What a difference three years makes. In 2003-2004, the
Aggies suffered through a 0-16 conference record and an ignominious defeat at
home to satellite school Texas A & M Corpus Christi, 82-80. This season they
are sporting a gaudy 16-2 mark and a #6 national poll ranking, as well as
leading the conference with an unblemished 4-0 record. That just be heady
stuff. So what has brought about the remarkable transformation?
Smartly, the Aggies went out and raided UTEP, hiring away their coach, Billy Gillespie, with more money than Croesus ever had. In addition, he was offered the challenge of moving to one of the elite conferences and turning around a failing program. I had some passing acquaintance with Gillespie's talent as a coach at UTEP, but I didn't start to appreciate his talent as the ultimate salesman until now. Not just for his recruiting successes but also for other reasons to be explained, I believe Gillespie could sell ice to Eskimos. His ultimate sales job has been to convince his players as well as the Aggie faithful that this team is on the road to the Final Four at minimum. I discern the team feels it is on a mission and eats, sleeps, and believes with undying faith every word of the Gospel according to Billy Gillespie. That Gospel first and foremost preaches in your face, knock down drag out physical defense. However, my delving into the matter also reveals that there might be a few potential bumps in the road on the way to the Promised Land. One of the biggest and most immediate bumps may well be in Lubbock, Texas this coming Wednesday.
By the Numbers
In terms of relative strength, my own Composite Power Rating indicates that despite A & M having a substantially higher CPR, Texas Tech's home advantage makes the Aggies only a slim three point favorite. Tech made a good move upward in my RPI calculation with the win over Top 20 RPI Kansas, even though it was a home win. The Raiders are back about where they were prior to the loss to Baylor, which is about #20. As I said before, this is very good territory in the eyes of the NCAA. The best part of the win against Kansas may be that it provides a sure "quality win" which the NCAA considers so crucial in issuing invitations to the NCAA Tourney. Last year, despite a relatively low RPI, by the skin of its teeth, A & M got into the NCAA's with a single "quality win", at home, against Texas, 46-43.
As it would have against Kansas, the NCAA home loss penalty would inflict some damage on Tech's RPI, even though A & M is ranked in #6 in both major polls and has an RPI very close to that of Tech. A much preferred win would certainly rev up the RPI as well as provide another "quality win" to fatten up the NCAA Tourney profile.
Per Game Statistical Comparison (Rounded Off)
So much for the
pro forma comparison. Peruse it to your heart's content. Sure there is an
evident disparity in blocks and the all too often disparity in rebounds, though
not as much as against Kansas. But this game will not be won by stats, nor does
an examination of them reveal what I believe will decide it. In my estimation,
it will be won in the trenches, so to speak. A & M will seek to impose itself
physically upon Tech and Tech will have to respond in kind with the high degree
of mental toughness it has exhibited, even more so at home, this season. This
game will be as physical as the refs permit. Ben Howland the UCLA coach, after
his #1 team's narrow 65-62 win, on neutral ground but in Anaheim, California,
said the following with respect to this, "That's one of the most physical games
I can remember." It will be a game of the type described by Coach John Brady,
whose LSU Tigers, at home, handed the Aggies their only other defeat of the
season, that one a decisive 64-52 win, "It was a game about toughness and
defending ." The difference there was an imposing performance by "Big Baby"
Glen Davis, in which he schooled Aggie starting big man, 6' 9" Junior
Center/Forward Joseph Jones who fouled out while playing only 16 minutes.
However, starting 6' 10" Senior Center Antanas Kavaliaukas did score 18 points
on 8/11 FG's.. Why am I quoting opposing coaches who at times embellish either
to enhance their victories or minimize their defeats? For one, because these
are only a few quotes of the many by opposing coaches that not only have a ring
of truth, but are repetitive in nature. Physical game, very good defense, over
and over. Sometimes it's hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, but I have
been convinced that the essence of this team is its physicality and murderous
defense. Where in several other games the emphasis has been on individuals, the
focus here is on team. And may I say that I have finally been convinced, not
easily, that this is a very good one.
How did the Aggies get there? First by recruiting some very good athletes. But the primary ingredient is a very good and determined coach. Gillespie is an excellent motivator and a perfectionist in the mold of Coach Knight and of Coach Haskins, former HOF coach at UTEP. Like Haskins, Gillespie apparently is convinced that everything starts with a tenacious defense. After a win against Louisiana Tech, 75-59, Gillespie said this team could be his best defensive team and he is known to be very sparing with his praise The team takes what it sees as its mission so seriously that after pounding Prairie
View 81-49, the team was despondent because they and their coach did not think they had played all that well. He took another page from Haskin's book by scheduling about seven relatively easy home games to build confidence, to start the season. He also introduced an innovative three day Shelby Metcalf Classic the second through the fourth games of the season, on three consecutive days to simulate B12 Conference Tourney conditions. He threw in two tough road opponents, LSU and UCLA, to road toughen his team and then proceeded to develop a defensive monster. I was still very skeptical of how good the Aggies were after defeats by those two teams, however narrow the defeat by UCLA. It seemed to me that beating up on cupcakes and limiting all but one of them to less than 40% shooting and less than 65 points was not such a great feat. Actually it was their solid defeat of little 15-4 Winthrop that started to change my mind. Winthrop has been a road warrior, even defeating pretty good Mississippi State, 74-63. I thought they had a chance to defeat A & M. Why not? They had played ranked Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Maryland very tough, for their only three defeats of the season. I was so surprised by how easily the Aggies handled the Eagles that I thought at first perhaps the Eagles team had eaten at one of the Mexican restaurants that I have had the misfortune to wander into in College Station. I thought for sure they might have had revenge wreaked upon them by that famous Aztec warrior, Montezuma, but I was wrong. They were just shut down by the Aggie defense. Now having read the comments of some pretty astute coaches and watched them demolish a good #12 Oklahoma State team, even though at home, by 67-49, I have no doubt they are very good. After that thrashing, Coach Sean Sutton said, "I think they are by far the best defensive team we've played against. They weren't giving us anything."
3 Point Mystery
I have pretty much given up trying to predict what will happen with 3 point shooting. It seems to be something of a mystical experience. When a player is hitting, it is scary for the opposition and the very next game that same player is liable to be skunked, regardless of the quality of the opponent. The most likely suspects to launch them with success for A & M are starting guards Acie Law and Dominique Kirk, super sub Donald Sloan who has played substantial minutes in every game, and starter Josh Carter who can light it up at times from long range, with a sterling 50.5% average. He made 5/7 at Colorado in an 87-69 rout, 5/9 against Winthrop, and tied the school record with 8/10 against Idaho State in that 74-44 victory. I started to say this probably would not be a deciding factor, but in the very close game I anticipate, that would not be a true statement, since it could be.
Tip of the Day
I do not know the precise value of this tip, but I am sure Coach Knight would know how to exploit it.. There seems to be a general impression that A& M is deep. At the beginning of the season, Lamar Coach Roccaforte even commented after their 94-60 loss, " They are a lot deeper than they have been in the past couple of years." Well, they may be deep but Coach Gillespie does not play deep. In fact he plays very few players, perhaps not out of lack of confidence in the subs but with supreme confidence in the group that gets the great majority of the minutes. It almost seems the tougher and tighter the game, the fewer players Gillespie depends on. Against Kansas State, in their toughest win of the season, 69-64.Gillespie reached the extreme. Six players played all but 14 minutes and Donald Sloan played 7 of those, with zeroes all across the stat sheet. In most games against decent opponents eight players get virtually all the minutes and in a couple only seven. In the Colorado game, only seven played and one gets the impression it may have only been six except Josh Carter fouled out. Perhaps obvious, but when one or more of Coach Gillespie's trusty eight get in foul trouble, the team appears to be inordinately disrupted for a team with such purportedly deep talent. Against Baylor in their road win 61-51, that was much tighter than the final score indicates, the Aggies got in severe foul trouble. Four of their five starters ended up with four fouls. In fact usually dependable Kavaliauskas only played 18 minutes, apparently because of this problem.
The Aggies are a deadly free throw shooting team. Joseph Jones was leading the Big 12, but he has slipped slightly to 85.6% conversions. Josh Carter is even better at 90.3%, but with only 31 attempts may not qualify to be on the leader board. Against their best opponents A & M averages over 80%. Their poorest game against a decent opponent was against Auburn on the road where they only shot 63%, but still shot a bunch of FT"s, making 17/27.
The only game I haven't emphasized that is worth mentioning is the winning effort against Auburn on the road, 87-58. It bears mentioning to reemphasize how the Aggies can dominate a foe and the game by its defense. It was Auburn's worst home loss since 1952 and the worst loss ever in their home gym of 36 years.
There are rays of hope in A & M's schedule.. I am speaking of the two games against Baylor and Kansas State. As I said, the score against Baylor is not indicative of the closeness of the game. Given Tech's own problems with Baylor, it once again shows the difficulty of winning on the road. As an aside, in that game, Aaron Bruce struggled tremendously in contrast to his performance against Tech. Rather than the 24 against Tech, he was held to a paltry 2 points. In fact he only attempted 3 shots and missed all three. Against Kansas State, the score was still extremely tight with little time left at 64-63 and at 66-65. It is clear that the same defensive intensity that K St exhibited against Tech disrupted A & M to a great degree. Kavaliauskas fouled out and last years starter Marlon Pompey, the sixth player I mentioned, filled in with 25 minutes. These games indicate to me that A & M is beatable, even though putting one's faith in comparative
scores or performance can be treacherous.
Three players bear special attention. Senior Guard Acie Law is a dangerous, reputedly streaky shooter. Well, he is streaky right now, unfortunately streaky good. In his last four games, against conference opposition, he has scored 18 points against K State, 20 against Baylor, 21 against Colorado, and 16 against OSU; but only 3/10 3 pointers. Early on in the Louisiana Tech game, to make a point Gillespie benched Law instantly for 12 minutes after Law made a lazy effort that allowed an opposing player to make a three point play the old fashioned way.
The tandem of Jones and Kavaliauskas is a tough act inside. Between them they average 13 rebounds /game and 26 points /game, almost evenly distributed. They are both prone to get in foul trouble with an average of 3 fouls/game apiece. Jones also on occasion fancies himself as a perimeter shooter and has made 5/16. But then why shouldn't he think so. Gillespie said after one game, "I think both of those guys can really shoot the ball from the perimeter". after Jones made 2/3 3's and Kavaliauskas made 1/1. Maybe Gillespie thought better of what he said when Jones took it upon himself to launch and miss a 3 with A & M only behind 63-60 with 17 seconds left in the UCLA game. But the irrepressible Gillespie said he thought it was the right aggressive thing to do. I wonder if he really thought Jones should have been the one to take the shot.
The established starters in every game since Day One are Law, Jones, Kavliauskas, Junior Guard Dominique Kirk, and 6' 7" freshman Guard Josh Carter. Obviously it is a big starting five. Of the five, Kirk is the one whose role is most difficult to quantify. He is a good distributor, but he is also a Jack of all trades. His scoring numbers are a modest 6.6/game, but he has scored as many as 13. He has had games with 7 rebounds and he is an above average 3 point shooter.
As mentioned, Josh Carter is often the Aggie designated 3 point shooter. Principal subs are Donald Sloan who has played every game and Senior 6' 8" Forward Marlon Pompey, a last year's starter who has been getting about 20 minutes/game and has been off the bench every game since coming back in the seventh game of the season from an injury. These last two average about 10 points between them, again about evenly distributed. 6' 10' Redshirt Freshman Center Chinemelu Elonu was used quite a bit while Pompey was out, but has been used sparingly since. The only other player with meaningful minutes and stats is 6' 9' Forward Bryan Davis, also a freshman. However, as I mentioned, lately the subbing has been minimal.
This is no gimme, but again like with Kansas, this is a winnable game for the Red Raiders. It seems to me that like A & M, Tech can muster some defensive intensity of its own. The proving ground would seem to have been against K St on the road and this game is at home. Surprisingly, it appears Coach Knight has more options on his lineup than does Gillespie, although Gillespie's is tried and true so far. A & M's guards are solid with size going to A & M, but overall not as good as Tech's in my estimation. Purely in scoring terms, Tech's top three starting guards substantially outscore A & M's. Also, if Valentine is up to it and Voskuil is still progressing as he has of late, then Tech has a lot
more backcourt bodies to throw at A & M than vice versa. In addition, Plefka, Dora, Prince, and Suljagic have all recently exhibited signs that perhaps Tech's forecourt can contribute substantially, although it is still uncertain precisely who will step up from game to game.
As always, despite Gillespie being a good coach, Coach Knight is still better.
As I alluded to before, this game is so close that the outcome may well depend on which team is tougher mentally and while not wanting to sound too abstract, which team can impose its will upon the other. I believe Tech has exhibited the qualities necessary to do that. Against a team as good as Tech, A & M has yet to prove that with any certainty, especially on the road in the B12.