After playing their best stretch of basketball of the season, the Wildcats came back crashing down to earth this past weekend in Tuscaloosa. Thanks to some hot perimeter shooting and impressive work on the glass, Alabama defeated Kentucky for the first time in the Avery Johnson era. Next up is a program that has had a lot of success against Kentucky since joining the league.
Texas A&M will visit Rupp Arena for just the sixth time ever tonight. SEC Network will be on the call for the first Tuesday night conference action of the season. We’ll see if UK can bounce back quickly to pick up their first conference dub of the 2019 calendar.
Nuts and Bolts
Billy Kennedy is now in his eighth season running the program in College Station and seven of those years have been in the SEC. Prior to his arrival, the Aggies hadn’t won a conference title since 1986 and had only made it to the Sweet 16 four times. Under the former Murray State head coach, the Aggies have made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament twice and won the SEC regular season title in 2016.
After getting the Aggies to the Sweet 16 last season, A&M is off to a very rough start this year. A&M will enter tonight with a 6-6 record and this is shaping up to be Kennedy’s second losing season in College Station. He could be approaching hot seat territory.
Under Kennedy, the Aggies love to throw the ball inside. They play at a plodding pace on offense. On the other end, Billy Kennedy likes to mix it up. The Aggies will play man to go along with multiple zone defenses. Offensively, they play a very similar style to Kentucky but they really like to junk it up on defense.
It’s been a really rough start to the season for the Aggies. Texas A&M has played four top-60 teams in KenPom and have lost each game. A&M has embarrassing losses to UC Irvine and Texas Southern with zero quality wins to even them out. They will very likely be playing on Wednesday night at the SEC Tournament.
Tonight will be the 14th meeting between the two programs with Kentucky currently owning a 9-4 lead. Since the Aggies joined the SEC, this series has been very closely contested. The Aggies have only won three of the 1o meetings since this time, but six of these contests have been decided by single-digits. The Aggies are 2-5 all-time in Lexington.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 12.5 point favorite with a total of 146.5. That’s a projected final score of 79.5-67. On the season, Kentucky is 6-7 against the spread while Texas A&M is 4-8 against the number. This will be A&M’s second true road game of the season. Kentucky is 4-4 against the spread as a home favorite this season.
Due to an exodus of talent from last year’s Sweet 16 team, it was clear that the Aggies were going to be very dependent on their backcourt. Then in November, the Aggies were dealt a big blow when it was announced that senior point guard Admon Gilder would miss the entire season. A thin roster was made even thinner just as the season was starting. Therefore, a lot of pressure was put on their sophomore lead guard.
TJ Starks started 15 games last season and was a member of the All-SEC Freshman Team. Expectations were high for the Dallas native following his 19 points in the Round of 32 upset over North Carolina. So far this season it has been a struggle for the young guard.
Starks leads the team in assists and is putting up over 14 points per game. However, the point guard has been woefully inefficient. He’s shooting less than 38 percent from the field and just 25 percent from deep. The Aggies are 12 games into the season and it appears Starks is suffering a sophomore slump. He’s having to carry a lot of weight for this basketball team.
To bolster the roster, Billy Kennedy hit the junior college ranks and added Wendell Mitchell to the squad. The Rockdale, Texas native is a combo guard that is also really struggling from the field. The junior is knocking in shots at just a 32.9 percent clip. It’s been ugly.
Jay Jay Chandler was a four-star prospect coming out of high school and he was suppose to be the guy right away for the Aggies once he showed up on campus. That hasn’t been the case, but he’s emerged into a quality player this season. The 6-foot-4 off guard is also shooting below 40 percent and is not a threat at all from three.
There is really only one reliable shooter on the team and that is junior college transfer Brandon Mahan. The 6-foot-5 guard plays a lot at the three for the Aggies and he’s their only true floor spacer. The Alabama native is hitting nearly 40 percent from three and he will be a guy UK must be aware of.
Savion Flagg was another significant recruiting win for Billy Kennedy following a senior season that saw him put up over 31 points per game at Alvin High School in Texas. After playing sparingly last year during his freshman season, the wing has developed into a go-to guy in 2018-19.
The sophomore leads the team in minutes and is second in scoring. He’s hitting half of his attempted shots despite just shooting 25 percent from deep. The wing leads the team in rebounding at over eight boards per game. He’s been A&M’s best player this season.
At the five, Christian Mekowulu is a transfer from Tennessee State and he’s started all 12 games in the post. The Nigeria native is third on the team in scoring and has been very effective when give opportunities. At 6-foot-8 he can play like a stretch big at times and has a good looking stroke from deep. He is excellent on the offensive glass and will be someone UK must pay attention to on the defensive end.
Josh Nebo is the only other A&M big and the Houston native is a large dude. At 6-foot-8 and 242 pounds, Nebo is one of the few players in the SEC that will be able to matchup physically with Reid Travis. Nebo is A&M’s best rebounder and he should see a lot of minutes tonight.
Keys to Victory
- Texas A&M is a basketball team that is really struggling with confidence. The Aggies are very young and appear well on their way to a losing season. Coming off a devastating home loss to Arkansas, they could be coming to Lexington with their tail between their legs. Therefore, the start could tell the tale. If UK comes out of the gates fast this one could get ugly very quickly.
- After being beaten on the glass in the loss to Alabama, Kentucky must get back to their identity in their SEC home opener. The Aggies give up a ton of offensive rebounds. The Cats should have a field day on the glass. Look for all of UK’s bigs to pitch in with some second chance points.
- After a very good stretch, UK’s perimeter defense was exposed in Tuscaloosa. The Tide caught fire from three and that was a big reason they pulled off the upset. Facing one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country, Kentucky must get back on track tonight.
- After an impressive run, Kentucky was just not ready for max out effort this past Saturday. After most of the team got their first taste of conference play, they should be more ready to go now. Bouncing back and playing with great effort would be a great sign for a young team. It would show that they’re learning from their mistakes.