After dispatching Lipscomb, though not without some struggle, UNC gears up to face Texas A&M this afternoon, who are sure to present a much more significant challenge. The Aggies outlasted the Providence Friars in a tight contest in the Round of 64, and since Providence isn’t very good this year, one could be forgiven for thinking that A&M isn’t much better.
That, however, would be incorrect. A&M is a very good team, and furthermore, exactly the kind of team that could give UNC fits in their quest to a third straight Final Four. Here’s why:
The Aggies are led by an imposing frontcourt consisting of junior center and First Team All-SEC player Tyler Davis and sophomore power forward, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and potential lottery pick Robert Williams. Together, the duo averages 25 points, 18 rebounds, and 4 blocks a game, and are a physically imposing presence under the rim on both ends of the floor. A&M, quite simply, goes as they go. They are the team’s most efficient offensive players, most vital defensive players, and get involved somehow in every possession. The Aggies look a lot like the kind of team that Roy Williams likes to field, at least in the front court. The duo is athletic, skilled, and big. It is extremely difficult to get them off their spot offensively or get rebounds over them, and they can, and often do, make life difficult for opposing guards and bigs alike. Williams and Davis make up, quite simply, one of the best starting frontcourts in the nation.
Why, then, is Texas A&M only (“only” being a relative term) a 7th seed? The answer is twofold. The first reason is that they lost a ton of games. After a stellar non-conference season where they went 11-1 with the loss coming to Arizona, they only managed to break even in the SEC, going 9-9. This record has no rhyme or reason to it; they beat teams such as Auburn and Kentucky right before losing to less heralded teams like Missouri and Arkansas. Their inability to win games commensurate with their talent level contributed to the relatively low seeding. The second reason is guard play. While T.J. Starks did make the SEC All-Freshman team, the Aggies’ guard play as a whole has been underwhelming this season; the team’s A:TO ratio is just 1.13 and the Aggies have just one player with an A:TO ratio of 2 or better. The team’s perimeter shooting isn’t very good, either. The team as a whole shoots just 32.8% from outside, and while they do have a couple of good shooters in Admon Gilder and D.J. Hogg, the rest of the team is pretty woeful from outside. They do defend the three-ball extremely well, holding opponents to a similar percentage from outside (though it should be said that they do allow a lot of attempts, which some will tell you is a better measure of three-point defense).
With the combination of that and Williams’ presence on the interior, Texas A&M is a formidable defensive team. Their opponents’ field goal percentage is the 17th lowest in the nation, they rank 6th in the country in blocked shots, and they are Kenpom’s 12th-rated defensive team, playing, no less, at a decent tempo. They are not, however, a disruptive defense, forcing relatively few turnovers. Playing the Aggies means maximizing your opportunities more than it does playing safe basketball, as may be the case with other elite defensive teams.
It seems fairly straightforward what UNC has to do. On offense, initial penetration will be shut down. UNC’s guards will need to keep their eyes up and get defenders out of position with penetration and passing, whether that be a kick out or a drop-off to the weak side. The bigs will need to compete for rebounds, of course, but it will be vital that they involve themselves in the offense in other ways, primarily screening and getting the frontcourt away from the rim. On defense, UNC has not shown the ability to guard elite big men one-on-one this season. The post should be doubled early and often, and with the exception of the two shooters, leaving most of A&M’s guards slightly open should not be a major concern. This is a tough matchup for UNC, but one they can win based on their superior talent and particularly guard play. Whatever happens, it’ll be fun to watch.