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NCAA hoops: A&M may be hitting its stride; UT struggles

Billy Kennedy and the Aggies are heating up. Getty Images

TEXAS LONGHORNS (15-10, 5-7 BIG XII)

Last week (0-2): L-Kansas State 67-64, L-@ TCU 87-71

This week: Monday vs. Baylor, Saturday @ Oklahoma

Things couldn’t have gone much worse for Texas than they did last week. First, they lost a tight game at home to Kansas State, 67-64. Kansas State shot 54% from the field, and pulled out the win despite the Horns having a +10 rebounding edge. Texas struggled from distance, shooting 8 of 29 from 3-point range. Mohamed Bamba led Texas with 18 points and 12 rebounds in the loss, but struggled to get anything in the second half. There was no tight game on Saturday, as TCU crushed the Longhorns 87-71 in a game that never even felt close. This time the Horns allowed TCU to go 55% from the field. Texas lost the rebounding battle (-11) and the turnover battle (-5) in the loss. Bamba again shined on offense, adding 23 points, but five rebounds from their big man was disappointing. Dylan Osetkowski and Kerwin Roach, who were key performers earlier in the season, combined to go 3-13 from the field after both had shaky performances in the Kansas State game. Texas is now in a position where they desperately need to pick up wins this week, as they host Baylor on Monday and travel to Oklahoma on Saturday. 

TEXAS A&M AGGIES (17-8, 6-6 SEC)

Last week (2-0): W-@ Auburn 81-80, W- Kentucky 85-74

This week: Tuesday @ Missouri, Saturday @ Arkansas

Don’t look now, but Texas A&M is starting to live up to its potential. The Aggies had a phenomenal week, starting with an 81-80 win at No. 8 ranked Auburn. Freshman TJ Starks, now solidified as a starter, put up 23 points on 8-12 shooting, including 4-5 from 3-point range. Senior Duane Wilson sealed the game making 1 of his 2 free throws with just over three seconds left in the game. The Aggies used their size advantage nicely, outrebounding the Tigers 33-22. The Aggies returned home on Saturday, and a strong second half got them an 85-74 win over Kentucky. Starks led the team again with 17, but all five starters were in double digits. The Aggies, who started conference play 0-5, have worked their way back to 6-6 and have a favorable schedule the rest of the way. This week they will be on the road, first at Missouri on Tuesday and then Arkansas on Saturday. 

HOUSTON COUGARS (19-5, 9-3 AAC) 

Last week (2-0): W-SMU 67-58, W-Tulane 73-42

This week: Thursday vs. Cincinnati, Sunday @ Temple

Houston may have sealed a tournament bid with two strong showings last week. First, they took out SMU 67-58, fueled by a 17-1 run to finish the game. Armoni Brooks led the way for the Cougars, scoring 23 points and collecting 10 rebounds. All of his shots came from beyond the arc. The Coogs also out-rebounded the Mustangs 36-26 in the win. They finished the week with a 73-42 drubbing of Tulane, avenging a head-scratching loss from January. Houston held the Green Wave to 29% shooting from the field, and forced 16 turnovers while only giving away 8. Senior Devin Davis led the Cougars with 16 points, and Brooks added a double-double with 11 points and 11 boards. Houston starts the week with Cincinnati, who is 12-0 in conference play and hasn’t lost since early December. On Sunday the Coogs travel to Temple. 

RICE OWLS (5-20,  2-10 CUSA)

Last week (0-2): L-@ Middle Tennessee 94-75, L-@ UAB 61-56

This week: Thursday @ Middle Tennessee, Saturday vs. UAB

It was another rough week for the Owls, and at this point they probably can’t wait for the season to end. They started the week on the business end of a 94-75 drubbing by conference-leading Middle Tennessee. Offense wasn’t the problem for the Owls, as Connor Cashaw led a group of four double-digit scorers with his 18. Middle Tennessee had their way on the other end, shooting 15-32 from 3, and 52% from the field overall. Rice showed a little more fight in their weekend matchup against UAB, and in fact had a 2nd half lead before falling 61-56. Bishop Mency and Ako Adams both had 15 points in the loss. The Owls struggled from the field against UAB, shooting under 35%. Things may not get any better in the week to come, with home games against Marshall and Western Kentucky, who currently sit at 4th place and 2nd place in the conference. 

BAYLOR BEARS (15-10, 5-7 BIG XII)

Last week (2-0): W-@ Oklahoma State 67-56, W-Kansas 80-64

This week: Monday @ Texas, Saturday vs. Texas Tech

Baylor had a massive week. They worked their way out of the Big XII basement, and finally got their first road win of the season, a 67-56 win over Oklahoma State. Manu Lecomte led the Bears with 18 points. Baylor shot 54% from the field and hit all nine of their free throw attempts. They held the Cowboys to 37% shooting for the game. The Bears followed that up with their best win of the season, an 80-64 thrashing of 10th ranked Kansas. The Bears held the Jayhawks to 20 points in the first half, and never looked back. Jo Lual-Acuil led the Bears with 19 points in the win. Lecomte added 18 and 6 assists. The Bears shot 53% from 3-point range in the win. Baylor will look to stay hot with a short road-trip to Texas on Monday and a Saturday matchup with the conference-leading Texas Tech Red Raiders.

TCU HORNED FROGS (17-8, 5-7 BIG XII)

Last week (1-1): L-@ Kansas 71-64, W-Texas 87-71

This week: Monday @ West Virginia, Saturday vs. Oklahoma State

The Horned Frogs came oh-so close to picking up a massive road win against Kansas, but eventually fell 71-64. It was a 2-point game with 4 minutes left to play, when TCU went on a 3 minute scoring drought. Freshman Kouat Noi led the Frogs with 17 points in the loss. TCU could have used a better showing from the free throw line, as they made only 8 of their 15 attempts. The Frogs righted the ship back at home against a Texas team that looked lazy and slow, taking an 87-71 win over the Longhorns. Vladimir Broadzianksy led the effort with 25 points for the Frogs. Noi added 18 to the cause. TCU shot 55% from the field and 50% from 3 in the victory. This will be a key week for TCU’s tournament hopes, as they travel to West Virginia in pursuit of their first road win over a ranked opponent in nearly 20 years. They close out the week with a home game against Oklahoma State.

TEXAS TECH RED RAIDERS (21-4, 9-3 BIG XII)

Last week (2-0): W-Iowa State 76-58, W-@ Kansas State 66-47

This week: Tuesday vs. Oklahoma, Saturday @ Baylor

While the rest of the Big XII’s top teams struggled with opponents they should have beat, the Red Raiders took care of business this week. They started with a 76-58 drubbing of Iowa State. Tech, which has struggled to find offense from players outside of Keenan Evans, got plenty out freshmen Zhaire Smith (21 points) and Jarrett Culver (16 points) in the win. The victory ensured that Chris Beard’s squad would be the first team in conference to hit the 20-win mark. They kept the momentum going on the road, taking a 66-47 win over Kansas State, and locking up sole possession of 1st place in the conference. The game was tied at half, but Tech turned up the defense in the 2nd half to pull away. The Red Raiders forced 18 turnovers and held the Wildcats to 29% shooting on the night. They will look to extend their 6-game winning streak against Oklahoma on Tuesday, before a weekend road trip to Baylor. 

SMU MUSTANGS (15-10, 5-7 AAC)

Last week (0-2): L-@ Houston 67-58, L-Cincinnati 76-51

This week: Wednesday vs. Memphis, Sunday @ UCF

What once looked like a promising season for SMU has turned ugly recently as the Mustangs have played without their two leading scorers. They dropped both games this week, starting with a 67-58 loss at Houston. The Ponies were dominated on the glass (-10) and went scoreless in the last 2:41 of the game as they let the Cougars come back and finish the game on a 13-1 run. Jahmal McMurray had 17 points to lead SMU in the loss. The Mustangs then got dominated at home against AAC-leading Cincinnati, 76-51, in their biggest blowout loss since joining the AAC 5 years ago. The Bearcats didn’t need a late run to get a comeback win, as they dominated from tip to buzzer. McMurray and Jimmy Whitt put up 19 points a piece, but the other 5 Mustangs that logged minutes combined for only 13 in the loss. With the key injuries stacking up and still on a scholarship restriction, the Mustangs chances at a 2nd straight NCAA berth are looking pretty grim right now. 

LSU TIGERS (14-10, 5-7 SEC)

Last week (1-1): L-@ Florida 73-64, W-Ole Miss 82-66

This week: Tuesday @ Alabama, Saturday vs. Missouri

LSU continued their road struggles, falling 73-64 to Florida last week for their fourth straight loss away from home. The Tigers actually had a halftime lead, but Florida responded with a strong 2nd half, finishing the game with 12-3 run. Brandon Sampson led LSU with 17 points. Tremont Waters struggled mightily, going 3 of 15 from the field and 1 of 9 from 3-point distance. He also turned the ball over 7 times in the loss. The Tigers responded nicely against Ole Miss, dominating the Rebels 82-66. The game was tied at half, but Duop Reath was an unstoppable force for the Tigers. Reath scored 26 points on 10-12 shooting. Skylar Mays added 17 in the win. The Tigers will look to stop their road woes on Tuesday in Alabama before returning home on Saturday for a matchup with Missouri. 

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Tucker looks like the real deal. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Kyle Tucker finally had his breakout season in 2020. The 23-year-old flashed potential to be a legitimate five-tool threat. He slashed .268/.325/.512, swiped eight bags, and played above average defense. Is Tucker's performance sustainable? Not only that, but is there room for growth?

Hard Hit % - 44.5%

Barrel % - 9.1%

K % - 20.2%

BB % - 7.9%
Chase % - 26.2%

The first thing to realize with Kyle Tucker is the small sample size at the MLB level. Despite appearing in three separate seasons, he's played in a total of 108 games, which is obviously quite a bit shy of even one full season. He also has an extremely unique swing that you wouldn't teach to anybody, but it "works" for him. This makes him a tough hitter to judge, as it's uncomfortable judging mechanics that work for him, and it's uncomfortable judging numbers that haven't had time to develop trends.

Hard Hit, Barrel, and Chase numbers are unavailable for the minors, but walk and strikeouts percentages are. This creates the ability to at least look at one trend.

Tucker broke onto the scene in 2018 with a monstrous season for AAA Fresno, the Astros affiliate at the time. In 2018, Tucker slashed .332/.400/.590 with 24 homers and 20 steals. He had an 18.1% K% and a 10.3% BB% that season. In 2019, Tucker struck out a little bit more (21.6%) but also walked a little bit more (11.2%). Tucker's 20.2% K% in 2020 is more in line with his minor league K%, indicating he's adjusted to major league pitching.

Tucker essentially put the pieces of contact ability and quality of contact from his previous MLB stints together in 2020. In 2018, Tucker didn't strike out very much (18.1% K%), but his 3.9% Barrel % didn't strike fear in any opponent.

In 2019, Tucker had a 12.8% Barrel %, and his 92 MPH average exit velocity is the best of his three seasons in MLB, but he struck out 27.8% of the time and walked just 5.6% of the time.

In 2020, there's a marriage between the two. His K% and BB% aren't as good as his 2018 marks, but they're better than his 2019 marks. His exit velocity and Barrel % aren't as good as his 2019 marks, but they're better than his 2018 marks. Tucker became a hitter that was able to do more damage without sacrificing consistency.

Tucker had a xBA of .267, which is right in line with his .268 average. His .459 xSLG lags behind his .512 actual SLG, but it isn't a catastrophic drop. The version of Tucker Astros fans saw is essentially who he is, but how does he improve?

What really unlocked Tucker in 2020 was a change in his setup.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here he is on August 2nd against the Angels. As you can see, he's standing pretty straight up, and he has a "neutral" stance. Following the game on Aug. 2, Tucker was batting .200/.250/.300 with no homers.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here's Tucker on August 6th, just a few days later. He's started to close off his stance just a bit, but he's still pretty neutral, and he has a little more forward body lean with his torso. Following the game on Aug. 6, he was batting .214/.267/.357 with a homer.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Now, here's Tucker on August 10th. His stance is considerably closed off, and he's maintaining the forward body lean he adopted on August 6th. Following the game on Aug. 10, Tucker was batting .190/.230/.328. It would be the last time any of those numbers would be that low the rest of the year. He maintained that stance for the rest of the season, and he finished the month of August hitting .272/.333/.588.

The swing change allowed him to be a factor on the outside pitch. Tucker would pull off on his front side, which made it tough for him to keep balls fair on the pull side. He'd often yank inside fastballs into the stands down the right field line. It also made him uncompetitive on outside strikes, as he'd either swing-and-miss, or roll them over into the shift.

After he made the change, Tucker started steering inside pitches fair, and he was able to do something with pitches on the outer third.

The next step is finding a way to continue to diversify his batted ball profile. Tucker's pull percentage in 2020 was 47%. That's a higher pull % than guys like Kyle Schwarber and Matt Olson. It was only 1% lower than Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo.

The one dimensional batted ball profile allows teams to shift Tucker aggressively. Teams shifted Tucker in 74% of his at-bats. His wOBA against the shift is .304. In AB's where teams didn't shift him, Tucker had a .455 wOBA. The shift hurts Tucker more than most as well, because he hits the ball on the ground 39% of the time. Gallo and Olson hit it on the ground 32% and 35% of the time respectively.

Lastly, Tucker's performance on breaking balls leaves a lot to be desired. He crushes fastballs, as he batted .303 with a .574 SLG against fastballs in 2020, with a .292 xBA and .528 xSLG. His .208 AVG and .396 SLG against breaking balls aren't very good, and his .209 xBA and .340 xSLG don't tell a prettier story. His 32% whiff % against breaking balls is nearly double his whiff % on fastballs.

If Tucker can learn to be more competitive against breaking balls and learn to use the whole field, then he'll be a really scary hitter. If he doesn't, teams will be able to gameplan for him, and he'll see streaky production similar to other one dimensional hitters like Matt Carpenter and the aforementioned Gallo and Olson.

While the bat may be streaky, Tucker brings it with the glove and on the bases. He had 5 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in the outfield in 2020, a 0.6 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), and he was plus-4 in Outs Above Average. His well above average speed and instincts give him the ability to be a rangy outfielder and dangerous baserunner.

Tucker had a breakout season in 2020, but there's still changes left to be made if he wants to be a breakout star and not a one hit wonder.

This is part four of an offseason series covering the 2020 Houston Astros. Be sure to check out parts 1-3 on SportsMap.

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