COLLEGE BASKETBALL REPORT

NCAA hoops: Mixed bag for most teams of interest in Houston; TCU has big week

TCU was the only team in the report to go 2-0 last week. TCU/Facebook

TEXAS LONGHORNS (17-12, 7-9 BIG XII)

Last week (1-1): L-@ Kansas State 58-48, W-Oklahoma State 65-64

This week: Monday @ Kansas, Saturday vs. West Virginia 

Texas really could have used a sweep this week. Kansas State decided that didn’t work for them. Texas fell 58-48 to Kansas State on Wednesday. The game was tied at half, but the Wildcats pulled away in the 2nd frame. Texas, who has shot poorly all season, was absolutely awful again. The Horns shot 29% from the field and 11% from 3-point range. Matt Coleman led the Horns with 14 points in the loss. Texas edged out Oklahoma State on Saturday, 65-64. The Horns were shorthanded, as Mohamed Bamba sat out the second half after aggravating a toe injury, and Eric Davis was sidelined while Texas looks into allegations that he took money from a sports agency. Dylan Osetkowski led the Horns with 13 points and 9 rebounds. Texas finds themselves firmly on the bubble for the NCAA tournament, as they look to avoid missing it for the second straight year. A win at Kansas on Monday almost surely puts them in, but they have lost eight straight to the Jayhawks. Texas wraps up its regular season on Saturday with a home game against West Virginia.

TEXAS A&M AGGIES (18-11, 7-9 SEC)

Last week (1-1): L-Mississippi State 93-81, W-@ Vanderbilt 89-81

This week: Wednesday @ Georgia, Saturday vs. Alabama

The Aggies split this week, losing their home game and winning on the road. First, they fell 93-81 to Mississippi State in a game that they were dominated in. Mississippi State outscored them 19-5 in points off turnovers, 23-6 in bench points, and out rebounded the Ags 44-31. Free throws also were a struggle for Texas A&M, as they shot only 57% from the line. Tyler Davis was a bright spot for the Aggies, posting 25 points and 11 boards in the loss. Davis was strong again in the Aggies 89-81 win over Vanderbilt, putting up 22 points and 9 rebounds in Nashville. The Aggies had a 24-point lead in the second half, but had to fight off a Commodore run late to hold onto the win. The Aggies were bolstered by a strong 3-point shooting night, shooting 53% from deep on 8-15 shots. The Aggies are likely in the tournament at this point, but finishing out with wins over Georgia and Alabama this week would lock their spot up. 

HOUSTON COUGARS (22-6, 12-4 AAC) 

Last week (1-1): L-@ Memphis 91-85, W-East Carolina 109-58

This week: Wednesday @ SMU, Sunday vs. UConn

The Cougars were coming off their best week of the season, and stepped right into a trap, falling 91-85 to Memphis. Houston was up at halftime, but shot horribly in the second half (32%) in the loss. The defense also let them down, as Memphis’ 91 points was the most allowed by the Coogs this season. Rob Gray had 30 points and 7 assists in the loss. It was a frustrating night for the Cougars, who had just crawled into the top 25 for the first time all season. They took that frustration out on East Carolina, decimating the Pirates 109-58. The halftime score was 62-13, as the Cougars shot 12-16 from deep in the first half. Armani Brooks paced the Cougars with 21 points in only 18 minutes on the floor. Rob Gray added 19 points and 11 assists in the win. The Coogs close out the regular season with SMU and UConn this week. 

RICE OWLS (6-23,  3-13 CUSA)

Last week (1-1): W-@ Florida Atlantic 79-76 OT, L-@ Florida International 67-64

This week: Thursday vs. UTEP, Saturday vs. UTSA

The Owls showed a little fight this week, winning their first game and almost winning the second. Rice beat Florida Atlantic 79-76 in overtime, in one of the wildest games of the season. Rice blew a 13-point halftime lead, capped by an FAU 3-pointer with 3 seconds left on the clock to force overtime. FAU hit two free throws with two seconds left to tie the game, and it appeared to be headed toward double OT. Ako Adams hit a 3 at the buzzer though, and Rice came away with the win. Najja Hunter led the Owls with 23 points. The Owls came up just short of winning back-to-back games for the first time this season, falling 67-64 to FIU. The Owls shot only 32% from the field and 26% from 3 in the loss. Malik Osborne led Rice with 20. The Owls wrap up their season with home games against UTEP and UTSA this week. 

BAYLOR BEARS (17-12, 7-9 BIG XII)

Last week (0-2): L-West Virginia 71-60, L-@ TCU 82-72

This week: Tuesday vs. Oklahoma, Saturday @ Kansas State

Ouch. Baylor had scratched and clawed their way back into the tournament picture, and now seem like a long shot again. The Bears fell twice this week, starting with a 71-60 loss to West Virginia. The story of the game was Baylor’s first half, where they put up only 18 points. After making their first shot of the game, Baylor made one of their next 15 shots from the field. Jo Lual-Acuil led the Bears with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Things didn’t get better against TCU, as the Bears fell 82-72 in Fort Worth. The Bears had little answers defensively for TCU, as the Frogs shot 54% for the game. Acuil again led the team with 22 points in the loss. The Bears will look to pick up wins against Oklahoma and Kansas State this week before heading into the Big XII tournament.

TCU HORNED FROGS (20-9, 8-8 BIG XII)

Last week (2-0): W-@ Iowa State 89-83, W-Baylor 82-72

This week: Tuesday vs. Kansas State, Saturday @ Texas Tech

TCU has solidified its tournament resume with two more wins last week. First, the Frogs got a road win over Iowa State 89-83. TCU fell behind early, but eventually overwhelmed the Cyclones, who only dressed seven players for the game. The Frogs shot the lights out, hitting 58% from the field. They were led by Desmond Bane’s 27 points, but four starters were in double digits. Alex Robinson led the way for TCU against Baylor in an 82-72 win. The TCU point guard had 22 points, including 16 after halftime in the win. The hot shooting continued, as the team went 54% from the field in the Baylor game. TCU closes out the regular season with Kansas State and Texas Tech this week. 

TEXAS TECH RED RAIDERS (22-7, 10-6 BIG XII)

Last week (0-2): L-@ Oklahoma State 79-71, L-Kansas 74-72

This week: Monday @ West Virginia, Saturday vs. TCU

It’s hard to tell if Texas Tech is out of steam, but they are definitely sputtering toward the finish line. They started the week with a head scratching loss to Oklahoma State, 79-71. Tech, which has been leaning on its defense all season, struggled to get stops against the Cowboys. Oklahoma State hit 11 of  22 3-point attempts in the game. Keenan Evans struggled mightily on the offensive end, scoring just 2 points on 1-of-7 shooting. Zhaire Smith led the Raiders with 18 points. Then the Red Raiders fell 74-72 to Kansas, in a game that clinched the 14th straight regular season conference title for the Jayhawks. The Jayhawks shot 50% from the field for the game. Evans was miserable again, scoring six points on 1-of-6 shooting. Smith again carried the load with 20 points. The Red Raiders wrap up the season with West Virginia and TCU this week. 

SMU MUSTANGS (16-13, 6-10 AAC)

Last week (1-1): W-@ East Carolina 77-58, L-Wichita State 84-78

This week: Wednesday vs. Houston, Sunday @ South Florida

SMU got a split this week, which is a welcome sight after a five-game losing streak. They took a win over East Carolina 77-58. The Mustangs shot the ball well, hitting 11-21 from 3-point range. All five Mustang starters were in double digit, led by Jahmal McMurray’s 20. Shake Milton’s absence was felt more against Wichita State, and the Ponies lost 84-78. The Shockers dominated the rebounding department, 41-23. SMU was able to keep it close by hitting 15 3’s, but could never overtake the Shockers. McMurray hit 6 of those 3’s as part of his 28 point night. SMU closes out AAC play with Houston and South Florida this week. 

LSU TIGERS (16-12, 7-9 SEC)

Last week (1-1): W-Vanderbilt 88-78, L-@ Georgia 93-82

This week: Wednesday @ South Carolina, Saturday vs. Mississippi State

LSU went 1-1 this week, and while they probably aren’t headed to the tournament, they have to feel good about Will Wade’s first year as the Tiger head coach. Tremont Waters led the way against Vanderbilt, as LSU took an 88-78 win. Waters had 28 points and 9 assists. The Tigers as a team shot 63% from the field. LSU’s road struggles continued against Georgia, 93-82. It was their sixth straight SEC road loss. Waters was great again, scoring 25 in the loss. Skylar Mays added 20. LSU closes out the season with a road game at South Carolina and a home game against Mississippi State. 

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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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