The Aggies headed to the Myrtle Beach Invitational with two dominant wins, a fresh top 25 ranking, and the mantle of tournament favorite. After finishing 1-2 on the weekend, they returned home with two black eyes and a Samsonite suitcase full of questions. A&M opened the weekend with a 9-point upset at the hands of Murray State in a game which they never led. This setup a consolation bracket showdown with Colorado, and the Buffs dominated the Aggies in 28-point decimation that was essentially over at halftime. The Ags were relegated to the 7th place game against recent NCAA tournament darling Loyola Chicago and salvaged the weekend with a 16-point victory. Let’s take a quick look at each of the three games and figure out where the Ags go from here.
Murray State 88, Texas A&M 79
Any thoughts that the Aggies would simply walk over the smaller Racers was quickly erased in this game. Murray State came out aggressively on both ends of floor, creating steals and forcing turnovers while crashing the boards. After an unproductive opening two minutes, the shots started to fall for Racers, and they opened up a 9 point lead six minutes into the game. A&M stabilized the ship and started chipping away at the gap, but it was obvious that they were facing an uphill battle on account of their poor shooting. The Murray State lead would shrink to just three points after a 3 pointer by Boots Radford with just over four minutes remaining in the half, but the Racers went 5-for-7 from the floor and tacked on a couple of free throws to close out the half with 35-28 lead. A&M’s shooting woes were plainly apparent in the first half, hitting just 28.6% from the floor, 25% from three on twelve attempts, and 50% of the free throw line.
The second half opened in the same way the first period closed, and the Racers extended their lead to 15 just five minutes into the period. A&M mounted a valiant comeback powered by Manny Obaseki over the ensuing seven minutes to shrink the Murray State lead to just 2 with eight minutes remaining. However, the comeback was cut short as the Aggies’ struggled to make shots down the stretch. Murray State opened the lead back up to 10 and finished the game with ice in their veins at the free throw line, hitting 16-of-18 attempts in the closing minutes. The Racers shots 50% from the floor and 45.5% from beyond the arc for the game compared to the Aggies’ 38% and 22.2% rates, respectively. MSU’s JaCobi Wood led all scorers with 23 points and 4 assists. Boots Radford led A&M in scoring with 19 while pulling down 6 boards. However, it was A&M’s insistence in upon firing away from deep that spelled their doom, as Radford, Wade Taylor and Dexter Dennis went a combined 3-for-19 from deep.
Colorado 103, Texas A&M 75
The Ags returned to the floor the following day with a tougher test against the Colorado Buffaloes, who fell to UMass in their tournament opener, 66-63. If you ever wondered what happens when you give a perimeter-oriented power five team open looks from deep, this game was exhibit A. It got was ugly early for A&M, and it never got better. The opening sequence of the game went back and forth between the two teams, and Colorado held a 4-point edge at the halfway mark of the period. Then Colorado flipped the switch, going on a 25-9 run in seven minutes that extended their lead to 45-25. A&M suffered from too many empty possessions in this stretch, punctuated by turnovers, missed shots and ineffective rebounding. The Buffs took a 54-33 advantage into the break.
I wish I could tell you that the Aggies made a gutsy comeback effort that fell short because the deficit was too great. I wish I could tell you that the game was called at the half to give everyone some time back in their day. I wish. Instead, we had to witness 20 more minutes of devastation. Colorado continued their shooting barrage, and A&M never managed to cut into the deficit. CU’s KJ Simpson was the star of the game, going for 30 points and 7 rebounds. Colorado won the battle of the boards 35-28, and they actually turned the ball over 11 times compared to A&M’s 9. So where was this game lost? Shooting, particularly those wide-open looks. Colorado hit 57.6% from the field and 50% from deep on 32 attempts. By comparison, the Ags didn’t shoot particularly poorly, hitting 40% from the field and 35% from three. While this was a definite improvement over their effort against Murray State, it was too much of a deficit against Colorado. This marked the first time the Aggies have given up 100 points under Buzz Williams and was the first triple digit game for an opponent since Kentucky put up 100 against the Ags on January 3, 2017.
Texas A&M 67, Loyola Chicago 51
If the Aggies wanted to salvage anything from this trip to Myrtle Beach, they needed to pick up a win against the Loyola Chicago Ramblers, a team that has become one of the more recognizable mid-majors on the strength of two Cinderella runs in the last 3 NCAA tourneys. The most notable change in this game was the starting lineup. Wade Taylor and Henry Coleman were both benched in favor of Andre Gordon and Julius Marble. Additionally, Solomon Washington was held out of the game on account of an injury that he appeared to suffer against Colorado. The good news is that A&M look resolute in the face of their previous adversity. They created much more defensive pressure in this matchup, picking up 16 steals and creating 27 turnovers. The Ags were able to utilize that pressure to dictate the game and slow the tempo down. The shooting was somewhat improved, hitting 44.9% from the floor, but only 23.5% from beyond the arc.
The first 10 minutes of the game were again a back and forth affair. The Aggies gradually built a lead on the back of its improved defense and took an 33-22 advantage into halftime. After the break, the Aggies asserted themselves and extended to lead to as much as 21 points with just under 8 minutes remaining. A&M controlled the game down the stretch and cruised to a 16 point victory. Henry Coleman led the Ags with 13 points while pulling down 5 boards. Julius Marble added 11 points, and Wade Taylor contributed 10 but continued to struggle from deep.
After the season looked to be full of promise at the start of the week, many fans are left wondering if the program is still headed in an upward trajectory. The good news is that it is still early. While the losses to Murray State and Colorado were frustrating and embarrassing to a newly-ranked A&M, there are still 26 games remaining on the schedule, many of which are against solid competition. So the Aggies have an opportunity to make their case for the NCAA tournament. The bad news is that the margin of error has diminished in a reasonably significant way for both the rest of the non-conference schedule as well as the SEC slate. Coin flip road games against DePaul and Memphis now become more critical to build your resume, and the a winning record in the conference is almost imperative.
The more troubling aspects are sudden lack of defensive identity that has become a hallmark of Aggie basketball over the past two decades, and the inability to make shots from the perimeter. Maybe the defensive struggles can be a attributed to a team that became infatuated with itself after it got some recognition. But what if Murray State head coach Steve Prohm just wrote the book on dismantling your system and published it for the rest of your opponents to read? That doesn’t spell the end of your season by any means, and adjustments can and will be implemented. However, those adjustments take time to teach and master, and the schedule isn’t getting easier in the next three weeks.
A&M’s struggles from deep are another question. At this point, Wade Taylor is clearly the engine that drives the Aggies offensively, and they will go as he goes. Taylor is a dynamic player who can catch fire from the outside and attack the rim when needed. But he is a ball-dominant point guard, and if he is struggling from distance, need reliable options who can hit from the outside, keeping perimeter defenders honest and eliminating empty offensive possessions. Dexter Dennis was supposed to support on this end, but he struggled to find his range in another gym after a hot start to the season at home. The Aggies need to find reliable perimeter shooters who can fill the void when Taylor and Dennis are struggling.
We’ll see how the Ags respond as they head to Chicago to take on DePaul on Friday at 12:00 CT. The game will be televised on FS1. The Blue Demons are currently 3-2 on the season, after picking up a win over Minnesota and dropping back-to-back games against Santa Clara and Oklahoma State at the Bahamas Championship tournament.