Despite sparkling start, Texas A&M remains a Mystery Team
By this time of the season, most storylines in college basketball are figured out. Every so often, though, you'll find an overlooked team that enters league play with a gaudy record, despite not answering the questions that made you overlook it in the first place.
With today's oversaturation of coverage, you need some distinct components to converge to create a so-called Mystery Team. For starters, the program must have a relative lack of hoops tradition, so there's no assumption of quality. It also probably suffered heavy graduation losses and is playing a bunch of younger, unheralded kids. The general avoidance of true road games and high-profile TV appearances also helps.
Well, check off all the boxes. We've found one. Say hello to this year's men of mystery: Texas A&M.
The Aggies are 14-1, with quality wins over Temple and Washington, and are ranked in the top 15 in both polls heading into tonight's home game with Oklahoma State, but you can still count coach Mark Turgeon as part of the group that isn't exactly sure what he has.
"We won the games we were supposed to win," he said of his team's impressive record. "You schedule a lot of victories early and we were able to win those."
How about opening Big 12 play with a convincing win at undermanned Oklahoma?
"We were struggling right after Christmas, but we had a good week of practice last week and we played better."
Does it at least feel good to get some respect after starting the season without receiving a single vote in the first AP poll?
"I don't even know what we're ranked, but it's probably a little overranked right now."
Like most coaches, Turgeon has a penchant for underhyping his team's prospects. In fact, a quick Google search yielded practically that same exact "overrated" quote about his 2007-08 Aggies when they were ranked ninth after winning the Preseason NIT Tip-Off. That said, as A&M enters a stretch of six games in which it will face four ranked opponents, we're about to find out whether Turgeon has real reason to worry.
Entering the season, the huge question about the Aggies was whether they could score enough to beat good teams. Among several significant departures from last season was standout guard Donald Sloan, who averaged 17.8 points per game and took almost 30 percent of the Aggies' shots while he was on the court, per KenPom.com.
Despite the emergence of sophomore Khris Middleton as a capable scorer, there is no one on the current roster who is prepared to handle that kind of load. Middleton actually takes shots almost as frequently as Sloan, but he's playing far fewer minutes -- no Aggie is averaging more than 28 a game -- so A&M's offense has taken on more of a committee approach this season. So far, despite the gaudy overall record, it hasn't exceeded preseason expectations.
As the following table shows, A&M had significant trouble scoring against three of the four quality teams it has faced so far:
Those last three efforts were, by far, the Aggies' worst of the season. Against the rest of its schedule, A&M only was under 1.10 points per possession twice, and marginally so in those cases. That A&M found a way to win all three of those games is a huge credit to its defense and rebounding, both of which have been great, even with the loss of inside presence Bryan Davis from last year's team. Led by Nathan Walkup, David Loubeau and Ray Turner, the Aggies currently rank in the nation's top 10 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate. And in those three wins, both the defense and rebounding held up very well. Only in the BC loss, an outlier where A&M allowed a searing 1.20 points per possession, have the Aggies allowed more than 0.95 in a game this season.
"Rebounding is a team thing," said Walkup, who is leading the team with 6.4 boards a game. "Our guards compete to beat all the big guys in rebounding each game, so it's a complete team effort. If you play team defense, you have to rebound as a team. We can't rely on one guy to do it."
Offensive rebounding will be a key to watch as the Aggies wade through league play. Turgeon said that the team has been working for several weeks to refine a more conservative rebounding plan, one that more often will keep multiple guards back to help in transition defense against the faster teams in the league. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Aggies' last two games featured their two worst offensive rebounding rates of the season.
Stopping teams like Missouri from getting cheap baskets is crucial, but with offensive rebounding being such a huge component of A&M's offense, will less risk garner consistent rewards? A&M likely will need its youngsters to continue to develop to replace some of the offense it will give up with this tack.
"I'd like to think our offense will get better because we have good offensive players and we have some young kids who are getting better who can score the ball," Turgeon said. "We're just going to struggle against good defensive teams, there's no question about that, but everyone does."
Interestingly, the Aggies' schedule makes it possible they could continue to mystify for awhile. A&M only faces Missouri and Kansas State once each and both of those games are in College Station. The Aggies also get both Oklahoma State and Baylor first in those home-and-homes and don't face Kansas until the last week of the season, in Lawrence. It's possible, if they keep grinding out wins, that they'll only be an underdog in one game (Jan. 19 at Texas) until March.
Still, we'll find out something in these next few weeks. Can the Aggies' quality depth continue to wear down opponents? Will a team that relies on execution more than individual talent be able to execute consistently against more familiar foes? Right now, a lot of signs look pretty good. Just don't tell that to Turgeon.
"I was nervous about going into this year with this team," he said. "I'm still nervous. It's still early."