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Joe Boozell | NCAA.com | December 8, 2017

How A&M went from missing the tournament to possible SEC champion

  Junior center Tyler Davis is a major reason why Texas A&M is playing so well.

Texas A&M lost a close game to Arizona on Tuesday night, and it was a surprise.

Sure, no one wants to lose. But the fact that it was unexpected speaks to how good the Aggies have looked early on.

Texas A&M finished 16-15 last year, not even sniffing the NCAA tournament. But the ability was clear. Robert Williams was one of the 20 most talented players in the country. Tyler Davis, D.J. Hogg and Admon Gilder were all valuable contributors on a team that won 28 games and reached the Sweet 16 a year prior. What happened?

Hogg only played in 22 games, for starters, and depth wasn’t a strong suit for the Aggies. But point guard play was the biggest issue. Texas A&M finished 95th in offense and 320th in turnover rate. The Aggies coughed it up on a whopping 21.2 percent of their possessions. The defense was decent – it finished 54th – but that’s well below what you’d expect from a team with Williams, Hogg and Davis. Teams made a lot of 3s vs. the Aggies, who finished 179th in 3-point defense. They also rarely forced turnovers, finishing 247th.

The backcourt wasn’t getting it done, and the frontcourt – while solid – wasn’t transcendent.

That’s what needed to change in 2017-18. The backcourt didn’t need to be great, but it had to be solid. And the frontcourt had to dominate.

Both things have happened thus far, and it’s why the Aggies are 7-1 with wins over West Virginia, Oklahoma State and USC. Even after the loss to Arizona, A&M is ranked seventh at KenPom.

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The Aggies still turn the ball over too much – they rank 213th in that department, as opposed to 320th last year – but the progress has been evident, and Marquette transfer Duane Wilson has been solid. He’s averaging 11.3 points and 4.5 assists on 48 percent shooting. Perhaps most importantly, he’s allowed Gilder to work more off of the ball, where he’s most comfortable. Gilder’s turnover rate has plummeted from 21.1 percent as a sophomore to 18.3 percent as a junior.

Texas A&M’s improved guard play brings two key benefits: obviously, it’s nice when your ball-handlers score and assist more. But it also makes the big guys better.

Last year, Williams, Davis and Hogg weren’t getting the ball in positions to succeed. Too many times, they’d receive post entries well outside of the paint with little time on the shot-clock. This season? Gilder and Wilson can create penetration, and Davis, in particular, is catching the ball in position to do serious damage: he’s averaging 14.7 points on 66 percent shooting.

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But Hogg has been the real revelation. At 6-foot-9, with a smooth-looking stroke and some bulk, Hogg is the prototypical modern player, but his production didn’t match his perceived potential in his first two seasons. He never shot better than 40 percent from the floor, and his defensive effort came and went. Hogg seemed like a power forward playing out of position at small forward.

This year, he’s been awesome – Hogg is averaging 15.9 points on 48 percent shooting, while making 54 percent of his 3s (he probably won’t sustain the 3-point percentage, but Texas A&M will take anything north of 40). He’s still playing the three, but is shooting well enough to justify it; he can also slot up to the four in a pinch, which gives the Aggies lineup versatility most schools don’t have. Hogg’s general floor game has been outstanding, too – he’s averaging 7.5 rebounds and more than a block and a steal.

When he plays small forward, teams usually abandon the interior, because every Aggie front court player stands above 6-9 with athleticism. When he’s at power forward, it juices the offense – with Williams or Davis at the five and Hogg spacing the floor, Texas A&M guards have plenty of room to operate. He’s looking like the versatile chess piece he was recruited to be.

Williams hasn’t taken the offensive leap many had hoped, but he’s the biggest reason why the Aggies have the third-ranked defense. Williams is averaging 2.3 blocks, but he’s just as good at switching onto speedy guards as he is protecting the rim. Texas A&M allows just 78.7 points per 100 possessions with Williams in the game, easily the lowest on the team. Hogg is the only other starter below 90. Williams will get caught out of position at times, but he usually has the jets and hops to erase any ground he’s lost. The on-off splits don’t lie.

The lesson here: when you combine players who can unlock others’ potential with natural growth, good things can happen.

The SEC is as good as it’s been in recent memory. But with Florida’s recent woes and Kentucky’s unprecedented youth, Texas A&M could win the league this year.

Considering last year’s mess of a season, what an accomplishment that would be for the Aggies.