The end of the 2019-2020 college basketball regular season wasn't kind to the No. 15 Texas A&M Aggies.
After finally getting star Junior Chennedy Carter back from injury, the Aggies dropped their final two games of the season, losing to Alabama and to No. 1 South Carolina.
But thanks to losses on Sunday by No. 16 Kentucky and LSU, A&M still earned the fourth seed in the conference, which nets them an automatic bye to the quarterfinals. But dropping from the third seed to the fourth does mean A&M has a potential semifinals rematch with South Carolina on the horizon.
Before we get ahead of ourselves and get that far, let's preview what the Aggies have to do to win this tournament.
Who might A&M play in its first game?
We can't know what the Aggies will be capable of in their quarterfinals matchup until we know who, exactly, they might face in it.
The first game that will factor into this is Wednesday's Vanderbilt/Auburn game. The conference's 12th and 13th seed respectively, both teams were 4-12 in SEC play, and A&M best Vanderbilt 74-53 and Auburn 84-54.
In other words, these shouldn't be teams that pose much of an issue for A&M should the Aggies have to face one of them, although Vanderbilt is coming off a surprise win over a ranked Kentucky. Still, they're 2-11 in their last 13 games, and that speaks more to who the Commodores are than a win over Kentucky.
The winner of that game faces fifth-seed Arkansas. There's a major jump in performance and talent from those two teams up to Arkansas. The Razorbacks are a legitimately good team with an RPI of 26 and a Her Hoop Stats Rating that ranks 14th in the country. Arkansas is one of the best shooting teams in the country, especially from three, where they hit 38.9 percent of its attempts. While A&M has the advantage over Arkansas in things like rebounding, the Razorbacks' ability to score means they can give anyone in the country a good game. While they lost to A&M back in January, 84-77, they have some good wins on the resume, including a 103-85 win over Kentucky, plus wins over Alabama, Tennessee and LSU. They only lost by single digits to South Carolina in the first meeting between the teams.
If A&M has to face Arkansas in that quarterfinals matchup, the Aggies will need to get production from more than just Chennedy Carter in order to keep up with the offensive might of the Backs.
Potential semifinals and finals matchups
Let's say A&M gets past Arkansas. Then what?
Well...the semifinals would be another game against South Carolina. Now, A&M kept things relatively close on Sunday against the Gamecocks, but South Carolina always felt like it had control of the game.
Led by a strong performance from Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who had 20 points and eight rebounds, the Gamecocks beat A&M 60-52, and while A&M's defense did hold them to their second-lowest point total of the season, A&M's 52 points was their worst output of the season. The Aggies would have to contend with a strong SC defense, and will have to play at least as well defensively as they did on Sunday. It's a lot to ask.
If they do get past South Carolina, you're likely looking at the winner of No. 9 Mississippi State and No. 16 Kentucky, and the Aggies are 0-2 against those teams this year.
There is reason for optimism, though. Both losses came with A&M missing Chennedy Carter, and while the Aggies have struggled since her return to the lineup, she still brings them a tremendous lift, especially on the top end, as A&M's offense is capable of reaching some high peaks when the ball is in Carter's hands.
Kentucky would theoretically be the easier matchup. Their top scorer, Rhyne Howard, has played with a cast on her non-shooting hand since returning to the lineup, but she also just keeps cranking out 20-point games anyways. In six games in February and March, Howard hit that mark every time. But Kentucky has dropped a pair of games over the last month to teams with double-digit losses — Florida and Vanderbilt — and doesn't feel as concretely strong as some of the other teams atop the SEC do.
Mississippi State, on the other hand, doesn't seem to really have many holes. They're in the top 15 in offensive and defensive rating and have been a dominant interior team, shooting 51.4 percent inside the three-point line. A&M has some good interior players in N'dea Jones and Ciera Johnson, but it's tough to match up against players like Jessika Carter and Rickea Jackson. They don't shoot the three-ball, so A&M could find a way to exploit that if this becomes a high-scoring game, but to become a high-scoring game, you've got to score against the Bulldogs, which is much easier said than done.
The Aggies are good, but I just can't see anyone in the SEC stopping South Carolina this year. After an undefeated SEC regular season, I'm expecting the nation's top team to roll through the conference tournament, earn a one seed in the NCAA Tournament, and likely wind up in the Final Four.