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Texas A&M overachieved in SEC play last year, but will probably fall back

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Buzz Williams is still building in College Station.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 29 Texas A&M at LSU Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

How Did We Get Here?

It didn’t take long for first-year coach Buzz Williams to put his imprint on the Texas A&M basketball program. Williams, previously a success at Marquette and Virginia Tech, saw his team get off to a rough start early in the 2019-20 season; the Aggies started the season 3-5, including a loss to a Fairfield team that would finish 12-20, and limped into SEC play with three-point home wins over the likes of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Texas Southern. In other words, this didn’t look like a team that would do much against an 18-game SEC schedule.

Instead, the Aggies, against considerable odds, went 10-8. Texas A&M never really got things going on the offensive end, finishing 11th in the conference in points per possession, but the defense picked up enough to keep the team competitive — and then, the Aggies went 5-1 in games decided by six points or less. They won five of seven games to close the season with a 16-14 overall record. That’s not great, but considering how the season started, you’d probably take that if you’re a Texas A&M fan — particularly for a first-year coach who didn’t walk into a great situation.

With that said, perhaps in this case, advanced stats are a better indicator of what the baseline for Texas A&M is entering 2020-21. While the Aggies finished in a tie for sixth place in the SEC standings, both KenPom and SRS pegged them as the second-worst team in the conference; they actually got outscored by 2.1 points per game on the season, and 0.9 ppg in SEC play. Perhaps the awful start to the season is influencing the numbers, but the latter number suggests that even when things were getting turned around, the Aggies were much more lucky than they were good. (In fact, for the entire season, Texas A&M went 9-2 in games decided by six points or less.)

More than likely, that good fortune will regress a bit in 2020-21 — meaning that the Aggies might be a better team but finish with a worse record. What’s more, while Texas A&M returns 63.8 percent of its possession-minutes (the fourth-highest number in the conference), gone are two of the team’s three leading scorers with one of those also doubling as the team’s best defensive player. And the recruiting class doesn’t include any immediate-impact players.

Who’s Gone?

Losses

Player MPG PPG RPG APG BPG SPG Notes
Player MPG PPG RPG APG BPG SPG Notes
Josh Nebo 28.8 12.5 6.2 0.8 1.9 0.4 graduated
Wendell Mitchell 27.6 10.2 2.7 1.9 0.1 1.3 graduated
Yavuz Gultekin 8 1.9 1.6 0.2 0 0.2 transfer/San Diego
Mark French 10.1 1.5 0.6 0.9 0 0.3 graduated

In his senior year, Josh Nebo transitioned from a shot-blocking specialist into Texas A&M’s leading scorer and most effective offensive player, though that seemed to be as much a reflection on the rest of the team as it did on Nebo; he averaged just 12.5 ppg and ranked fourth on the team in field goal attempts. But without him, the Aggies don’t have an obvious interior presence on either end of the floor. Wendell Mitchell actually did lead the team in field goal attempts, but he shot just 33.1 percent from the floor; why Texas A&M insisted on having a player like that be arguably the focal point of the offense is an open question.

Other than that, though, the losses here are minimal. Former walk-on Mark French managed to start seven games and was about as effective as you’d expect; freshman Yavuz Gultekin transferred to San Diego after seeing minimal playing time in his one year at A&M.

Who’s Back?

Returnees

Player Year Height Weight MPG PPG RPG APG BPG SPG
Player Year Height Weight MPG PPG RPG APG BPG SPG
Savion Flagg Sr. 6'7" 223 32 10.4 5.1 2.5 0.2 0.7
Quenton Jackson Sr. 6'5" 175 23.6 8.8 2.9 1.6 0.2 1.2
Emanuel Miller Soph. 6'7" 208 24.6 6.4 6.3 0.9 0.1 0.7
Andre Gordon Soph. 6'2" 188 24.2 6.3 2.1 1.6 0 0.9
Jay Jay Chandler Sr. 6'4" 183 20.4 6.1 1.9 1.1 0 0.8
Jonathan Aku Soph. 6'10" 263 8.4 1 2.3 0.2 0.3 0.2

It was a mysterious year for Savion Flagg. As a sophomore, Flagg led Texas A&M in scoring and rebounding; but both numbers regressed in his junior year and for reasons that aren’t completely obvious. In fact, Flagg actually shot better from three-point range as a junior while increasing his attempts, and he didn’t really seem to be playing less of a role in the Aggies’ offense. The only real culprit was a rather inexplicable drop in his two-point percentage, from 54.1 percent to 45.9 percent. I don’t really know if this was a reflection of a change in shot selection or what, but it’s not a great trend; perhaps some regression back to his sophomore year performance would take Texas A&M a long way.

With a single exception, the rest of Texas A&M’s returnees were newcomers last season, brought in by Buzz Williams. Quenton Jackson, a JUCO transfer last year, and Emanuel Miller, a freshman last season, performed credibly though both suffered the team-wide aversion to good shooting and offensive efficiency. Miller did end the season as Texas A&M’s leading rebounder and was also a foul-drawing machine. Andre Gordon, however, did not perform well, shooting 34.3 percent from the floor and being a bit of a turnover machine, though apparently Buzz Williams saw enough to give him 24 minutes per game. Jonathan Aku was a raw 6’10” freshman who didn’t play much but showed some upside as a rebounder and shot-blocker.

The only holdover from the Billy Kennedy era, aside from Flagg, is senior Jay-Jay Chandler. A career 29.6 percent shooter from distance, Chandler has never really developed into the player A&M thought he would be when recruited and saw his role reduced with the coaching change. But occasionally a player like this will put together a nice senior year.

Who’s New?

Newcomers

Player Year Height Weight 247 Composite Notes
Player Year Height Weight 247 Composite Notes
Hassan Diarra Fr. 6'2" 197 75
Jaxson Robinson Fr. 6'7" 193 82
Cashius McNeilly Fr. 6'4" 191 131 redshirted 2019-20
Hayden Hefner Fr. 6'6" 182 234
LaDamien Bradford Fr. 6'4" 223 366
Kevin Marfo Sr. 6'8" 247 190 transfer/Quinnipiac

Joining the roster this season are five newcomers — plus Texas A&M’s top recruit in the 2019 class, who redshirted last year.

Texas A&M really could have used Cashius McNeilly last year. The 6’4” guard shot 50 percent at the Under 17 World Cup and would have obviously helped a team that ranked 331st from beyond the arc last season. But after missing the early part of the season due to an injury, McNeilly elected to use a redshirt year rather than risking further injury and using up a year of eligibility for half a season; the fact that the Aggies’ season appeared to be going nowhere in November and December might have played a role there.

And guard play was an obvious focus in Buzz Williams’ recruiting efforts in 2020. All four freshmen are 6’5” and under with a pair of four-star recruits (per the 247 Sports composite) leading the way. The star of the class is Hassan Diarra, a point guard who’s built like a bowling ball and could start immediately with no other obvious candidate to play the point. In-state signee Hayden Hefner is a good shooter at 6’5”. The wild card in the class is Jaxson Robinson, a 6’5” wing who reclassified from the 2021 class; he might need a year to develop but the Aggies might need him to contribute immediately.

Also joining the fold is Kevin Marfo, a 6’8” graduate transfer from Quinnipiac who led the country in rebounding a year ago. I shouldn’t have to tell you that the country’s leading rebounder is probably going to find a place to play.

Depth Chart

Depth Chart

Position Starter Backup Backup 2
Position Starter Backup Backup 2
PG Diarra Gordon
SG McNeilly Chandler Bradford
SF Miller Jackson Hefner
PF Flagg Robinson
C Marfo Aku

It’s not clear whether Buzz Williams will want to play mostly veterans this season or go with a full-on youth movement in his second year. The answer seems fairly obvious in the frontcourt: Savion Flagg is probably the team’s best player, and Kevin Marfo wasn’t brought in to be a bench player. Emanuel Miller can play the three if Williams wants to go with a bigger lineup, while Jonathan Aku doesn’t appear ready to play major minutes as a sophomore.

The backcourt is much more unsettled. Andre Gordon started 18 games a year ago and Quenton Jackson started eight, but neither of them played particularly well and might not be able to hold off the newcomers. Hassan Diarra might well be the team’s best option at the point as a freshman, and considering how much Texas A&M struggled to shoot the ball last year, there would seem to be an obvious use for Cashius McNeilly and Hayden Hefner here. Jaxson Robinson, who’s here a year ahead of schedule, will probably come off the bench to start but might work his way into the starting lineup by the end of the season. Even LaDamien Bradford, the lowest-rated recruit in the freshman class, could find a role here, and Buzz Williams probably won’t completely give up on Jay-Jay Chandler.

Outlook

There are two, countervailing forces at work with Texas A&M. On the one hand, the Aggies should probably improve in 2020-21. On the other hand, that might not be reflected in the team’s record.

Of the four second-year coaches in the SEC, Buzz Williams is easily the most accomplished as a college basketball coach and the closest thing there was to a sure thing on the market. He won at both Marquette and Virginia Tech, two places that aren’t particularly easy to win at, and his first team at Texas A&M was already showing some signs of being a well-coached team after a year under his watch.

The problem for this season is that the roster is in transition. There’s one known quantity in Savion Flagg, a somewhat known quantity in Kevin Marfo, and the rest of the roster is either wishcasting on guys who haven’t shown any sign of being a consistent contributor at this level and/or hoping for immediate production from non-elite freshmen, and neither of those scream “NCAA Tournament bid” or anything close to it. That’s probably a year away, and this year should just be about figuring out how the pieces fit together for next season. Williams by himself is probably good enough to ensure that things don’t go too badly this season, but this team isn’t ready to be much better than this.