If you haven’t heard, Penn State is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011. The Lions will face SEC foe Texas A&M in the first round. We asked the fine folks at Good Bull Hunting to give us a preview of their team, and of course, asked them to pick a winner. Here are their thoughts.
How do you feel about being the 7-seed after finishing 2nd in the SEC?
On one hand, it’s just exciting to be in the tournament again after a four year drought. COVID really put a damper on Buzz’s efforts to rebuild Aggie basketball, but we’re finally getting the on-court performance that we hoped for when he was hired. On the other hand, it’s definitely a disappointment to get a seven seed after finishing second in an 8-bid conference in both the regular season and conference tournament. Most Aggies (and many independent observers) feel like A&M deserved a better reward for a solid season than to start out with a hot Penn State and one of the most competitive first round matchups in the bracket.
Do you believe the seeding has anything to do with last year’s public remarks about being left out of the tournament?
While the committee will insist that the seeding has more to do with A&M’s two Quad 4 losses (Murray State on a neutral site and Wofford at home), I think there were certainly other factors at play. Joe Lunardi is very plugged into the selection committee and has repeatedly said to multiple outlets that certain members with long memories didn’t appreciate Buzz Williams publicly calling them out for the lack of transparency. If you look at the numbers, Texas A&M finished 19th nationally in the NCAA’s own NET rating, and that NET rating certainly factors in those Quad 4 losses. So if you look at an algorithm that slots a team for a 5 seed and they end up with a 7 seed, you certainly have to think there are other factors that contributed.
Non-con A&M and conference A&M were two different teams. What changed in conference play?
I think you can attribute the change to four key things:
First, Buzz shortened the rotation to 8 guys. One of the big keys to success last year for the Aggies was a deep 11 or 12 man rotation that allowed them to play with extremely high defensive intensity. This led to hockey or lacrosse style line changes with guys constantly coming in and out. That carried over to the beginning of this year, and I think it was hard for a lot of guys to find a rhythm in that system. So when he went to a more traditional rotation, that allowed guys to settle into the rhythm of the game, especially on the offensive end.
Second, the coaching staff modified the defensive approach a bit to dial back the ball-side pressure, allowing the backside rotations to be more effective in closing out shooters. Opponents were getting a lot of open looks when reversing the ball because A&M’s defensive rotations were a step or two late. Releasing some of that ball side pressure gave backside defenders better positioning to play the ball reversal.
Third, the newcomers adapted and started contributing in a more substantial way. Buzz is a guy who demands that you adopt his system. You can play with your style, but you have to do it in his system and that takes time. Wichita State transfer Dexter Dennis was an impact player from day 1, but he certainly got more comfortable with his offensive role around Christmas time. Michigan State transfer Julius Marble started making his presence known on the offensive end, and Andersson Garcia emerged as the glue guy who made a lot of the gritty hustle plays. Freshman Solomon Washington also proved to be a reliable presence who could spell your
Finally, they started using Wade Taylor more as an off ball guard and letting Tyrece “Boots” Radford and the other guards run the point more. This got more guys involved in the offense and freed Wade to attack from different positions on the floor.
How do you see A&M’s style match up with how Penn State likes to play?
A&M is going to do what they do defensively, and that won’t change. You’ll get a token 1-2-2 full court press as Penn State brings the ball up to shorten the shot clock. Then the Aggies are going to jump back to man most of the time in the halfcourt set with an occasional trap on your perimeter guards. They’re going to double in the post on the entry pass, and they’re going to use defensive rotation to shut down dribble penetration, setting up to take the charge if you look to attack the rim. On the kick-out/rotation, it’s anticipating the pass and looking for the steal, then closing out the shooter and getting a hand in their face to prevent the open look.
On offense, A&M is best when they’re attacking the rim. Penn State social media will probably swear that the refs hate them after this one because A&M draws a lot of foul calls. The Ags lead the country in free throw attempts and free throws made per game. The thing I worry about offensively is that if Penn State gets hot from deep, A&M will occasionally lose their focus and start bombing away from three to try to keep pace. The Aggies are serviceable from deep, good enough to keep you honest, but they’re not a three point shooting team. A&M is typically good for about 6 makes a game, so things are usually optimized when they keep it to about 16 attempts per game. The other thing you’ll see from A&M is offensive rebounding, and I expect the Aggies to crash the glass hard against the Nittany Lions looking for tip outs and second chance points.
Who should we be looking out for in the game?
Wade Taylor IV is the obvious starting point as he’s the straw that stirs the drink. He’s a first team All-SEC, honorable mention All-American sophomore point guard who has good range from deep, a lethal floater inside 10 feet, and led the conference in free throw percentage. He’s got a tremendous basketball IQ, and you’re going to be frustrated when he slams on the brakes in transition to get run over by one of your defenders and draw a dumb foul. He’s great at attacking the rim and can also dish the ball out. He can be a bit prone to turnovers, but I don’t think that will be as much of a problem against Penn State.
The other guys I expect to be a factor in this one are the Aggie bigs, Henry Coleman, Julius Marble, and Andy Garcia. Marble is your traditional back-to-the-basket big man who also has a nice mid-range game. Coleman is more of a slippery, face-the-bucket player who will slip a screen or slide around a defensive rotation to get and easy bucket on the back side. Garcia isn’t as big of a scoring factor, but he loves to crash the offensive glass, and he’s become exceptional at tipping rebounds out to his guards.
Last but not least, how do you see this one playing out?
A&M will use their defense to slow down the Nittany Lions and take advantage of their size on the offensive end, opening up a lead in the first half and be up by about 6-10 points at the break. Penn State will make adjustments, get hot in the second half, and they’ll be within a possession with five minutes remaining. The Aggies will use their defense to grind the game down in the final minutes, and attack the paint to get to the free throw line on the offensive end. The free throws will be key for A&M down the stretch, and they’ll win by a couple possessions, something like 72-67.
Thanks to the fine folks and Good Bull Hunting. If you’d like to see our answers to their burning questions, feel free to check out the blog and find out!