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Tennessee at Texas A&M Preview

The young Vols open SEC play with another big and talented opponent.

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M vs Arizona Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

SEC Basketball kicks off tonight with the Vols at Texas A&M (7:00 PM ET on the SEC Network). Since Tennessee’s four overtime 2013 win in College Station the Vols haven’t beaten the Aggies, but all the games have been good ones: Antwan Space’d twice in 2014, great ball movement breaking down Donnie Tyndall’s squad 67-61 in 2015, and a painful late rally in Knoxville last year to erase a 13-point second half lead in a 92-88 A&M win.

This year’s Aggie squad has three close Pac 12 losses: two points to #22 USC, seven points to now-#2 UCLA on a neutral floor, four points to #18 Arizona. Texas A&M is also the only team to beat Virginia Tech so far this season.

What to watch for in the SEC opener:

  • Texas A&M is in the Top 50 nationally in FG% offense & defense and in the Top 25 in FG% offense & defense inside the arc. They’re good. A&M lost Danuel House, Jalen Jones, and Alex Caruso off last year’s Sweet 16 squad, and I think many assumed a return to the middle of the pack for Billy Kennedy’s team. Instead they brought in 6’9” freshman Robert Williams (10.9 points and 5.5 rebounds in 20.7 minutes) to join 6’10” Tyler Davis and 6’9” DJ Hogg on the front line, and they’ve been wrecking people inside the three point line. It’s another tall set of trees for the Vols to deal with, 28th in the nation in blocked shots. But they can’t shoot threes (31.9%) or free throws (62.3%, 331st of 351 teams).
  • Tennessee must continue to make the free throw line its friend. The Vols are shooting 75.5% from the charity stripe, 29th nationally and a tremendous ally of small scrappy freshmen. Hubbs, Phillips, Bowden, and Turner are all shooting at least 79% from the line; Jordan Bowden shoots 94%. But more than just solid shooting, Tennessee gets there a lot more than you’d expect from a team of 6’7” and under. The Vols are 49th nationally in free throw rate, going to the line on 42.2% of their shot attempts. It never jumps out at you, but it’s been a consistent factor in Tennessee’s best performances: 18 of 24 at the line against Oregon, 19 of 24 against Georgia Tech, 12 of 15 at North Carolina, 24 of 33 against Gonzaga. Tennessee’s 66.7% free throw shooting against ETSU was actually their worst performance of the year (which means Tennessee’s worst performance is better than Texas A&M’s average), but they still got to the stripe 27 times and made 18. Basketball tends to reward the aggressor, something the Vols have had no problem being against big, talented, experienced teams before despite their perceived disadvantages in those departments.
  • Who dictates pace of play? Tennessee is sixth in the SEC and 80th nationally in tempo. Texas A&M is dead last in the SEC and 340th nationally in tempo. Billy Ball tends to be much more deliberate, and we’ve seen great ball movement from Caruso and company pick apart solid defensive squads in the past. The Vols want to walk the right side of the line between fearless and reckless. Wisconsin is the only real comparison of this pace the Vols have seen thus far, and the Badgers dictated not only the tempo but the free throw battle: Tennessee shot just six free throws in the loss in Maui. The Vols must be patient defensively but do a better job attacking on the offensive end.

We might get to see Jordan Bone, who hasn’t played since that Wisconsin game. His presence won’t help Tennessee grow an inch or two, but could provide an extra offensive spark as he works his way back. The Vols are still getting between 8.4-10.3 points in 20.3-23.7 minutes from Williams, Mostella, Turner, Phillips, and Bowden behind Robert Hubbs’ 15.5 points per game. I really like the balance on this team so far. We’ll see what Bone adds to it and if it’s enough for Tennessee to steal a win to open SEC play.