On Tuesday night, Kentucky beat Texas A&M 74-73 in a hotly contested game at Rupp Arena. Admittedly, that isn’t news to anyone reading this. What was news (at least to me anyway) is how little folks seemed to care about the win. Outside of a few savvy Kentucky and A&M fans, most reacted with apathy.
Sure, Kentucky won at home. But it came against a reeling Aggies club which entered the game coming off a three-game SEC losing streak. Meaning that (according to my very awful math) when the final buzzer sounded at Rupp Arena, Texas A&M fell to 0-4 in league player. Therefore, it felt like just about everyone in the national media (with the exception of a select few) brushed off Kentucky’s victory as if it were a November win over Coastal Carolina or something. It hardly made a blip on the radar. And the few that did reference it, made light of Kentucky playing a close game against an 0-4 SEC team more than anything else.
Fortunately, I’m not most national media members (and not just because I’m handsomer than them all). I know just how tough the circumstances were Tuesday night at Rupp Arena, and know— despite what their record might indicate — how good Texas A&M is.
Yes, Kentucky has things to work on (including free throw shooting, turnovers late and a disappointing defensive effort for part of the second half). But make no mistake, this was an important win. And should resonate come March.
So why was this win more impressive than most realize? Here are six reasons why.
Texas A&M is WAY better than anybody realizes
Ultimately, this was my biggest gripe with the reaction to this game. As soon as the game went final, you wouldn’t believe how many national media members — you know, guys and gals whose JOB IT IS TO KNOW THIS SPORT — seemed to brush it off and say “How good can Texas A&M be? They’re 0-4 in league play!”
Well dummy, they’re really good. Don’t let the record fool you.
The simple truth is that when Texas A&M has been at or near full-strength they have been pretty much unbeatable. Like, for example, when they beat West Virginia by 23 points back on opening night. Yes, that’s the same West Virginia team that is currently ranked No. 2 in the country and hasn’t lost in over two months since that game. And by the way, Texas A&M wasn’t really at full-strength that game, since star forward Robert Williams and point guard J.J. Caldwell were actually suspended. For the record, the Aggies also beat USC on the road, and their only loss in the out of conference was against Arizona in Phoenix. Not bad if I do say so myself.
So why has this same Aggies team struggled so much in league play? Well, anyone who has done their homework knows that this program has been besieged with injuries, suspensions and illness. Second-leading scorer D.J. Hogg was suspended the first two games in league play. Third-leading scorer Admon Gilder missed the Aggies’ first three SEC games with a knee injury. Fourth-leading scorer Duane Wilson (who leads the team in assists) has missed the last two games with his own injury. Williams missed the LSU game Saturday with the flu.
So add it all up, and of course Texas A&M has struggled! Up until last night at Rupp Arena, they were missing at least two starters for every league game so far, and for both Florida and LSU they were missing three. What were they supposed to do? Run the table? No team in college basketball can stay afloat when they’re missing 2-3 starters in league play.
Therefore, Tuesday also marked the first time that Texas A&M had anything close to a full roster in SEC play (only Wilson was out) and you saw exactly how good this team can be — Texas A&M has the size, athleticism, shooting and toughness to play with just about anybody.
Believe me, they will be just fine going forward. And they will dangerous as you-know-what come March.
By the way, I still believe in Texas A&M. They're still really good, and will get over this hump. They'll definitely end up as that under-seeded No. 10 seed that beats Virginia by 30 in the 2nd round and no one will be surprised
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) January 10, 2018
Kentucky was short-handed too
As if it wasn’t enough to be facing a Texas A&M team which was relatively healthy for the first time in weeks, the Wildcats themselves were limping into this one. You don’t need me to tell you, but Kentucky was unexpectedly without Quade Green, which in addition to Jarred Vanderbilt, Jemarl Baker and Tai Wynyard meant they were down four rotation players and had just seven scholarship players Tuesday night. It got so bad that Brad Calipari was forced into the first meaningful minutes of his career.
Therefore, how could this NOT be seen as a good win for Kentucky? They were playing a team which was talented enough to be in the Top 15 nationally in the preseason, one which absolutely had their backs against the wall after starting 0-3 in league play, and the Wildcats had to take the court without several key pieces including their starting point guard. Even if I personally am overrating to Texas A&M’s talent a little bit (which I’m not) those are insane circumstances. And Kentucky still came out with a win.
Remember, Arizona basically played this same Texas A&M team in Arizona and it came down to the last minute before they pulled out a win. Kentucky did the same, only without their starting point guard.
Don’t sleep on how impressive this is.
Kentucky got the victory on a night when Wenyen Gabriel didn’t play well
If you’ve been reading my articles here at KSR, you know I have a bit of a growing man-crush on Gabriel. Looking at the box scores doesn’t do justice to how important this kid is, and you have to watch the games to feel his impact. Like when he hit a big three against Georgia late, or grabbed a massive offensive rebound to give Kentucky an extra possession late against LSU. Heck, even in Saturday’s loss Gabriel was awesome, tallying 11 points off the bench in limited minutes.
Therefore, it’s nothing but a good sign that the Wildcats won against Texas A&M without one of their key reserves really doing much of anything. On the night, he had just three points on 1 of 5 shooting from the field, and zero points in the second half.
Despite it, despite the fact that they got minimal contributions from their bench (on a night their bench was already short-handed) they still got the win.
Kevin Knox finally got back on track
This doesn’t really have to do with the Texas A&M game specifically, but it is an important point: For Kentucky to have any success going forward this season they needed to get Kevin Knox back on track. And thankfully, they did Tuesday night.
After not breaking double-figures in three of the last four games (including a miserable five-point, 1 for 9 shooting performance against Tennessee Saturday), Knox was dynamite. He finished with 15 points against Texas A&M Tuesday, including 5-5 shooting from the field and 2-2 shooting from behind the arc.
It’s no secret that for Kentucky to reach its potential this year, their best player needs to reach his as well. And that’s exactly what Knox did against the Aggies.
It was another banner night for P.J. Washington and Shai Alexander:
Again, this is another thing that wasn’t necessarily about last night specifically, but will be important none the less: Kentucky got another monster performance from their dynamic duo of P.J. Washington and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (by the way, who ever thought we’d say that phrase a couple weeks ago??).
Washington was again a warrior down low, finishing with 18 points total, while Gilgeous-Alexander once again loaded up the stat sheet, with 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Even better — as I’ve emphasized a few times now — he did it on an uber-efficient 6 of 10 from the field, with zero three-point attempts. And really that’s the best part about Gilgeous-Alexander’s rise: Not only is he playing well, but he is playing within himself.
By the way, one last note on Gilgeous-Alexander. I watch as much SEC basketball as anyone, and I’m really beginning to wonder one thing: When are we going to start talking about him as SEC Player of the Year? Its early, it sounds crazy, and there are certainly other worthy candidates (Georgia’s Yante Maten, Florida’s Chris Chiozza) but it’s hard to think of a single guy who has had a bigger impact than Gilgeous-Alexander since league play started.
It’s also crazy to think where Kentucky would be without him right now.
They did it on a night when a whole lot went wrong
And finally, let’s talk about the bigger picture of it all. I’ve said it a bunch but it’s worth repeating here: Kentucky beat a good Texas A&M club when they were woefully short-handed at home. And you want to know the wild part? The Wildcats didn’t play their best basketball. Not anything close.
On the night, the Wildcats gave up too many easy baskets (if you want to look for a concerning trend, how about how many easy lay-ups opponents are getting off out of bounds plays?) and where they were abysmal from the free throw line. They went just 22 of 34 from the charity stripe (64.7 percent), including three big misses down the stretch. Speaking of “down the stretch” well, that final minute or two was brutal. After taking a 70-67 lead with 1:45 left, Kentucky proceeded to turn the ball over three times, commit three fouls, miss three free throws and still managed to win the game.
Now admittedly, part of that was due to Texas A&M’s blunders, and part of it is the simple fact that this team has a LOT to work on.
At the same time, no one will remember any of that in March on Selection Sunday.
All they’ll remember is that Kentucky got the win.
A win that was more impressive than most folks realize.