One of the biggest matchups of the weekend in the SEC is the game at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville between the Texas A&M Aggies and the Tennessee Volunteers.
This is a game that will go a long way in defining the way that both team’s seasons will transpire.
The Aggies have struggled in early conference play, going from the No. 5 team in America to unranked on the back of an 0-4 start in the conference, although it must be noted that injuries and suspensions have been very unkind to Texas A&M in the early part of their conference slate.
Billy Kennedy’s squad has also been very unlucky as of late, losing its last two games by one point apiece, including a long three-point buzzer beater for LSU’s Tremont Waters and an unfortunate break at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night against Kentucky.
The Volunteers, on the other hand, have bounced back from an 0-2 SEC start by winning their last two games over Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Tennessee has looked like one of the best teams in the SEC over the entire season, eclipsing its near-bottom consensus predictions in the preseason and securing a top-25 spot for the last six weeks, reaching as high at No. 19 in the nation.
Let’s look at players to watch, the keys to victory for both teams, and a score prediction for Saturday’s matchup.
Players to Watch
Grant Williams (Tennessee)
The Volunteers have had to lean heavily on the play of Williams this season, and he has broken out as one of the best players in the SEC in his sophomore campaign.
He ranks fourth in the SEC in points per game at 17.2, only behind Alabama’s Collin Sexton, Georgia’s Yante Maten, and Arkansas’s Jaylen Barford, as well as being in the top 15 in rebounding and top 10 in blocks.
Williams has been the go-to-man for the Vols, and that showed in the Vols’ win Tuesday over Vanderbilt, where Williams went for 37 points and seven rebounds in their eight-point win at Memorial Gymnasium.
If Williams has a solid performance, the Volunteers have a great chance to win most, if not all, of their conference games.
Admon Gilder (Texas A&M)
The Aggies haven’t won a conference game so far, and that partially has to do with the absence of Gilder from the first three games of conference play.
Gilder tore his meniscus in December, and just came back for the Kentucky game Tuesday night, where he had the second-highest point total on the team with 14 points.
Texas A&M is still working him back into the lineup fully, but for Gilder to be back so quickly from that injury is big for the Aggies’ future successes.
Throw in the injury to Duane Wilson and the Aggies will need an increase in guard production, which makes Gilder’s return that much more important to succeeding in conference play.
How Tennessee Can Win
The Volunteers will need great defensive performances from Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander against the three-big lineups that A&M employs, with Robert Williams, Tyler Davis, and Tony Trocha-Morelos.
Tennessee excels at two-point defense, ranking 61st in the country percentage-wise defensively, but the Aggies provide a unique challenge with their three seven-footers playing significant minutes.
If the Vols can find a way to slow down the Aggies’ frontline, they have a very good chance to control the flow of this matchup.
How Texas A&M Can Win
The Aggies need to cut down on their turnover numbers that have put them 14th in the conference since the beginning of conference play.
Texas A&M is averaging nearly 14 turnovers per game in its first four conference games, and while Tennessee is only an average team forcing turnovers (sixth in the conference in forced turnovers), the Aggies need to cut down on those forfeitures of the ball.
If they can control the ball and be efficient on offense in getting good looks from the floor, the Aggies can travel to Knoxville and pull out an upset victory over the Volunteers.
Tennessee and Texas A&M match up very interestingly on paper.
The Aggies are one of the tallest teams in the SEC, and the Vols are one of the shortest. But Tennessee plays bigger than it physical size would indicate.
The Aggies will be playing with their backs against the wall, trying to avoid an 0-5 start in conference play for the first time since 2003-04, when they went winless in Big 12 play.
This one will be a dogfight, but I’ll go with the Volunteers in a close game at home, simply because of recent performance by both teams.
Prediction: Tennessee 71, Texas A&M 69