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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Texas A&M

The Crimson Tide return home to face a struggling A&M squad

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Texas A&M vs Alabama Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama (10-4, 1-1 SEC) returns to Coleman Coliseum Saturday afternoon with a chance to get one back in conference play after falling to LSU in Baton Rouge 88-79 the other night. While the loss to the Tigers ended a strong five game winning streak for the Crimson Tide, it was still a promising outing for Avery Johnson’s team. The Bayou Bengals are an NCAA Tournament team this season, and they shot the ball significantly better than they have most of the year. It’s tough to go on the road and win a game in conference play with those conditions. Yet, despite falling behind by as many as 19 points, Alabama fought and clawed their way back, cutting the game down to a four-point deficit before LSU put the game away.

Don’t look now, but after over a month of good performances from the charity stripe, it may just be time to finally consider the Tide a decent free-throw shooting team. Alabama is up to just under 70% on the year now, with six players all shooting above that mark. Free throws helped Alabama get back into the game Tuesday night. With the team continuing to put up strong performances on the glass, Alabama’s playing some solid basketball right now. Avery Johnson switched up defenses in the second half, opting to get away from the man-to-man that Tremont Waters was eating alive on the ball screen in the first half, and it worked beautifully.

What I’m trying to say is this: the Tide is not going to go down easily against anyone with they way they are playing basketball right now. However, the team needs to keep the intensity up.

Next in line is a Saturday afternoon meeting with the Texas A&M Aggies (6-7, 0-2), the only team in the conference with an overall losing record. I’ve been saying for years now that Aggie head coach Billy Kennedy owes Rick Stansbury, who he employed as his assistant and ace recruiter for a few years in College Station, a decent portion of his fat contract with A&M, because the guy was living off of the talent Stansbury brought in for years. Despite a pair of Sweet Sixteen appearances and a split of the conference title in 2016, the Aggies have honestly disappointed under Kennedy. Now that most of Stansbury’s recruits are gone, the bottom has started to fall out. This is probably the worst team in the SEC this season.

With that being said, Alabama can’t take them lightly. There are still a few good ballplayers on this squad.

The Roster

Starting Five

POINT 6’2 T.J. Starks (14.5 PPG, 3.8 APG, 2.7 RPG, 1.2 SPG)

GUARD 6’4 Jay Jay Chandler (8.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.3 SPG)

GUARD 6’5 Brandon Mahan (7.6 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.2 APG)

WING 6’7 Savion Flagg (12.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.0 SPG)

POST 6’9 Christian Mekowulu (9.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.2 BPG)

Starks is the alpha of the squad, as everything offensively runs through him. As Alabama fans may remember, Starks came on strong at the end of last season and had his breakout performance against the Tide in Saint Louis in the opening game of the SEC Tournament for each team, as he dropped 23 points and went back-and-forth with Collin Sexton all game before Sexton got the last laugh. The kid can really play; however, he’s become much more of a volume guy as he’s often tried to do too much to carry his suddenly less talented team. He’s averaging 14 shots per game, but has an inefficient line of 38.3%/26.4%/68.2%. He’s averaging nearly four assists per game with a strong 25.9% AST%, but he’s also turned the ball over more than he has assisted baskets this season.

Starks’ numbers are the way that they are because he lost all four of his fellow starters from last season. Former reserve guys like Chandler and Flagg are now being counted on as full-time starters, and they simply haven’t been able to put up the type of production that guys like Admon Gilder, D.J. Hogg, Robert Williams, and Tyler Davis did for years.

With that being said, Flagg has had a really good season. At 6’7, he can handle the ball and get to the basket quite well, but he’s also had an issue with turnovers and he’s not much of a shooter (49.6%/29.5%/57.1%). Like Herbert Jones though, he defends and rebounds the ball well enough to outweigh any shortcomings in his game.

Rounding out the starting five are Mahan and Mekowulu. Mahan is a Birmingham native that has had to take on a much larger role than anticipated, but with his ability to shoot (40.7%/36.8%/63.2%), he’s sorely needed in the line-up. Mekowulu is no Robert Williams, but with solid rebounding (14.3% REB%) and blocking (6.4% BLK%) numbers, he’s done a decent job in his senior year trying to fill the gap.

The Bench

GUARD 6’3 Wendell Mitchell (8.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.1 SPG)

GUARD 6’3 John Walker III (5.8 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.1 SPG)

GUARD 6’2 Chris Collins (1.3 PPG, 1.4 APG, 1.0 RPG)

POST 6’8 Josh Nebo (7.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.3 BPG)

A&M does feature an experienced group of guys off of the bench, as all of the above, save Walker, are upperclassmen. Mitchell is a quasi-starter as the sixth man, with his numbers an playing time being very similar to Chandler’s. Walker is probably the most efficient, but not necessarily the best, shooter on the team (58.5%/40.0%/85.0%), so that’s something to keep an eye on. Nebo has given the Aggies a formidable defensive presence in the post (team-best 93.7 DRtg and 15.7% BLK%), though the fact that he and Mekowulu are essentially the entirety of the post play for A&M this year just shows how far the Aggies have fallen off from the team that bullied North Carolina around all game long in last season’s upset win over the Tar Heels in the NCAA Tournament.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Make A&M Earn All of Their Points. Texas A&M is a poor shooting team. They are 329th in the country in 3P% (29.5%) and, outside of Mitchell and Walker, not much better from the free throw line. I know it seems like every time Alabama plays a team like this and I mention it in this section, the opponent ends up having a huge night from the perimeter (LSU, for example), but you have to expect that to regress to the mean at some point, right? The point is, A&M makes it hard enough on themselves to score, so Alabama needs to tighten up defensively and prevent the Aggies from getting any easy buckets. If Alabama can keep A&M’s guards (and Flagg) out of the lanes, it could be a long night for the visiting team.
  2. Clean Up on the Boards. What used to be one of the country’s finest front-courts has turned into one of the SEC’s worst rebounding teams. Alabama has still only lost the rebounding battle once this season, and they shouldn’t come close to changing that fact this Saturday. There are a number of paths to victory for the Tide this weekend, but even if Alabama is having a bad shooting night (possible) and turning the ball over too much (probable), as long as they make A&M work for anything offensively and clean up the glass the way they should, this should be a workman-like performance for the Tide.
  3. Get Alex Reese Involved. The second year stretch-four has been really solid for Alabama this season, and he needs to see more playing time. He’s not really a great match-up defensively or on the glass against teams like Kentucky and LSU who can play multiple bigs at the same time, but against a team like Texas A&M? He needs to play a lot of minutes. His range from the field and ability to knock down free throws makes him a valuable asset, especially in a game where the Tide just need to take care of business.

With a daunting schedule still ahead of Alabama, they really need to take care of business at home on Saturday against a team that almost assuredly will be playing on the opening Wednesday of the SEC Tournament. A loss to A&M would essentially undo all of the goodwill built up from the previous home game against Kentucky. However, the fight the Tide showed in the second half against LSU revealed that this experienced group has a lot of heart and a lot of patience to get the job done.

That’s exactly what needs to be done in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. Clock in, put your hard-hats on, take care of business, and get out of there at 2-1 in conference play.

The game will tip-off at 2:30 CST and will be televised by the SEC Network.