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SEC Basketball Season Preview: Texas A&M

The mass exodus to the transfer portal is going to be a recurring theme here.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Texas A&M vs Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Team: Texas A&M Aggies

Date: February 19, 2022 (in Nashville)

Time: 5:00 PM CT (SEC Network)

Last year: 8-10 (2-8 SEC), 137th in KenPom

Tom’s Prediction: 13th in SEC

Head Coach

Buzz Williams seems to know what he’s doing. In six years at Marquette, he went to five NCAA Tournaments, culminating in an Elite Eight run in 2013, and had a record of 139-69. In five years at Virginia Tech, taking over a much worse situation, he had a 100-69 record and made the NCAA Tournament in each of his last three years with a Sweet Sixteen run in 2019.

And then he took the Texas A&M job. The situation he inherited was somewhere in between Marquette and Virginia Tech — sure, the Aggies were coming off a 14-18 record in Billy Kennedy’s last year, but they were just a year removed from a Sweet Sixteen appearance. That track record made it a bit surprising when Texas A&M fell off in his second year, though a month-long COVID pause might have had something to do with that: the Aggies didn’t play a single game in the entire month of February. But when they did play, they weren’t very good: they won two SEC games by a total of three points, they ranked last in the conference in offensive efficiency, and 12th in defensive efficiency.

SEAT TEMPERATURE: Cool

Williams’ track record as a head coach (and contract) gives him a bit of a leash here. The lack of progress from first year to second year isn’t good; neither is the exodus to the transfer portal that followed his second year. But he clearly knows what he’s doing and will get time.

The expectations at Texas A&M aren’t super low, but they aren’t ridiculous: Billy Kennedy went through four years without an NCAA Tournament appearance (albeit with steadily improving records each year) and probably wasn’t really on the hot seat until his fifth year, and that year culminated with an SEC title. Williams could probably stand to show some improvement this year, but I think he’d probably need another year or two of underachieving before his seat starts to get hot.

Who’s Gone?

The bad news is that Texas A&M lost eight players to the transfer portal; the good news is that one of them never played a minute for the Aggies and five of them weren’t all that efficient. Three of the players lost would have been out of eligibility under normal circumstances: Savion Flagg (8.8 ppg/4.5 rpg) and Jay-Jay Chandler (8.2 ppg/2.5 rpg) were former four-star recruits who just didn’t deal well with the transition from Billy Kennedy to Buzz Williams; Kevin Marfo was a graduate transfer from Quinnipiac who averaged 2.6 ppg and 3.7 rpg in one year and actually transferred back to Quinnipiac. Jonathan Aku (1.8 ppg/3.2 rpg), Jaxson Robinson (2.1 ppg/1.1 rpg), and LaDamien Bradford (0.3 ppg/0.7 rpg) were youngsters who might have had some upside but were a long way from getting there. Cashius McNeilly was a highly-rated recruit who took a medical redshirt in 2019-20 and then opted out due to COVID; he left without ever playing a minute for the Aggies.

And then there was Emanuel Miller. The team’s leading scorer and rebounder (16.2 ppg/8.2 rpg) seemed to be a budding star as a sophomore, leading the SEC in field goal percentage... and then he transferred to TCU (where he’ll be joined by McNeilly.) That’s a big loss for the Aggies.

Who’s Back?

With all the defections, Texas A&M did catch a bit of a break when 6’5” Quenton Jackson (10.4 ppg/2.4 rpg), the team’s second-leading scorer last season and a 41 percent shooter from three-point range, opted to take advantage of the free year of eligibility from the NCAA to return this season. Jackson probably won’t be the best player on the team, but having some continuity from last season is a good start.

The remaining returnees include two players with upside whose production hasn’t matched it yet. 6’2” junior Andre Gordon (8.3 ppg/2.7 apg) has started 46 games over the last two years, including all 18 last season, while posting Offensive Ratings of 79.2 as a freshman and 89.4 as a sophomore. When a player that inefficient is playing a bunch of minutes, it’s a sign that either the coach doesn’t have anyone better or really believes in that player’s upside — and it’s most likely the former, with another high-upside youngster, 6’2” sophomore Hassan Diarra (5.8 ppg/1.7 apg), being even less efficient last season (80.4 Offensive Rating.) 6’6” sophomore Hayden Hefner (2.1 ppg/1.0 rpg) is thought to be a shooter, but struggled with his shot in limited action last season; he’s not an SEC player if he shoots 30 percent from deep.

Who’s New?

While Tom Crean responded to an exodus to the transfer portal by simply plugging holes on the roster, Buzz Williams appears to have made a bunch of upside plays.

But let’s start with the guy who will probably be the star of this team: 6’2” junior Tyrece Radford was recruited to Virginia Tech by Buzz Williams, and after two seasons for the Hokies in which he averaged 10.9 ppg and 6.1 rpg (and shot 58 percent from the floor), Radford winds up in College Station. If he’s not Texas A&M’s best player this season, then somebody has overachieved.

Williams also brings in three talented freshmen. 6’4” guard Manny Obaseki (#33 in 247 Sports composite) is the crown jewel of the class and might have the most raw talent of anyone on the team, and should be an immediate contributor. 6’0” Wade Taylor IV (#118 in 247 Sports composite) is an immediate threat to supplant Gordon and Diarra as the team’s point guard, and 6’9” Ashton Smith (#216 in 247 Sports composite) has size.

But even most of the transfers here seem to be about upside. 6’8” sophomore Henry Coleman III was a former top 50 recruit who struggled to find playing time at Duke; 7’0” redshirt freshman Javonte Brown played in two games at UConn before being lost for the season. 6’8” senior Ethan Henderson could never find consistent playing time in three years at Arkansas, but posted a 127.2 Offensive Rating when he did play last season. And 6’2” sophomore Marcus Williams was an overlooked recruit who averaged 14.8 ppg and 4.3 apg in one season at Wyoming. Rounding out the class is 6’6” junior Aaron Cash, who averaged 15.3 ppg last season at Grayson College. 6’6” sixth-year senior Jalen Johnson, who transferred from Mississippi State, will miss the season due to injury.

Projected Rotation

Guards are a relative strength for Texas A&M, and I would probably expect the Aggies to play three guards or maybe even four at times. Tyrece Radford and Quenton Jackson should start for this team, probably off the ball, but point guard is an open question with Wade Taylor having potential and neither Andre Gordon nor Hassan Diarra having asserted enough production to assume they’ll start. And Manny Obaseki and Marcus Williams will fit in here somewhere, I’m just not sure how.

The frontcourt is a question mark. The first question that needs to be answered is whether either of the two scholarship players over 6’8” — Ashton Smith or Javonte Brown — are ready to play more than spot minutes; if so, Texas A&M can play one of those two as a true center and play Henry Coleman at the four. If neither are ready, the Aggies will have to go small — perhaps playing Coleman and Ethan Henderson together, or perhaps going really small and playing Jackson or some combination of Aaron Cash and Hayden Hefner in a four-guard offense.

Schedule

Texas A&M will open the season with three games that should be easy wins and a potentially tricky game against Abilene Christian (which isn’t the team that upset Texas in the NCAA Tournament, but should still be solid.) That’s followed by the Maui Invitational, which has its usual loaded field and where I will be surprised if Texas A&M isn’t in the seventh-place game with Chaminade. Three more sub-300 games follow (New Orleans, Northwestern State, and Central Arkansas) with three reasonably difficult games mixed in in mid-December: a neutral-court game against TCU in Houston, a home game against a potentially salty Tulane team, and a road trip to Oregon State.

In SEC play, Texas A&M draws Arkansas twice, but they also get Georgia twice; the other three teams on the schedule twice (Missouri, LSU, and Ole Miss) are probably around the middle of the pack. That’s fine.

Outlook

A mass exodus that includes the team’s best player is going to be a recurring theme in the first few previews; that was the case with Georgia, and it’s the case with Texas A&M as well. What separates Texas A&M from the basement is that the Aggies at least have some guys who played real minutes for the team last year coming back, even if three of the four players they return weren’t all that good last season.

And while Texas A&M didn’t get much in the way of immediate, obvious help aside from Tyrece Radford, I like their incoming pieces more than I like Georgia’s. There’s at least some upside here, with a freshman who was a borderline five-star and a former top-50 recruit whose inability to get off the bench at Duke is more a reflection of the fact that merely being a top-50 recruit is no guarantee of playing time at Duke. There are a bunch more interesting pieces entering the program. It’s honestly really difficult to see how Georgia avoids finishing last in the SEC whereas if things really click for Texas A&M, it’s plausible they might even avoid the first round of the SEC Tournament. Hell, an NIT bid isn’t even out of the question.

With all that said, who’s the star of this team? Tyrece Radford is a good player, but he was at best Virginia Tech’s second-best player last season. Ditto Quenton Jackson, who was probably Texas A&M’s second-best player last year. Marcus Williams was the best player for a meh Mountain West team. Manny Obaseki is a freshman. And Texas A&M’s frontcourt consists of nothing but question marks.

Record Prediction: 13-18 (4-14 SEC)

There’s enough upside here that I won’t rule out the possibility that Texas A&M is a decent team this season, but the floor is probably lower than just about anyone except Georgia and maybe South Carolina.