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Buzz Williams takes over a rebuild at Texas A&M, but he’s certainly the long term answer

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Previewing the #13 team in the SEC, the Texas A&M Aggies.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t think you will find many people who will disparage former Texas A&M coach, Billy Kennedy. By most accounts, he’s considered one of the better human beings in the coaching profession. But his fit at Texas A&M was always a bit of a weird one. Kennedy is a modest and quiet man, and with all due respect to our Big 12 to SEC brethren, A&M is neither of those things. So in the offseason, A&M went out and hired a coach who better fit its culture and persona. Some guy named Buzz.

Each year we preview all 14 SEC teams, get caught up on the other previews here:

TAMU Record

#13 Texas A&M Aggies

Last Season: 14 - 18 (6 - 12 in SEC) No. 91 in KenPom

My Prediction: 12 - 17 (4 - 14, 13th in SEC)

The Masses Prediction: 4.6 - 13.5 (13th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 12th in conference

KenPom Projection: 16 - 12 (8-10 in conference) no. 58

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Buzz Williams | First Season, 0 - 0

The worst kept secret in college basketball last year was the emergence of Buzz Williams as the leading candidate for Texas A&M. Williams is a Texas native who found success at Marquette and rebuilt Virginia Tech into a tournament team. He heads to College Station where he once served as an assistant coach in what appears to be a natural fit. Last season, his Hokies team was the penultimate of Williams’ tenure in Blacksburg: a top-15 finish in KenPom, including top-20 finishes in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The only blight was ranking near the bottom nationally in tempo. At Marquette, and even early on at Virginia Tech, Williams’ teams preferred a faster pace, so it will be worth watching to see whether he returns to form with the Aggies.

Seat Temp: COLD

texas A&M 10 year look 2019

So what kind of basketball program is Texas A&M? Until they hired Billy Gillispie, the Aggies were one of the worst power-conference teams in the country. Since then, they’ve made the NCAA tournament in eight of the past 15 seasons, with Kennedy responsible for six of the misses. Meanwhile, Williams has guided his teams to the tournament in eight of 11 seasons. Under Buzz, I’d expect A&M to be in the tournament more often than not.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Christian Mekowulu graduation 32 53.59% 11.76% 14.07% 10.72%
Brandon Mahan transfer 32 56.17% 8.34% 7.31% 11.23%
Isaih Jasey transfer 5 3.52% 0.84% 2.10% 0.70%
John Walker III transfer 30 31.17% 4.31% 3.69% 6.23%
Chris Collins graduation 25 28.67% 0.75% 0.28% 5.73%
Frank Byers graduation 3 0.08% 0.00% 0.00% 0.02%
34.64% 26.00% 27.45% 34.63%

Usually, you’d expect to see a bit more roster churn when a season is in disarray and a new coach arrives; that didn’t occur in College Station. Isaih Jasey transferred to SMU early last season, depleting an already shallow frontcourt, but his impact on the program was limited.

Maybe the surprise player on the team was Christian Mekowulu. The Tennessee State graduate transfer stepped in and provided a reliable post presence. Brandon Mahan and John Walker III weren’t able to play with enough consistency to warrant regular positions in the rotation, and they moved along to UCF and Texas Southern, respectively.

Losing Chris Collins to graduation is a surprisingly tough loss. With the recent turmoil in the backcourt, Collins often stepped in as a stabilizing presence.

AND, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Savion Flagg JR CF 32 86.88% 19.71% 55.00% 21.05%
Wendell Mitchell SR CG 29 69.53% 16.73% 52.40% 15.69%
T.J. Starks JR PG 27 57.97% 14.78% 44.50% 8.25%
Jay Jay Chandler JR WING 31 57.42% 11.36% 53.30% 8.83%
Josh Nebo SR POST 30 46.02% 10.79% 71.90% 17.55%
Mark French SR PG 16 7.50% 0.62% 54.30% 1.45%
John Brown JR POST 5 0.94% 0.00% 0.00% -0.13%
Cameron Alo JR PG 1 0.08% 0.00% 0.00% -0.06%
Luke McGee SO POST 1 0.08% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
Zach Walker SO PG 3 0.39% 0.00% 0.00% -0.07%
65.36% 73.99% 72.56%
NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Savion Flagg | JUNIOR | COMBO FORWARD

The junior is the clear leader and most impactful player from last season. He’s a modern combo forward who has elite athleticism to go with enough ball skills and shooting to be a threat from every position on the floor. After nearly tripling his minutes from his freshman to sophomore season, Flagg’s efficiency was almost unchanged, and that was without a lot of help throughout the rest of the roster.

Getting Flagg to stick around was the first big recruiting win for Williams, giving the roster a foundational piece while the rest of the young roster matures. For A&M to take another step forward this year, it will lie mainly in the hands of Flagg.

Wendell Mitchell won’t blow anyone away, but there’s something to be said for consistency. Mitchell was that for the Aggies last year, and it saved their bacon plenty of nights. He reached double digits in 15 conference games and figures to be a key offensive figure for the Aggies this year. Jay Jay Chandler is one of those guards who looks like he should be a great player, but has never been effective offensively.

One player I’m looking forward to seeing this season is forward Josh Nebo. While he was a terrific defender around the rim, he was underrated on the offensive end, posting a 128.6 offensive rating in KenPom, and graded as excellent during half-court possessions in Synergy. I’m looking forward to seeing his skill set better utilized than what happened under Kennedy.

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

T.J. Starks | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD

I use the term ‘enigmatic’ when referencing Starks above, and it’s the perfect term for the Aggies guard. When playing well, Starks is one of the more difficult players in the SEC to defend. He can go by anyone off the dribble, and he’s capable of making deep shots.

However, Starks is wildly inconsistent. In a home game against Georgia last year, he scored 19 points on 6 of 7 shooting in 26 minutes. Contrast that with a home outing against Missouri, where he only tallied two points, didn’t take a shot from the floor and finished a single-game rating of 27 in KenPom. Then, during the Aggies’ road trip to Mizzou, Starks finished the on the bench in favor of walk-ons who played hard.

If Buzz Williams can unlock Starks’ potential, the Aggies will have a formidable player at point guard who can carry the offense. If he can’t, Starks will continue to be inconsistent and will likely have a hard time finding minutes under a more demanding coach.

THEN, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Cashius McNeilly 6'4 180 ★★★ 127 CG
Fr Emanuel Miller 6'6 200 ★★★ 144 POST
Fr Jonathan Aku 6'10 210 ★★★ 149 POST
Fr Yavuz Gultekin 6'8 200 ★★★ 290 POST
Fr Andre Gordon 6'2 185 ★★★ 293 CG
Fr Bakari Simmons 6'7 210 - - WING
Jr Quenton Jackson 6'5 190 ★★★ 6 WING

In one of the weirdest single day recruiting events this past spring, Buzz Williams simultaneously took commitments from four recruits in one day: Cashius McNeilly, Andre Gordon, Yavuz Gultekin, and Quenton Jackson. What’s even weirder is it was the second time Gordon, Gultekin, and Jackson all committed within a short time. They all committed within four days back last October when Williams was at Virginia Tech.

McNeilly is the highest-rated of the group; he’s a smooth shooting combo guard with positional size. The rest of the class is a mixed bag, but I do find a lot of intrigue with the Aggies’ late summer addition to the class, Jonathan Aku. He reclassified into the 2019 class from 2020 after qualifying late, and could impact the roster as a reserve early. He’s a little light at the moment, but has good athleticism and shot-blocking ability.

Miller also has some interesting abilities, and like McNeilly, he’s a Canadian import and has been a part of the national team program for several years. He’s listed on most sites as a power forward, but in watching him, he doesn’t appear to be anything other than a modern-day combo forward. He’s capable with the ball and has shooting range out to the 3-point range. Gordon is a guy who might play beyond his ranking thanks to a high level of athleticism. There are some tools not yet in his arsenal which need developing, but there’s certainly a lot to like.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard T.J. Starks Cashius McNeilly
(2) Combo Guard Wendell Mitchell Jay Jay Chandler Andre Gordon
(3) Wing Savion Flagg Quenton Jackson
(4) Combo Forward Emanuel Miller Bakari Simmons
(5) Post Josh Nebo Jonathan Aku Yavuz Gultekin

The pieces aren’t terrible. While It’s hard to invest faith in Starks, the Aggies could have a quality trio on the perimeter with Mitchell and Flagg. Inside, Nebo should offer enough to get by. The freshmen all show promise, but that’s a lot to count on with not many unknowns. Frankly, the course of Williams’ debut season hinges on guys who haven’t produced consistently. So can you count on Starks and Nebo? Who among the newcomers will step up?

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 12 - 17 | KenPom Projected Record: 16 - 12

NCAA Basketball: Texas at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home Northwestern State 347 W
Nov 11 Home Louisiana-Monroe 222 W
Nov 15 Home Gonzaga 9 L
Nov 20 Home Troy 277 W
Nov 28 Neutral Harvard 75 W
Nov 29 Neutral Maryland / Temple 16 / 94 L
Dec 1 Neutral - -
Dec 8 Neutral Texas 32 L
Dec 15 Home Texas A&M CC 284 W
Dec 21 Home Oregon State 73 W
Dec 30 Home Texas Southern 269 W
Jan 25 Home Oklahoma State 40 W
avg 162.80 8-3

The clear game you look at on the schedule is Gonzaga — unless you’re Texas A&M. The Zags are an elite program at this point and will likely beat the Aggies. But there’s also this weird game featuring the University of Texas Longhorns which has to be noted, as the two rivals are hooked up for a neutral site game in Fort Worth. I imagine, even with the Aggies likely having a bit of a down year, there will still be a lot of intrigue.

They’ll also take part in the Advocare Invitational in Orlando, Florida. The Aggies open up against Harvard and will face either Maryland or Temple. On the other side of the bracket are USC, Fairfield, Davidson, and Marquette. There’s an opportunity to pick up some Quadrant 1 wins if things fall the right way.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 4 Away Arkansas 44 L
Jan 7 Home Ole Miss 60 W
Jan 11 Away Vanderbilt 148 W
Jan 14 Home LSU 38 L
Jan 18 Home South Carolina 69 W
Jan 21 Away Missouri 39 L
Jan 28 Away Tennessee 19 L
Feb 1 Away Georgia 55 L
Feb 4 Home Missouri 39 L
Feb 8 Away South Carolina 69 L
Feb 12 Home Florida 12 L
Feb 15 Home Georgia 55 W
Feb 19 Away Alabama 70 L
Feb 22 Home Mississippi State 53 L
Feb 25 Home Kentucky 2 L
Feb 29 Away LSU 38 L
Mar 4 Away Auburn 22 L
Mar 7 Home Arkansas 44 L
avg 48.67 4-14

The conference schedule breaks slightly in favor of the Aggies. The home-and-home slate is full of good teams, but most of them possess some flaw. South Carolina presents the most significant question mark, but LSU, Missouri, Arkansas, and Georgia are all teams who could either finish third or 10th. And all likely better than Texas A&M. Toss in home games against Kentucky and Florida, which are possible losses, plus road games against Auburn and Tennessee, and there aren’t very many games you can earmark in the win column.

OVERVIEW

Moving on from Kennedy made a lot of sense, and hiring someone like Buzz Williams made even more. Kennedy’s biggest issue was struggling to foster and sustain a healthy culture within the program. While the Aggies occasionally found success — sometimes a healthy amount — it didn’t permeate every facet of the program in a way that made it sustainable.

The absence of culture left A&M vulnerable when adversity hit. Kennedy was able to rebuild the roster, but after losing several staff members to other jobs, the recruiting suffered. When talent acquisition became spotty and circumstances got dicey, there wasn’t an identity the Aggies could turn to. When that happens, it’s time to move on.

texas a&m shot chart 2019
Texas A&M’s returning players shot chart from last season per SynergySports.

The advantage of Williams moving into Reed Arena is he’ll build a strong culture; he has everywhere he goes. At Virginia Tech, the puzzle took a little longer to put together, but the Hokies were much farther behind the eight-ball. They had only made one NCAA tournament in 20 years before Williams. But at Texas A&M, Williams has a program with easy access to talent and the financial support to win big — and do it quickly.

I’m skeptical Williams will make an immediate dent with this roster, but it does have enough pieces to make the Aggies feisty most nights.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Texas A&M John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

For the Aggies to exceed meager expectations, the backcourt needs to find cohesion and consistency. Improvement from Starks and Flagg will be vital — if a small mountain to climb. Flagg can be an All-SEC player, and he can reach that ceiling with the right dosage of minutes and a slight uptick in perimeter shooting. Do that, and the Aggies might have the offensive pop they need.

I already noted the upside of Mitchell’s steadiness, but Williams and his squad will be better off if he’s the third or fourth option. However, I’m worried about whether Williams can maximize Starks, who is capable, but all over the place. The junior loses focus quickly, becoming useless.

How does Buzz attempt to put this all together? That’s a great question. The key: how many minutes wind up getting allotted to freshmen instead of veterans? Williams likely knows his youngsters are bought into his vision, given that most signed up to play for him in Blacksburg.

I also keep coming back to culture. Buzz Williams will find out soon who is willing to buy in and who isn’t. Ideally, he parcels out supporting roles to newcomers and gets through to Starks and Williams. Do that, and you have a roster with four steady cogs, a promising young core, and the chance to make an early push up the standings. Where you’re getting it is the question we need to be answered. And at this stage, I’m not ready to invest much faith in what Williams inherited.


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.