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Texas A&M Faces a Season of Uncertainty

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Previewing the #14 team in the SEC, the Texas A&M Aggies.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Texas A&M vs Providence Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
TAMU Record

#14 Texas A&M Aggies

Last Season: 22 - 13 (9 - 9 in conference) No. 29 KenPom

My Prediction: 12 - 19 (4 - 14, 14th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 4.2 - 13.8 (13th in conference) No. 48 KenPom

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Texas A&M vs Michigan Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Billy Kennedy | seventh season 115-85

The phrase “disappointing” seems to follow the Texas A&M Aggies a lot the last few years. Last season started on a massive high only to come crashing down early in SEC play after the Aggies dealt with both injury and suspension, causing them to go from an 11-1 start to 17-11 in a hurry. Their season was only rescued with a late run that culminated in a Sweet 16 trip.

For all his talent, Billy Kennedy never seemed to get his pieces working together at the same time. There were games where they looked phenomenal, dominating Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina and looking every bit of a top-10 team. However, using the last season of a supremely heralded recruiting class in a season you ascended into the top 10.

This could be an important season for Billy Kennedy. He’s on his eighth year and there’s been an expectation set that this year’s team is unlikely to meet. Will a transition year do Kennedy in? Or will he be able to guide A&M through and rebuild?

Seat Temp: COOL

texas a&m 10 year look

Two out of three years is the best NCAA tournament runs in Texas A&M history if you carefully ignore the six-year run from Billy Gillispie and Mark Turgeon. The A&M brass let Kennedy rebuild the Aggies in the wake of Turgeon leaving for Maryland, and Kennedy has proven he can land top-level recruits. The roster has been patchwork for a couple years running now but with a couple of solid recruiting classes, they could be right back.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Tyler Davis professional 35 72.56% 19.73% 13.28% 14.83%
D.J. Hogg professional 32 70.49% 13.43% 15.62% 13.36%
Robert Williams professional 30 54.81% 11.80% 9.47% 9.24%
Duane Wilson graduation 22 37.63% 7.48% 12.65% 9.85%
Tonny Trocha-Morelos graduation 35 55.10% 8.96% 8.10% 8.69%
J.J. Caldwell transfer 17 19.24% 1.94% 5.05% 2.58%
61.97% 63.34% 64.17% 58.55%

When you look at the names on the list, it’s almost a little surprising they only lost 63 percent of their points from last year. Then again, nobody would ever accuse Kennedy of using his best weapons correctly. Tyler Davis had one of the steadier careers in Aggies history. Three straight seasons of double-digit points and six-plus rebounds per game to go with an offensive rating above 115 each year. On top of that, his defensive presence will be missed as well. A sturdy defender on the block, Davis’ ability to body up and defensive rebound are hard to replace.

Maybe the most underutilized player on the roster last season was Robert Williams. Williams was a great athlete who was capable of dominating in short bursts but slipped into long stretches of ineffectiveness. D.J. Hogg came close to reaching his potential but never quite got there. Duane Wilson struggled to stay healthy, but when he played, he was one of the most critical pieces on the roster. Tonny Trocha-Morelos had a fairly unheralded career but served as the kind of role player I’m sure Kennedy would like to have on his roster right now.

AND, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Admon Gilder SR CG 30 68.35% 14.04% 65.23% 15.13%
T.J. Starks SO PG 32 48.47% 12.07% 51.12% 11.87%
Savion Flagg SO WING 30 33.43% 4.67% 55.61% 3.94%
Jay Jay Chandler SO CG 17 26.87% 4.67% 52.00% 4.21%
Chris Collins* SR PG 17 8.55.% 0.99% 38.53% 0.60%
Isaiah Jasey SO POST 15 3.56% 0.23% 32.26% 0.00%
Frank Byers* SR PG 3 0.36% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
Mark French* JR PG 5 0.50% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
Cameron Alo* SO PG 2 0.07% 0.00% 0.00% 0.12%
Josh Nebo R-JR POST TRANSFER
John Walker III R-FR CF REDSHIRT
36.32% 36.67% 62.63% 35.87%
NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Texas A&M C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

Admon Gilder | SENIOR | COMBO GUARD

For a moment, there was real fear Gilder might turn professional. After all, he was the second leading scorer on a team that lost three players to the professional ranks, and only one was more productive at the college level than Gilder. Gilder was largely overlooked in a heralded 2015 recruiting class and turned into a linchpin.

On a team so forward-focused the past few years, Gilder was one of the only consistent guards to see minutes for Billy Kennedy, and now the keys to the offense turn almost solely over to him and some perimeter holdovers. The Aggies are going to need Gilder to take his play to another level if they’re going to exceed expectations. Gilder has largely been good without being great. His offensive rating is solid, and if his usage goes up, he’ll somehow need to find a way to improve his efficiency as well.

In the absence of Wilson, T.J. Starks emerged as the primary point guard the Aggies needed a season ago and should start at the point this season. Starks is a bit of a high volume guy, topping out at 29.1 percent of possessions as a freshman point guard. There were only two power conference freshmen with higher usage rates: Collin Sexton and Trae Young. Jay Jay Chandler was a nice backup option at combo guard as a freshman, and his growth is something to keep an eye on. Isaiah Jasey is a big body who was fighting for minutes behind a bunch of talented forwards and should get a longer look this season. Josh Nebo transferred in from St. Francis in the Northeastern Conference, and at 6’9 and 245 pounds could challenge Jasey for minutes inside. Last, John Walker III is an athletic, rangy wing who hopefully benefited from a redshirt season.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Texas A&M C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

SAVION FLAGG | SOPHOMORE | WING

If the Aggies are going to prevent a real slide, much of the scoring load is going to land on the sturdy shoulders of sophomore Savion Flagg. Flagg was a top-60 talent coming into play last year, but he struggled to find his role in Kennedy’s post-heavy offense. Yet Flagg has an opportunity this season to set himself apart. He is a better shooter than his numbers last year showed and better at attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line. And A&M is going to need every bit of his offensive arsenal as they shift from an interior focused team to one reliant on its guards and wings.

THEN, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
So Brandon Mahan 6'5 200 - - WING
Jr Wendell Mitchell 6'3 185 ★★★ 5 CG
Sr Christian Mekowulu 6'8 245 - - POST

This might be one of the most unusual offseason addition lists: zero freshmen, one highly rated JUCO guard and a graduate transfer. Christian Mekowulu will contend for a starting spot with Jasey and Nebo. Brandon Mahan is a smooth athlete and a good shooter who should immediately help on the perimeter. Wendell Mitchell was one of the top-rated JUCO players and fills into a position where the Aggies are kind of fine to begin with.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard T.J. Starks Jay Jay Chandler
(2) Combo Guard Admon Gilder Wendell Mitchell
(3) Wing Savion Flagg Brandon Mahan
(4) Combo Forward Isaiah Jasey John Walker III
(5) Post Christian Mekowulu Josh Nebo

What should happen isn’t necessarily what will happen. It’s been a while since Kennedy hasn’t had the depth in the frontcourt to play a more traditional lineup, but this roster’s strength clearly tilts toward the perimeter. Along the front line, it’s nothing but question marks. I wonder if Kennedy will make the schematic tweaks necessary with this roster and go small. You could run out Starks, Mitchell, Gilder and Flagg, spread the floor and have a ton of driving lanes. This would also likely give them more opportunities for Jay Jay Chandler, Mahan and even John Walker III.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 12 - 19 | KenPom Projected Record: 17 - 14

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-UNCG vs Gonzaga Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 7 Home Savannah State 345 W
Nov 9 Home UC Irvine 97 W
Nov 15 Away Gonzaga 9 L
Nov 18 Neutral Minnesota 60 W
Nov 20 Neutral Washington 46 L
Nov 23 Home South Alabama 174 W
Dec 3 Home Northwestern State 340 W
Dec 8 Home Boston College 66 L
Dec 15 Neutral Oregon State 90 L
Dec 19 Home Valparaiso 131 W
Dec 22 Home Marshall 95 W
Dec 29 Home Texas Southern 277 W
Jan 26 Home Kansas State 12 L
avg 134

One way to see what your team is made of is scheduling a road trip to Gonzaga for your third game of the season. The Zags are coming off a 32-5 season and return five of their top six players from last season. And Kennedy didn’t make it easier on himself with the remainder of the schedule. Washington and Minnesota are on a long list of power conference teams who could be looking for a step forward, and both seem to be toss-ups for the Aggies. Boston College and Oregon State are in the same boat of teams who have been building up a bit and could turn a corner this season. There are also four programs there which could hit a road bump, and all basically end up where they’ve been over the past few years in power conference purgatory. And with all that Kansas State brings back, that should be a very tough game for the Aggies.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 5 Home Arkansas 64 W
Jan 8 Away Kentucky 7 L
Jan 12 Away Alabama 51 L
Jan 16 Home Auburn 17 L
Jan 19 Home Missouri 43 W
Jan 22 Away Florida 19 L
Jan 30 Home LSU 50 L
Feb 2 Home Tennessee 11 L
Feb 6 Away Ole Miss 94 L
Feb 9 Away Missouri 43 L
Feb 12 Home Georgia 101 W
Feb 16 Away South Carolina 42 L
Feb 19 Home Alabama 51 L
Feb 23 Away Arkansas 64 L
Feb 26 Away LSU 50 L
Mar 2 Home Vanderbilt 69 W
Mar 5 Home South Carolina 42 L
Mar 9 Away Mississippi State 23 L
avg 46.72

I may be skeptical of the Aggies this season, but they get a break in the schedule. The projected top five or six teams depending on where you’re reading your preseason projections and Texas A&M misses all of them. But the strength of the SEC and the depth of the teams who should be better make picking A&M is too many of these contests. I think there’s a chance A&M exceeds these projections simply because their schedule is about as appealing as you can hope. I don’t know that any team in the SEC will be as bad as Ole Miss was a season ago and even they won five games. A&M excelling beyond that wouldn’t be surprising, but they’ll need a few breaks.

OVERVIEW

Full disclosure: I’m not certain by a long shot this prediction will be accurate. But here’s why I’m sticking with it.

I don’t trust Billy Kennedy. He’s been a little all over the map during his tenure, and his teams have largely underachieved and papered over it with a couple successful NCAA trips. Only once have the Aggies really lived up to their talent, and even in that season, they fell a seed or two shy of what their talent could have achieved. Now Kennedy is probably faced with his biggest challenge since arriving in College Station. He needs to find a way to win without any proven interior players, in a league chock full of great and elite bigs.

The saving grace for Kennedy is he’s equipped with two guards who are more than competent enough to prove this prediction wrong.

Last season, Kennedy unleashed Starks upon the league after Wilson went down with an injury. Starks was lightly heralded coming out of high school, and he more than proved his mettle in taking over the primary ball-handling role for the Aggies. If you lump Starks in with Gilder, who as reliable a player as there is in the SEC, you have the makings of a backcourt which can net you wins in league play.

NCAA Basketball: Savannah State at Texas A&M C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

After Starks and Gilder, there’s depth behind them and reason to think Flagg can take a significant step forward this season. Then you look inside. Across the league, scouting reports are going to call for attacking the Aggies down low. Nebo and Mekowulu have yet to perform reliably against elite big men. Mekowulu isn’t super explosive or athletic, but he’s big, and the same can be said for Nebo. Neither has elite size, and both are going to be fighting and scrapping with a lot of elite talent.

More than anything, I’ve never been able to get a sense for what Kennedy wants his program to be. His method is to assemble as much raw talent as possible, defend well and hope the offense just sorts itself out. Last season, the Aggies bogged down and leaned too heavily on their talented group of big men, abandoning the idea of putting Williams in space and letting him move downhill toward the rim in screen-and-rolls. Now they don’t have the bigs to go get the ball, nor those who’d expect to score better than 0.75 points per possession on a post up.

So what are the Aggies going to do to score?

They’ll rely heavily on their guards and hope Starks can improve on his overall efficiency from last season because his usage will be through the roof. Perhaps Flagg and Gilder, each of whom had offensive ratings over 100 last year, will reliably produce and ease the pressure put on Starks.

There’s a path for this Aggie team to overachieve, and it’s reasonable. Their SEC slate isn’t overly difficult. They don’t have a ton of pitfalls in the non-conference schedule. If they get interior production, this is a team who could fight for an NCAA bid. But a trip to the dance seems far off for a team lacking in so many areas and counting on two young perimeter guys to take big steps. This will be Billy Kennedy’s biggest challenge at A&M.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in the record prediction for the site listed at the top of the page, and within “the Masses” picks as well. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.