It’s the final weekend of the 2023 season, and your regular season SEC Champions will close out the schedule on the road against a foe who has given the second-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (26-4, 16-1 SEC; Kenpom: 3; T-Rank: 2; NET: 2) a lot of unexpected troubles over the years - the Texas A&M Aggies (22-8, 14-3 SEC; Kenpom: 23; T-Rank: 18; NET: 26). Reed Arena also happens to be the only place in the SEC where Nate Oats hasn’t won; in fact, he’s never actually played there. The Tide was scheduled to play in College Station in 2021, but the winter storms that shut the whole state down that January postponed the meeting, which was never made up because A&M basically called off the rest of their season after a COVID outbreak followed those storms. Weird times.
Anyway, the Aggies have had a very Frank Martin-like season this year - they started off the year with an absolutely dreadful performance in non-conference play before coming together to scratch and claw their way to a strong SEC performance. Back in November and December, A&M lost to both Murray State and Wofford - a pair of Q4 losses - and also got run off the court by the likes of Colorado and Boise State. Since January, however, the Aggies have been one of the best teams in college basketball (6th in T-Rank since January 1st). Buzz Williams has done an incredible job of keeping this locker room together and getting them to this point, as they are going to finish in second place in the SEC this year - their second-best showing since joining the conference a decade ago. SEC Coach of the Year will almost certainly come down to Oats, Williams, and Missouri head coach, Dennis Gates.
Buzz and A&M have also been a major thorn in Alabama’s side recently, as the Tide has lost four straight to the Aggies. All four of those losses have been heartbreakers too, with three of them coming late in the season as the Tide had started to ramp up for the Big Dance (the scheduling quirks in SEC hoops are quite jarring - why do we always play these guys right before the postseason?). A quick recap of the pain:
The Tide’s last win over A&M came five years ago - although it almost makes up for the losses:
The point is, Alabama has had a lot of significant recent history with the Aggies, and Saturday’s marquee match-up on CBS will be no exception, even with the regular season title already in tow for the Tide. A win for A&M would give them a huge boost on their NCAA Tournament resume, while Alabama simply needs to put together a full two-half performance - which the guys haven’t done in almost two weeks - to give the team some confidence going into the postseason.
POINT 6’0 Wade Taylor IV (15.9 PPG, 4.2 APG, 2.8 RPG, 98.0 DRtg)
GUARD 6’2 Tyrece Radford (13.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.4 APG, 101.1 DRtg)
WING 6’5 Dexter Dennis (8.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.2 APG, 97.9 DRtg)
POST 6’7 Henry Coleman (9.5 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.0 APG, 99.8 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Julius Marble (9.5 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 101.0 DRtg)
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’2 Andre Gordon (2.6 PPG, 1.3 APG, 1.3 RPG, 102.7 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 Manny Obaseki (6.7 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 1.3 APG, 102.4 DRtg)
GUARD 6’6 Hayden Hefner (3.7 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 105.0 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Andersson Garcia (3.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.0 APG, 98.2 DRtg)
POST 6’7 Solomon Washington (3.3 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 97.3 DRtg)
I mentioned earlier that Texas A&M has taken the Frank Martin approach this season - starting out horribly and then utilizing a tough, physical approach to win a bunch of games in conference play. But honestly, that’s the Buzz Williams approach as well. Now that Martin is no longer roaming the sidelines in Columbia, SC, Buzz and A&M have basically taken the baton from him. The Aggies are a hard-nosed bunch that slow things down and try to beat you into submission while they spend all of their time on offense attacking the rim and the glass. Just like Frank Martin’s South Carolina teams.
And if you’ll recall, Martin’s best Gamecock teams came when he had a couple of two-way guards who can really attack off of the bounce. Say hello to Wade Taylor and Tyrece Radford. Neither is extremely efficient from the field (Taylor: 39.9%/36.8%; Radford: 39.7%/32.7%), but they are capable scorers. And they both get to the free throw line with regularity (Taylor: 49.5% FTR; Radford: 54.1% FTR) and make those trips count (Taylor: 86.1% - best in the SEC; Radford: 79.0%). Taylor is also second in the league in APG, with an assist rate of 32.9% - 32nd best in the country. Andre Gordon, Manny Obaseki, and Hayden Hefner provide relief for the starting duo. Gordon (31.0% 3P%) and Hefner (32.0% 3P%) can both get hot from the perimeter, but they are streaky, at best.
In the frontcourt, A&M has a bunch of physical, strong bigs that do lack a bit in size. Dexter Dennis plays out on the wing and is mostly known for his defense and rebounding (11.6% REB%). Henry Coleman and Julius Marble are both bruising posts that lack much offensive game, but they are tough as nails on defense and on the glass (Coleman: 12.2% REB%; Marble: 12.0%). Mississippi State transfer Andersson Garcia and true freshman Soloman Washington are an extension of the starters - not much polish on offense but both can crash the glass with the best of them (Garcia: 16.0% REB%; Washington: 14.0%).
Three Keys to Victory
- Focus and Physicality. After the dramatic come-from-behind win against rival Auburn that clinched an outright SEC regular season championship, it would be quite easy for Alabama to let its guard down and not get off the bus for an 11:00 AM tip-off in Texas. This would be a mistake. A&M is going to bring a dogfight to the Tide on Saturday morning. If Nate Oats’ squad is not ready to meet that physicality, they could very easily leave Texas with a loss in the final game of the season. That would not be ideal. Sure, Alabama is basically locked into a 1-seed at this point regardless, but with how spotty the Tide has looked recently, the last thing this team wants is to continue that somewhat downward trajectory going into postseason play.
- Rebounding. Texas A&M wants to make this game as ugly as possible. They, quite frankly, don’t care if they are jacking up bricks themselves, because the Aggies are 8th in the country in OREB%. Alabama has had issues with giving up offensive boards recently, so this could be a critical aspect to this game. It doesn’t matter if Alabama shoots 10% better from the floor if A&M gets 15 more shots off. The Tide’s bigs need to be ready to utilize the height advantage that they will have on A&M and win positioning. However, this doesn’t just fall on them, as the Aggies have great rebounding guards as well. Everybody has to commit to closing out defensive possessions with a rebound.
- Pace and Free Throw Rate. I’ve made several comparisons between Buzz Williams and Frank Martin, but this is the most glaring example. Like Martin, Buzz is always looking to slow the game down to a crawl and then bludgeon opponents on both ends of the court. It’s a great way to make up for a talent disadvantage on their end. A&M is 3rd in the country in Free Throw Rate (% of free throws to field goals) and 47th in FT% at 75.5%. And they are at home with college officiating. But they also foul a lot themselves (291st in the country in FTR allowed), and Alabama ain’t too shabby either at getting to the line (27th in the country). The Tide needs to answer A&M’s toughness as a team - it’s something Alabama has struggled with all season - but they can’t forget who they are either. The best way to beat a team like this is to speed the game up and dictate the tempo.
This is honestly a perfect final test for Alabama before postseason play begins. A&M does a lot of things that have given the Tide trouble this year - they are extremely physical on defense, they utilize a lot of high-ball screens to initiate their offense, and they really get after it on the offensive glass. They are the exact kind of team Alabama could see in the second round of the NCAA Tournament - someone like Rutgers or Providence.
And at this point, with the regular season SEC title already locked up, the postseason is all that matters now. It’s not going to be an easy route in either the SEC or the NCAA Tournament, nor should it be, but this Alabama team can beat anyone in the country. The guys have to be totally focused on doing the right things to make those dreams a reality, though. They have one last tune-up before things really pop off.
The game will tip-off at 11:00 AM CST Saturday and will be televised on CBS. Early lines have Alabama as a 3-point favorite.