ISO Spotlight: A&M Commerce's strong first season in Division I

Courtesy of Texas A&M Commerce Athletics/Marcus Jensen, Art by DCTB

Texas A&M Commerce can't advance to the NCAA Tournament this season. In fact, the Lions won't be eligible for NCAA postseason play until the 2026-27 season. But in their first season in Division I, the team finished tied for fourth in the Southland, and while a three-game losing streak has pushed the team a little farther down the standings than they were, it's still been a strong debut, especially when you factor in that the Lions have been doing some of this without their best player, as Dyani Robinson hasn't played since Jan. 14:

Let's talk about this season for Commerce, both before and after the Robinson injury.

Moving to Division I

The Southland Conference has seen some massive shifts lately, beginning with the departure of the Texas Four—Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin—to the WAC. That process ended up being more complicated than it originally looked—Lamar returned to the Southland and Sam Houston's on its way to Conference USA—but it still was part of a radical restructuring of the conference, which also included the departure of Central Arkansas.

With all those teams leaving, the Southland needed reinforcements, which came in the form of Texas A&M Commerce, which left the Division II Lone Star Conference to make the move to Division I. Last season, the Lions went 12-3 in the Lone Star Conference, finishing a half-game back of West Texas A&M.

But Division I's not Division II, so you'd expect a team to struggle in that transition, right?

Not necessarily.

Cal Baptist moved from Division II to Division I a few years back. After going 17-12 in their final season in Division II, the Lancers went 14-12 against Division I opponents in their first season, and by year three in Division I, they went 24-1, dominating the WAC thanks to the play of people like Ane Olaeta and Caitlyn Harper.

That's the good path to follow in transitioning: you have some really talented players and you don't miss a beat when you get to the upper division.

Then there's the path another former Lone Star Conference team took: Tarleton moved to the WAC in 2020, and the team went from 19-8 against Division II teams in the 2019-20 season to 5-16 against Division I opponents in the 2020-21 season. Now, three years into the transition, the Texans have moved on from head coach Misty Wilson.

It was interesting to wonder which path Commerce would take. They had one really good player in Dyani Robinson who was making that transition with them, but their other top player from Division II, Chania Wright, graduated. Would they still be able to follow that Cal Baptist path, or would we be looking at another Tarleton?

One season in, it looks like they're definitely more on the Cal Baptist end.

The Dyani Robinson part of the season

Dyani Robinson last played on Jan. 14. At that point, the Lions were 7-10 overall, and more importantly were 5-0 in Southland play, defeating Lamar 57-52 that night, with Robinson scoring 16 points on 7-for-15 shooting in the win.

Over those first 16 games (plus one against a non-DI team), Robinson was among the most effective scorers in the country. Her 17.1 points per game ranked in the 98th percentile, and she also added 1.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. She wasn't the most efficient scorer, shooting 34.9 percent from the floor and 23.0 percent from three, but her ability to get buckets and command the offense was enough: Robinson was on her way, IMO, to a Southland POTY award before the injury.

It's hard to really use on/off data to talk about Robinson's impact, just because the bulk of her games came in non-conference play, and so for the full season, the Lions have been better with her off the floor because the full season numbers include the full conference slate. But if we look just at the conference games, we see that the Lions had a net rating of +21.9 in the 164 minutes Robinson played during Southland play. The second-best teammate's on-court net rating during Southland play is Laila Lawrence, with the team at +9.0 with her on the floor. And in the 556 minutes that the Lions have played without Robinson against Southland foes, the team has a -4.7 net rating.

But here's the thing: it's not like the Lions bottomed out without Robinson. They've still been a really solid basketball team even without their star. Head coach Jason Burton deserves a lot of credit for keeping the team afloat during that second half.

Post-Robinson Commerce

Like I mentioned above, the Lions have a net rating of -4.7 when Robinson hasn't been on the floor during conference play. But that's still better than three Southland teams, including a Houston Christian squad that was expected to challenge for a conference title. And while the team is under .500 without Robinson, their 5-8 record in Southland games without Robinson is still a pretty good number, especially when you remember this isn't a "normal" Southland team—it's one that was playing in a different division before this season.

Comparing conferences is tough because the WAC is arguably tougher than the Southland, but Commerce has a -4.0 net rating in the last 13 games without Robinson, whereas Tarleton, in its first season in Division I, had a -10.4 net rating in conference games. It's a bit of a weird sample to compare, but it at least seems like a Robinson-less Commerce team is ahead of where its former LSC rivals were at when they joined Division I.

In the 13 games without Robinson, Laila Lawrence has made a name for herself, averaging 14.5 points per game on 46.9 percent shooting over that span, while DesiRay Kernal is averaging 13.2 points per game on 43.8 percent shooting. Lawrence was averaging 11.1 points per game with Robinson in the lineup on 50.3 percent shooting; her efficiency has dipped some as her usage went up, but overall she's looked good playing a larger role, and she was multiple years of eligibility left.

Robinson should be back next year as well. Add in some transfers as well as the better recruiting talent that a Division I school can draw in over a Division II school, and we really could see this Lions team on a Cal Baptist trajectory. Maybe not to the point that the Lancers got in year three when they made an undefeated regular season, but there's definitely a chance they could run away with the Southland next season.

And that could be huge for building a sustainable program. Jason Burton's proven to be a really good coach, and Commerce has a shot to establish itself as the premier Southland program in the state of Texas...and I wouldn't even call that a stretch. A&M Corpus has some great talent right now and Lamar's always a feisty team, but UIW and Houston Christian have been fairly uneven over the last few seasons. It's not a stretch to think that Commerce could be a power in this conference. We almost got to see it this year, but the Dyani Robinson injury derailed a team that looked like a contender.

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