NEW YORK — Projecting the SEC champion in the preseason has been a pretty simple exercise since John Calipari showed up at Kentucky in 2009. He has since posted a 80.4 winning percentage in conference play, won five conference regular-season and conference tournament titles, and the Wildcats have notched the No. 1 spot in the AP Top 25 Poll in six of his eight full seasons in charge. Calipari stocks his teams with NBA talent, gets them to buy in to a selfless brand of ball and typically has them ready to peak in March.
Kentucky deserves to be considered the SEC favorite again this season even though it already suffered its first defeat (to Kansas, at the Champions Classic), lost three players to the lottery of this year’s NBA draft (De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo) and brought back only one lightly-used member of its rotation (sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel). The Wildcats, per usual, are teeming with five-star prospects, including two or three that are tracking toward first-round selections in next year’s draft, and their collective length and mobility will enable them to suffocate teams on defense.
As we march toward the start of SEC play, other teams in the conference continue to build cases for being Kentucky’s No. 1 challenger. Media members voted Florida No. 2 behind the Wildcats in a preseason poll, and Sports Illustrated’s proprietary projection system likewise pegged the Gators as the league’s No. 2 team. Based on the very limited sample size offered up to the day before Thanksgiving, it’s clear at least one other squad belongs in the discussion with Florida for SEC runner-up status: Texas A&M.
Even though the start of league play is still pretty far off (Dec. 30 for the Aggies) and there will be more opportunities to see Texas A&M battle tough competition in the coming weeks, it’s worth diving into why it has excelled so far and whether it’s sustainable. Consider this a progress report on a team with obvious upside and an also-obvious ceiling. The Aggies’ early performance augurs them outstripping their expectations, even if they haven’t had many chances to prove how good they are at this late-November juncture.
The Aggies were in New York this week for the Legends Classic, a four-team event also featuring Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh and Penn State. Texas A&M looked like the class of the field heading in, and it proved as much by pasting the Cowboys, 72-55, in the semifinals on Monday and then running away from the Nittany Lions in the second half in a 98-87 win in the championship bout on Tuesday. The Legends triumph followed a season-opening victory over Big 12 power West Virginia and a 19-point drubbing of Big West foe UC Santa Barbara a week later.
It may seem like it's too soon to offer a thorough assessment of where Texas A&M stands in the SEC. The Aggies have not even made it through the most challenging portion of their nonconference schedule yet. They still have to face the top two teams in the Pac-12: Texas A&M travels to Los Angeles for a Nov. 26 matchup with USC, which was rated 13th in our preseason projections, and it’ll take on Arizona, which topped those same projections, in the Valley of the Sun Shootout in Phoenix on Dec. 5. But even at this point in the season, the Aggies merit some examination.
The most challenging part about evaluating Texas A&M right now is simple: This team won’t look the same in March. Sophomore forward Robert Williams III, a potential lottery pick, was forced to sit out the first two games of the year after violating team policy, and freshman J.J. Caldwell, the Aggies’ expected starter at point guard, was hit with a four-regular season game suspension for a violation of university policy. (He reportedly was arrested on a misdemeanor DWI charge in May, but the case was later dismissed.)
The absences help explain why Texas A&M’s 88-65 decision over the Mountaineers at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany earlier this month registers as one of the best wins any team has notched so far this season. The Aggies did not have their NBA-bound, frontcourt stud or floor general, but they managed to allow only 0.8 points per possession and ring up 1.1 PPP on a team SI’s model pegged to sport the No. 9 defense in Division I and finish second in the Big 12 behind Kansas this season.
The Aggies managed to bludgeon West Virginia on the interior without Williams by feeding 6’10”, 266-pound junior center Tyler Davis, an efficient two-point scorer, active glass-cleaner and shot-blocker who connected on 10 of his 12 field-goal attempts and snared 13 rebounds in 30 minutes. Davis is a load inside, but the Mountaineers couldn’t afford to sell out to stop him because fellow juniors DJ Hogg and Admon Gilder were ready to punish them from deep: The duo combined to hit eight of their 11 three-point tries.
It can’t go unmentioned that West Virginia was not at full strength, either. The Mountaineers’ potential leading rebounder and frontcourt scorer, junior Esa Ahmad, is sitting out the first half of the season after not meeting NCAA eligibility requirements. But relatively speaking, with both Williams and Caldwell unavailable, Texas A&M was more short-handed than West Virginia that night, and the Aggies still managed to flatten a stylistically challenging opponent with a real shot at winning a high-major league.
A week later, the Aggies trounced the Gauchos, 84-65, in their home opener before heading to Barclays Center in Brooklyn for their Feast Week tournament. Caldwell sat out the Legends Classic, but Williams did return to action. He came off the bench against Oklahoma State on Monday to score 11 points, grab 11 rebounds, block two shots and record three steals in only 24 minutes. Williams affirmed his status as a prime draft prospect in front of NBA personnel and had his way with the Cowboys’ bigs, including on one first-half sequence in which he received a pass on the left block and rose for a vicious two-handed slam over senior Mitchell Solomon, who probably should have thought better of jumping to contest:
Penn State didn’t have many answers for Williams (21 points on 10 of 12 shooting and 10 rebounds in 23 minutes), and Texas A&M got a team-high 22 points from Marquette graduate transfer point guard Duane Wilson to help negate a combined 56 points from Penn State point guard Tony Carr and power forward Lamar Stevens. The Nittany Lions almost definitely won’t factor into the Big Ten championship chase and should fall short of their first NCAA tournament bid since 2011, but they’re stout defensively, and Carr, Stevens and Mike Watkins (redshirt) compose a formidable sophomore core. Though this win won’t drastically change the Aggies’ prospects on Selection Sunday, the manner in which it was recorded reflects favorably on where they stand heading into the holidays.
Texas A&M’s viability as an SEC contender hinges on its defense. The Aggies brought back every player who logged more than 25 minutes per game last season for a team that limited opponents to only 43.7% shooting from inside the three-point arc, good for 13th in Division I, and swatted 15.4% of opponents’ two-point attempts (fifth). Williams, in particular, ranked second in the SEC during conference play in block percentage (10.1), and he ranked third by pulling down 23.5% of opponents’ misses while he was on the floor.
It would help if Texas A&M’s opponents were less accurate on their freebies. Teams shot 73% from the free-throw line against the Aggies last season, one of the 50 highest percentages in the country. So far, so good on that front; their opponents have put up a 64.4 FT% over four games. Whether or not that continues, the foundation for a top-25 defense is here, which would mark a significant upgrade over last season, when the Aggies finished 54th nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted points allowed per 100 possessions.
Sustaining high-level play on the other end of the court could be more of a challenge. Texas A&M needs to take better care of the ball after turning it over on 21.2% of their possessions last season, which ranked 320th in the country. If he can provide it, steady ball handling at the point from Caldwell, who was ruled ineligible in 2016–17, could alleviate that issue, but he can’t fix it by himself. Other members of the rotation will need to do their part to slash the Aggies’ propensity for ceding possession; their 22.2 TO% in 2017–18 rates 272th in the nation.
Texas A&M can mitigate its turnover issues by creating more shot opportunities through offensive rebounding, an effort spearheaded by Williams and Davis to great effect last season, when the Aggies snatched a larger portion of their misses than all but seven DI teams. A more pressing issue is what happens if they do manage to create those extra shot opportunities. The answer last season was not encouraging: Texas A&M ranked 145th nationally in effective field goal percentage, which adjusts for the added value of threes.
The early verdict on the state of the Aggies’ shooting this season is undeniably positive. The long-range flame throwing from Gilder and Hogg that carried Texas A&M past West Virginia held up in three subsequent games. They’ve combined to sink 58.5% of their treys. That figure will dip eventually, but it’s easy to envision Gilder and Hogg juicing up the Aggies’ attack by nudging their downtown hit rates closer to 40% after knocking in 37.7% and 36.7% on 154 and 120 attempts, respectively, last season.
Davis and Williams should continue to supply proficient low-block scoring at a high volume, particularly if Hogg and Gilder can draw defenders away from the paint with the threat posed by their jumpers. “It opens up the court for everybody,” Williams said on Monday. “It’s a relief knowing that I got them out there—I can depend on them as well as they can depend on me.” Plus, as noted above, both Davis and Williams can extend possessions by crashing the offensive glass. A simpler way Texas A&M can put the ball in the basket more often? Making its free throws. The Aggies finished 325th in the nation in 2016-17 by converting 64.9% of their attempts at the stripe. They bumped their FT% for this season up to 82.7 by going 26-of-29 against Penn State on Tuesday.
Texas A&M has the look of an outfit that could push Kentucky at the top of the SEC. None of the conference’s other teams own a more valuable win than the Aggies’ W over West Virginia, and they pulled it off without their best player (Williams), in addition to another projected starter (Caldwell). Upcoming matchups with a pair of Pac-12 heavyweights (USC and Arizona) will help fill in the blanks, but Texas A&M has validated optimism about its chances to rebound from a disappointing, 16-win, tourney-less campaign. “We can play big, we can play small,” said head coach Billy Kennedy, who identified depth and versatility as his squad’s biggest strengths. “And we’ve got a lot of guys that can score the basketball.”
The Aggies will have some company in the competition to knock Kentucky from its preseason SEC perch. On the whole, the league looks sturdier than it’s been in a while—even taking into account Tuesday’s devastating news that Missouri freshman stud Michael Porter Jr. is expected to sit out the rest of the season after undergoing back surgery. Florida and Alabama, in that order, stand out as Texas A&M’s strongest competitors. Based on what they’ve shown to date, the Aggies seem capable of beating out that duo, and the Wildcats could be more vulnerable than usual during Calipari’s reign given their lack of experience and proven shooters.
Games played during the remainder of November and December may well scramble the picture. Texas A&M should exit this week 5-0 after handling Pepperdine at home on Friday, but it may not stack up nearly as favorably to the Wildcats and Gators come the start of SEC play, after other consequential non-conference tilts offer more details about the conference’s roster of teams. That’s a possibility that doesn’t need to be addressed yet. The Aggies are winning, and they’re giving off signals that they can keep it up.