At any point in Wednesday night's match between Texas A&M and LSU in SEC basketball competition, the game was the Aggies’ to lose, and they did. A brilliant first quarter of play showed sparks of excellence, brilliance, and just good college ball, but then just as quickly as the scoring streak had begun it went south and lost its way worse than a 2003 GPS stuck on the word “recalculating.” It was bad. If you didn’t see tonight’s game, to look at the final score of 58-54, LSU, you might not think it was a tightly contested game that was shot for shot close, but in fact, it was programmatic self-destruction.
Junior transfer Fabyon Harris continues to be the most exciting player on the team as he has a deadly 3-point shot and a floating jumper in his arsenal and he can move the ball up and down the court just like a blur, showing signs of a player who one day might hope for an NBA career, once he gains more experience. Harris lead the Aggies scoring tonight, with 19 points, and shooting 7 of 12 from the field and going 3 for 3 free throws, with 4 rebounds and 2 assists.
For the first quarter of the game, Ray Turner was showing all kinds of strength and consistency, and he was 4 for 6 from the field, but only grabbed 2 rebounds, and he had only 1 of his 3-point attempts find the net, for a total of 9 points. Kourtney Roberson, sometimes known as “Mr. Rebound” had 5 tonight and yet he was limited to 7 points and 60% of his field goal shooting. J’Mychal Reese had 7 rebounds, but he was off his usual game with 1 of 5 from the field, 1 of 2 free throws and only 1 assist for 2 points.
Elston “Instant Offense” Turner was 1 of 7 for the field goals, made both his free throws and had 3 rebounds and 2 assists, but he also had the team high 3 personal fouls, and had to settle for 5 points on the night.
In the blink of an eye, a major Aggie lead was roped and tied and squeezed down from as many as 10 points down to within 4 as the Tigers kept shooting and stole the momentum away from the Aggies, who just could not manage to handle the ball without turnovers. The Tigers had two players show sparks of fire, in a major run to close out the first half, but the Tigers were far from superb. So, it still made sense to expect the Aggies to be able to take a one-point lead into the half and then blow the doors off again, just as they’d done in the first half, but they fell apart faster than the newest member of the Wallenda family fell off the high wire when he looked down and saw the ground.
Is it fear of success? Fear of failure? Whatever it is that is causing the Aggies to self-destruct, it is undoubtedly on the mind and heart of every member of the Aggie coaching staff on how to get rid of “stinkin’ thinkin’” in playing a game that is supposed to be fun. For three straight games now, you just don’t see any smiles or joy on the faces of the Aggies as they play.The serious looks, furrowed brows and constant self-doubt questioning “can we do this again or was it just a fluke before” are quickly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Ags to lose.
When statistics show the Ags’ accuracy at closer to 50%, (45.5% vs. LSU; 47.6% vs. Alabama; and 50.5% in total field goals and 84.6% of free throws vs. Florida), over the past three games, one would think that might mean more wins than losses. Yet, the opponents managed to get more shots off and convert more points off turnovers, and there went the ball game again, and again, and once again last night.
The timing of the losses couldn’t be worse. It was after the Kentucky win that the Aggies began (seemingly) to believe in themselves and realize their collective potential. The students had started to remember how to come to Reed Arena again, especially when it was only the faithful local townspeople dominating attendance in each game from Thanksgiving until Kentucky, to let the Aggies know they had (some) support.
But, suddenly there was hope and a goal in sight for the men’s inaugural year in the SEC to lead fans to believe they could compete and win with the team on the court (for now).
Writer Brent Zwerneman noted that yesterday’s game was a “pivotal game” for head coach Billy Kennedy, and simultaneously that he was “down to eight scholarship players, after guards Jamal Branch, Naji Hibbert and forwards Daniel Alexander and Keith Davis, all Turgeon recruits, have exited the program in the past year.”
Eight scholarship students means you have three spares after your five starters, and one of the walk-ons who became a scholarship student, Jarod Jahns, is seeing substantive playing time because, per Coach Kennedy in a recent Monday night radio broadcast at College Station’s Wings N’ More, “he’s playing because he doesn’t make mistakes and he doesn’t hurt us by being in the game.” Seriously. That’s an honest, yet chilling, assessment of the team that Kennedy inherited, whom he’s doing his best to shape into a cohesive, consistent unit on the court.
Ever since Texas A&M beat Kentucky on the road on Jan. 11, excitement for Aggie men’s basketball has, at last, started to emerge on campus, and more than 9,000 fans packed into Reed Arena for the SEC matchup when Florida came to town. It wasn’t the free white t-shirts that brought the fans to Reed Arena. Rather, it was the prospect of watching the instant offense of Elston Turner replay itself at home.
Yet, in the (now) three games since Kentucky, fans are still waiting for a repeat of the exciting unstoppable Elston to bring home the buckets. It’s like one of those high-speed internet connections that works great for a while, and then the signal gets interrupted and you lose all your work and you have to call the tech in to recover and get back to where you were.
Of course, the easiest defensive strategy of any opponent is simply to double-team Elston and then make the Aggies use their other shooters. Problem there is that the Aggies have some great players but they range from inconsistent to tentative to brilliant to jittery, and it’s a cakewalk to tie up the Aggies.
Turnovers and ball handling have been the biggest reasons for Aggie losses, when shot after shot never took place because they couldn’t hang on to the ball. Audiences have sometimes seen better ball handling from halftime performances by local elementary “stay and play” school kids, who practice hours every day to master the art of synchronization in passing. It’s not that the other teams are just that good. The Aggies are just that careless, presently. You have to wonder just what it is going to take until the mess is untangled.
The Aggies have had the best and most consistent play from freshmen Alex Caruso and J’Mychal Reese, as they continue to show maturity and intelligence most of the time. In fact, during the game against Florida, legendary Coach Bobby Knight, as a sports commentator, gave kudos for Caruso for his “smart play.” But they’re young, and some nights they play great defense and can’t make a bucket to save their life, and in another game, their shooting is on fire, while defenders can shoot right over them. That’s youth.
Another reason for the Aggies’ struggle is the inconsistency of Ray Turner, who in previous seasons was a solid count-on-me player, even if he was not getting all the looks; he could pass off and not lose the ball. Kourtney Roberson either is the master of rebounds or he’s cold as ice. His height and strength are the best assets of all under the basket, but still he’s working on finding his A-game. Andrew Young has really given 150%, when he’s in there, but he’ll also fail to make easy shots. Any error is a potential game-winner, especially when the Aggies have fallen in losses by less than 5 points in so many games.
Overall, the Aggies are relying on and looking primarily to the freshmen to carry the team on their shoulders, especially when no one else is bringing in buckets. Young Reese has all the potential in the world, and despite his 7 rebounds Wednesday night, his shooting was stupefyingly shaky.
Caruso makes a real impact on the team with each game; unfortunately, Wednesday night, his highest numbers were his personal fouls, despite getting 8 points. It’s horrific to think that Caruso was the third-highest scorer for tonight’s game with just 8 points, but it’s important to note that he has more hustle than any other player to hit the court for the Aggies in many years, showing flashed of inspired play that just isn’t being matched by his teammates. It’s hard to start a fire when you’re the only spark on the court.
So, lest the commentators, journalists, and die-hard fans start lamenting about this or that wrong move made by head coach Billy Kennedy, it might be time to remember that the only problem and solid enemy the Aggies have against winning is their own failure to remember what to do when, how, and which time. Kennedy has a great staff and they’re all working to build a brick house to rock Reed Arena, but there’s some cement that just hasn’t cured. The day these talented individuals figure out how to play as a real team, then the fans will do what local radio station call letters used to stand for: Watch The Aggies Win.
Next home game comes Sat., Jan. 26 at 5 pm when the Aggies host SEC rival Georgia. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports Network for those who can’t crowd their way back to Reed Arena. The old team motto, on fan t-shirts a few years back, was “Play smart, play hard, play together.” Maybe someone has a box of those left somewhere to remind the team. Tickets are available here.
There’s every reason to expect a win if the home fans will show up. Maybe this time there won’t be free t-shirts for the crowd, but the presence of the 12th Man could make a big difference to the Aggie warriors, who are now 2-3 in SEC play. The most consistent thing about Aggies, and their fans, is they never give up. For now, the team's theme song (performed live below by The Who) is "Who Are You?" We really want to know.