Sky-high No. 5 Texas A&M opens SEC play vs. Alabama

Texas A&M is sky high and improving but will undoubtedly have its hands full with upset-minded Alabama when the two teams square off on Saturday in their respective Southeastern Conference openers at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The Aggies (11-1) proved their mettle in non-conference play, reeling off four straight wins after losing on the road to Arizona by three points on Dec. 5. Texas A&M matched its highest-ever ranking the Associated Press Top 25 this week when the Aggies were slotted at No. 5. The 2015-16 Aggies also reached No. 5 in the AP poll.

The past three victories have come without key performer Admon Gilder, who suffered a knee injury on Dec. 12 in a win against Savannah State and is not expected back until the new year.

Texas A&M heads to Alabama on the heels of a pair of home victories, during which a trio of Aggies, led by junior Tyler Davis, stepped to the forefront. Davis enters SEC competition riding the momentum of three consecutive double-doubles, while graduate transfer Duane Wilson is averaging 19.5 points and 7.0 assists in his last two games. Freshman Savion Flagg is contributing 16.5 points and 9.5 rebounds during the same period.

Flagg became the latest Aggies player to make headlines when he was honored as SEC freshman of the week on Monday, giving A&M its second individual accolade from the league office this season. Gilder was named SEC player of the week on Nov. 13.

The Aggies will also be without leading scorer D.J. Hogg, who is serving the second of a three-game suspension for breaking team rules.

Texas A&M will be in search of its first win at Coleman Coliseum since joining the SEC prior to the 2012-13 campaign (0-3). The Aggies are 8-4 in their past 12 conference-opening contests, including three of five SEC-opening affairs since joining the league prior to the 2011-12 campaign.

“It’s conference play, and we are feeling really good about what we’ve done so far and looking forward to a new part of the year,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “It’s been a tough season already with all the travel, and the injuries, and situations we’ve had. We’ve been able to overcome that — now we have to do it in conference play when it really matters.”

Alabama (8-4) enters the conference race expecting to take another step forward as a program following an appearance in the 2017 NIT during coach Avery Johnson’s second season in Tuscaloosa.

The Crimson Tide last played on Dec. 22, when they dropped a 66-50 decision to Texas in Birmingham at Legacy Arena for the Vulcan Classic. The Longhorns held Alabama to season lows in points, field goals made (21), field goal percentage (.344), free throws made (5) and attempted (9) and assists (9) in the loss.

Through its 12 contests, the Crimson Tide are averaging 76.9 points and outscoring the opposition by 5.1 points (76.9-71.8). As a team, Alabama is connecting on 47.2 percent from the field and 34.6 percent from beyond the arc. The Tide also owns a plus-1.2 rebounding advantage (37.5-36.3).

Six of Alabama’s past seven games, and seven of the past nine, have been decided by six points or fewer. For the year, the Tide has a record of 4-2 in games decided by five or fewer points.

Freshman guard Collin Sexton, a preseason second team All-SEC selection, highlights a talented Alabama roster, and the rookie is averaging 20.5 points to lead all SEC players in scoring. Sexton also tops the team in assists (3.5) and field goals made (66) and attempted (142).

Freshman John Petty ranks second on the team with 12.9 points and tops the Tide in 3-pointers made (35) and attempted (94), while his 2.9 treys made per game is third-best in the SEC. Junior Donta Hall leads the Crimson Tide in field goal percentage (.727, 56 of 77), dunks (29), rebounds (7.5) and blocks (2.6). Hall ranks third on the team with 11.1 points per game.

“We’ve got back to work after the Christmas break and evaluated where we need to get better,” Johnson said. “We had some highs and lows in our non-conference schedule. We’ve practices awfully hard the past few days — almost in a training camp mode — and we hope that carries over to the game against Texas A&M, which is not only one of the best teams in our conference but also in the nation.”

The contest between Alabama and Texas A&M on Saturday will mark the 16th meeting in series history and the seventh time the two teams will meet as SEC rivals. The Crimson Tide own a 10-5 edge in the previous 15 games, including wins in three of the last four in the series.