Missouri hosts defensive-minded Texas A&M

COLUMBIA, Mo. — It could get a little ugly tonight at Mizzou Arena. Regardless of whether Missouri wins or loses.

That’s because the Texas A&M Aggies (17-12, 8-8 Southeastern Conference) are coming to town for a 7 p.m. tipoff (no local TV). A former Big 12 rival of Missouri (20-9, 8-8 SEC), the Aggies don’t exactly play the most exciting brand of basketball.

Texas A&M averages just 64.9 points per game, a figure that ranks 310th out of 351 teams in the nation. The Aggies hang their hats on the defensive end, allowing just 62.5 points per game, good for 26th in the country and second in the SEC behind Florida’s 58.7 ppg.

Texas A&M likes to suck the air out of the basketball, playing at a very deliberate pace. The Aggies are one of the 50 slowest teams in the nation when it comes to tempo.

“It’s a team you have to have great patience on both ends to play against,” Missouri head coach Frank Haith said. “But we still have to do what we are. I mentioned that prior to our game against Mississippi State. We had gotten away from being who we are. So what comes with that is us getting stops and playing in transition and still executing but not forcing things when they do a good job of getting back. If they don’t, then we’ll take advantage of that.”

So what makes Texas A&M such a good defensive team?

It starts with the Aggies’ work defending the 3-point line. They allow opponents to make just 29.2 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc, the ninth-best mark in the country. Teams don’t have much more success inside, as foes shoot just 46.4 percent from 2-point range.

“I see a team that plays very physical,” Haith said. “They defend, they play hard.”

The offensive end leaves a little something to be desired, however. Only one Aggie — Jamal Jones — averages double figures. The 6-foot-8 junior guard tosses in 12.9 ppg. Kourtney Roberson, a 6-foot-9 junior forward is next at 9.7 ppg. He also averages 6.7 rebounds per contest. Alex Caruso adds 8.4 ppg, but dishes out nearly five assists per game.

“Caruso’s an outstanding playmaker, he’s a facilitator,” Haith said. “Jamal Jones is a really good scorer.”

Missouri’s numbers aren’t quite as polarizing, as the Tigers score 74.6 ppg (80th) and allow 69.3 ppg (147th).

“You have to be ready to guard for 35 seconds on the defensive end of the floor,” Haith said. “… We don’t want them to make baskets in our building. Their ball-screen offense is pretty good and you have to defend it. We have to do a good job on the defensive end. We’ve had some struggles there as of late. We’ve got to do a good job defending those guys.”

Jabari Brown paces Missouri’s offensive attack with an SEC-leading 20.1 ppg. Add in Jordan Clarkson’s 18.4 ppg, the junior duo can boast being the top scoring tandem in NCAA Division I.

“One of the better teams in the league,” Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy said. “Jabari Brown’s having an outstanding season.”

Earnest Ross, one of two Missouri seniors along with Tony Criswell, adds 14.2 ppg. The pair will be honored for Senior Night tonight.

“Senior Nights are what they are,” Haith said. “You want to try to control the emotions, and I think he and Tony both, their last time lacing them up in this building is a special moment. But also one from an emotional standpoint you want to make sure your guys understand what the game is all about. Both guys have had great contributions during their time here. Both guys will graduate, we’re excited about that.

“Our focus right now is that this is a big game for us. We want to treat it as being a big game.”

Ross is in his second season at Missouri after transferring from Auburn. Criswell, a junior-college transfer, is also in his second year with the Tigers.

“You can’t live these moments twice,” Ross said. “I’m definitely going to live in the present (today) and have fun and play the game.

“I’ve been here longer than I’ve been at Auburn. Just leaving here is going to be a sentimental spot in my heart. I’m just enjoying the moment now. I’m happy to get a degree from here. That’s what I’m really excited about. Coming to Mizzou is something I’ve really enjoyed.”

Missouri and Texas A&M are tied for sixth in the SEC, with both teams having a shot to earn a top-four spot and a first-round bye in next week’s SEC Tournament.

Tonight’s game is of more importance to Missouri, as the Tigers are on the proverbial bubble for the NCAA Tournament. Texas A&M isn’t in the conversation.

“We’ve got to win games,” Haith said. “We can control our own destiny. We’ve got two big games this week. There’s games to be played and we have to take care of business if we want to play in the NCAA Tournament.”

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