of contention. That losing streak certainly didn’t help matters, but a strong finish to SEC play and a run to the conference tournament finals that included a win over the SEC regular season champion Auburn Tigers should have been enough to overcome that streak. In my opinion, the thing that couldn’t be overcome was A&M’s lack of quality in its non-conference schedule.
For the uninitiated, the NCAA selection committee uses the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) Ranking to score each team’s performance. The NET Rating uses two components to rank teams: the Team Value Index and the Adjusted Net Efficiency. The Team Value Index is an algorithm that evaluates the each game that a team plays according to the quality of the opponent, the location of the game (home vs. neutral vs. away), and the game’s result (win vs. loss). The Adjusted Net Efficiency takes the basic net efficiency calculation (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) and adjusts it for the strength of your opponents and the location of each game. Once these two metrics are combined, the 358 Division I teams are ranked in order by NET Ranking score and then each teams wins and losses are divided into quadrants based on the opponent’s NET score and the location of the game.
If that was too complicated to follow, it boils down to this - strength of schedule is a major factor in NET Rankings. A team with a great record that has only played a few strong teams will not be ranked as high as a team that has more losses on its record with a more difficult schedule. For the Power 5 conferences, the regular conference slate tends to put most teams with a winning conference record in the upper quartile of NET rankings. So how do you get assure yourself that you will be in the top 40 of the NET rankings if you win enough gamesl, virtually assuring yourself of an at-large bid? It all comes down to the non-conference strength of schedule. And that is why the Aggies were not given an invitation to the Big Dance.
Texas A&M finished with a NET ranking of 43 at the end of the SEC tournament, largely based on the fact that the team played seven games against Quadrant 3 teams, eight games against Quadrant 4 teams, and one game against a non-Division I opponent. Simply put, the non-conference strength of schedule simply wasn’t good enough. So what has the program done to fix this in 2022-23? And will it be enough?
On the face of it, the athletic department has improved the overall quality of the non-conference slate. This year includes notable games against the following:
- Murray State (last year’s Ohio Valley champ) on a neutral site
- A potential neutral site matchup with Boise State (last year’s Mountain West champ) or Loyola Chicago (last year’s Missouri Valley champ)
- Depaul on the road
- SMU at home
- A confirmed neutral site matchup with Boise State in Fort Worth
- A road trip to Memphis
This is certainly an improvement over last year, which only highlighted the three games in the Maui Jim Invitational (Wisconsin, Butler, and Notre Dame) and a neutral site game against TCU. The Aggies will travel to South Carolina for the Myrtle Beach Invitational next week. Unfortunately, the overall quality of the tournament field isn’t as strong as last season’s Maui Jim Invitational, with Colorado, UMass, Tulsa, and Charlotte joining the aforementioned Murray State, Boise State, and Loyola Chicago. Winning the opening game would go a long way toward guaranteeing a quality opponent in the third game.
The rest of the non-conference slate is rounded out with home matchups against Louisana-Monroe (a win on Nov. 7), Abilene Christian, Oregon State, Wofford, Northwestern State, and Prairie View A&M. The opening portion of the schedule isn’t a murderer’s row of basketball elite, but it does appear to be a substantial improvement in quality over last year, especially considering the short turnaround and the fact that many of the top tier marquee matchups are scheduled at least three or four years in advance.
The SEC portion of the schedule will of course feature at least one matchup with each of the other thirteen conference members and double dips against Auburn, Arkansas, Florida, LSU, and Missouri. The SEC looks to be a strong conference again this season, which is not a surprise given the emphasis that its member institutions have placed on hoops in the last decade.
The Aggies were picked 6th in the SEC preseason media poll. Ken Pomeroy (of kenpom.com) slotted the Ags in 9th. In the national preseason rankings, Texas A&M was ranked #26 by the Associated Press and #27 in the USA Today Coaches Poll. Clearly the run at the end of last season combined with the new additions made in the offseason were enough to garner some interest and respect from the media and coaches.
I think that the Aggies will go 12-1 in non-conference, dropping the game at Memphis. Penny Hardaway’s Tigers are a going to be a tough squad at home, and I think they could create problems for A&M. I don’t have 100% confidence in picking up all three games from the Myrtle Beach Invitational, but it’s really difficult to tell how the other teams will shape up at such an early point in the season.
When SEC play rolls around, I think the Aggies will finish 10-8. They will win one game in the conference tournament for falling in the third round. This will put the Aggies at an overall record of 23-10 heading into the NCAA tournament, which should be good enough for an 8 seed.
Henry Coleman will emerge as a force, averaging 15 points and 8 boards per game. Solomon Washington will show superstar qualities despite an inconsistent season. Wade Taylor will show significant improvement in his shooting, and Manny Obaseki will become a weapon on both ends of the floor. Boots Radford will take the elder statesman and team leader mantle left by Quenton Jackson, providing the grit that will carry this team through a difficult conference schedule. 2022-23 will the springboard that returns the Aggies to perennial NCAA tournament berths and elevates the program’s profile back to the levels of the late 2000s and early 2010s.
Feel free to let me know how far off I am and give the correct prediction in the comments.