Scouting Report: Texas A&M

If you think you know what will happen in Saturday's SEC clash between Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, you could be setting yourself up for a surprise... unless, of course, you're merely saying that this game will be played in the 50s, a likely occurrence. No sane SEC observer should insist on a victor in this matchup - not when the Aggies and Commodores have been so markedly inconsistent.


Seriously – if you think you can figure out any pattern in the SEC other than "Arkansas and Missouri will likely lose on the road," "South Carolina will miss a lot of shots," or "Florida's gonna win," you're blowing smoke. This is a crazy, mixed-up salad bowl of 13 teams, with the Gators being the only bearer of sober, sane stability. Alabama is 8-3 in the league… and has a platter of awful losses on its plate, leaving the Tide well short of the NCAA tournament. Kentucky, though 8-3 in the league, is now in serious danger of missing the Big Dance due to Nerlens Noel's season-ending injury. Missouri has probably saved its season, but the Tigers could go on a losing binge and drop all their remaining road games now that their one road cupcake – Mississippi State – is out of the way. Should that happen, the Tigers might still be a bubble team on Selection Sunday – almost surely in the field, yes, but with enough of a pinch of doubt to make them sweat.

Ole Miss is now a bubble team with a distinctly ho-hum resume. The Rebels don't have any high-value win opportunities on their plate over the next three weeks, either. Anything more than one loss will force Mississippi to make the SEC Tournament final just to have a decent shot at an at-large bid. Georgia has a winning record in the SEC… and it has murdered James Naismith's sport on several occasions this year, including this past Wednesday against Alabama. LSU and Tennessee have been flailing and fluctuating throughout this season, putting a schizophrenic face on SEC basketball along with the rest of the vast, mushy middle in this league. Only Florida (for the better) and the Mississippi State-South Carolina tandem (for the worse) have been consistent in this year's SEC.

Vanderbilt thrived against Arkansas but then crashed against the Vols. Texas A&M, this Saturday's opponent, is little different, as you'll find out.

TEXAS A&M AT-A-GLANCE

The Aggies' 12-point win in Rupp Arena – one of the most unlikely results imaginable (or more appropriately, "unimaginable") at the start of this college basketball season – seemed to herald an NCAA tournament berth at the time. However, subsequent weeks have exposed A&M as one of many mediocre teams in a year when Kentucky has not been "Kentucky." The Aggies' victory in Lexington can now be seen for what it is: an aberrational event that told us a lot more about Kentucky's weaknesses than A&M's strengths. Yes, this has still been a decent season for the Aggies and head coach Billy Kennedy. The sons of College Station are playing for an NIT berth, which is better than many people probably expected from a club that got whacked around in last year's Big 12 swan song (4-14 in the league). A&M has beaten Missouri and Ole Miss, so it's not as though this team can't hold its own with the upper tier of a watered-down SEC. Yet, for all the good things the Aggies have done, they have squandered the value of those achievements against downmarket foes.

A&M got swept by Georgia despite allowing an average of 55.5 points to the Bulldogs in those two contests. The Aggies couldn't win at LSU or Alabama, and they couldn't defend their home floor against Kentucky after winning in Rupp. A non-conference loss at home to Southern – the university, not the conference – underscores just how erratic this team can be. It's a perfect (thematic) fit in a season when almost everyone in the SEC has a Jekyll-and-Hyde identity.

TEXAS A&M STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS

Two-point field goal shooting percentage: 44. National rank: 129 (out of 345).

Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 35.6. National rank: 96.

Possessions per 40 minutes: 62.7. National rank: 327.

Turnovers per game: 13. National rank: 148.

Assists per game: 11.7. National rank: 253.

Rebounding percentage: 52.1. National rank: 128.

Field goal percentage defense: 41 percent shooting allowed. National rank: 84.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Ray Turner –
Senior, 6-9, 230 2012-13: 9.6 points per game, 6.2 rebounds per game

This Turner is the frontcourt Turner on the A&M roster, with sharpshooting guard Elston holding the fort in the backcourt. Ray Turner's best asset is his length on defense. The Aggies are not an easy team to score against, and that's partly because they're not small at the forward spot. Yes, they don't have a true center, but they can throw two 6-9 forwards at opponents each gamenight. What hurts Ray Turner when he's on the floor is that he's not a particularly gifted passer, limiting the flow of the Aggies' halfcourt offense.

Forward – Kourtney Roberson – Sophomore, 6-9, 234; 2012-13: 6.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg

Roberson and Ray Turner have similar builds and stat lines, but Roberson has two more years in which to ripen as a player. This is the low-post player who will make the Aggies competitive in each of the next two seasons. Vanderbilt will want to test Roberson and take notes on him for future seasons, now that the Aggies are going to be an annual conference foe.

Guard – Alex Caruso – Freshman, 6-5, 176; 2012-13: 4.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.2 assists per game, 2 steals per game

The Aggies' big men are limited in their ability to influence games, so Caruso – a beanstalk of a player at his height and weight – provides a crucial leavening function on the A&M roster, providing support as a passer and as a wing defender. Caruso's length is bothersome at the defensive end of the floor. He gets into passing lanes and is a generally disruptive presence. He needs to build an offensive game, with at least one credible weapon, if the Aggies are to improve in the future.

Guard – Fabyon Harris – Junior, 5-11, 172; 2012-13: 11.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.3 steals per game

Harris hits 43.8 percent of his threes and works well in tandem with Elston Turner. At the end of A&M's win over Missouri a few weeks ago, Aggie coach Billy Kennedy came up with a great offensive set in the final seconds, with A&M trailing the Tigers by one. Elston Turner made a cut to the left corner along the baseline, causing two Missouri defenders to run to that spot of the floor. Harris, on the other side of the court, curled around a solid screen and popped open on the right wing as an available second option. He banged in a triple to give the Aggies the win. Vanderbilt needs to take Elston Turner quite seriously, but it must watch for combination plays in which Harris tries to punish defenses for swarming to Turner.

Guard – Elston Turner – Senior, 6-5, 212; 2012-13: 16.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.5 apg

Elston Turner is an immensely talented scorer (more on that in a bit), but he's also an erratic one. He tallied only 4 points against Florida, 5 against LSU, and 11 against Mississippi State. He averaged 16 points in two games against Georgia, so it's not as though he's an unstoppable force. Yet, when he gets going, he's incredibly fun to watch. Elston Turner threw down 40 points in that upset win over Kentucky, and he poured in 37 the other night against Ole Miss, hitting his first seven field goal attempts and scoring 22 of the Aggies' first 26 points.

The recommended priorities for guarding Turner are as follows: Run him off the three-point line and don't foul him. Turner has attempted at least six foul shots in five of his last six games. If he's shooting and making a decent percentage of mid-range twos, so be it. That's not going to cause VU problems unless he's making 10 or more of them. Vanderbilt should be able to live with a 20-point game from Turner in which he hits six twos, a pair of threes, and two foul shots. The point of emphasis is not to stop him, but contain him.

Bench

Kennedy can go nine deep with his bench, accessing forward Jarod Jahns and guard Jordan Green at times. However, those two men didn't get much playing time against Ole Miss. Kennedy's two primary reserves in that game were forward Andrew Young, who averages 3.2 rebounds per game, and guard J'Mychal Reese, who is averaging starter-level minutes (28 per game) for this team. Reese averages 6.8 points and 2.1 assists per outing. This is a thin bench that has to become more of a factor if A&M is to get an NIT bid this season… and an NCAA berth in future seasons.

Keys to the Game

1) Focus on Elston Turner and Fabyon Harris as a combo, not as separate threats.
The Aggies will try to make Vanderbilt chase Elston Turner so that Harris can get free. This reality can also be reversed if Harris gets the hot hand early. The Commodores have to minimize open three-point looks for each of these players. If only one of them scores consistently, the Aggies will find it hard to get offense from anyone else on their roster. VU shouldn't feel that it has to stop Elston Turner; what it has to do is to limit the combined output of Elston Turner and Harris.

2) Energy on the glass. Vanderbilt was bullied by Jarnell Stokes of Tennessee earlier this week. The Commodores have to write a different script on the glass and display a lot of ferocity near the tin if they expect to win against A&M. This is probably going to be another game played in the 50s – that's the default expectation in the 2013 SEC season – so possessions will naturally be valuable inside Memorial Gym.

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