Texas A&M Basketball Finding Its Way Under Billy Kennedy

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Apologies shouldn’t be required for an 11-1 start traversing a salty schedule, for equaling the highest ranking in school history and for analysts and observers touting a team that could win its conference and become a dark horse Final Four candidate.

Nevertheless, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy felt the need to make amends for his team’s inability to follow rules off the court.

“I want to apologize … for the issues of not having three guys today,” Kennedy said after his team closed nonconference play with an 89-73 victory over Buffalo. “It’s not reflective of who I am, who their families are or who they are. You got young kids who make choices, and we are going to develop them the right way and we are going to hold them to the standards here at Texas A&M and what Texas A&M is all about.”

Since Kennedy’s mea culpa, Southeastern Conference play has started with two lopsided losses – 79-57 at Alabama Saturday and 83-66 Tuesday night in College Station. The loss to the Gators came with three starters absent – guards Duane Wilson and Admon Gilder have knee injuries but should be back soon. D.J. Hogg, the team’s leading scorer, will return to action Saturday against LSU following a three-game suspension. Without Hogg and Gilder – the team’s top perimeter shooters – the Aggies are 7-of-51 from 3-point range in their last three games.

“We’re going through some adversity with some injuries and some issues that we have to deal with, but it’s better to go through it earlier in the year knowing you’re going to get those guys back,” Kennedy said. “That’s the good thing.”

Freshmen guards JJ Caldwell and T.J. Starks were suspended for the Alabama game. Earlier this season, sophomore Robert Williams was suspended for the team’s first two games. Hogg was disciplined for “breaking A&M athletic department policy” while Starks and Caldwell were benched for “breaking team rules.”

Texas A&M’s elevator ride has included several impressive victories balanced by a fluid lineup and pockmarked roster because of the injuries and disciplinary issues. However, the Aggies started conference play with a jumbled lineup and player rotation.

“We’ve got a lot of guys playing positions they normally don’t play at times,” Kennedy said.

The Aggies are facing a season on the brink. If Texas A&M can get its entire roster together and healthy, it’s a team that could contend for the SEC title and make a run during March Madness. The flip side is the possibility of an underlying discipline issue that could rupture at any time. Breaking “athletic department policy” and “team rules” are both nebulous and mysterious infractions that create more questions than they answer.

“We talked about it as a team, and it’s something the coaches are handling, and as a team we are coming together and staying positive about it,” junior center Tyler Davis said. “We’ve been focusing on picking it all up and putting the pieces back together. Coach Kennedy has done a good job of keeping everything in the locker room. “Guys make mistakes, but we love on each other, man. We’re keeping everything together, and staying positive.”

What’s at stake is the potential for a season that could rank as the best in school history. At full strength, Texas A&M has the answers for a lot of the questions that are posed in the NCAA Tournament.

There’s a lot of depth and versatility, it’s a team that can play a number of different ways. They’re a complete team that checks a lot of boxes.”

In addition to being ranked in the top 10 in the media (fifth) and coaches’ (sixth) polls, the computers also appreciate Texas A&M. The Aggies are No. 5 in the RPI and KenPom.com has them at No. 7. While they followed up their only loss of the season – by three to Arizona – with four gimme victories, the Ags burnished their resume in the season’s first four weeks. The triumphs were as impressive as the travel; The first eight games required 17,000 miles of travel.

It started with the Armed Forces Classic at Ramstein Air Base in Germany and was followed by visits to Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Phoenix. The Aggies collected victories over West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Penn State and USC. Dismantling the No. 11 Mountaineers in Germany without two of its top players allowed Texas A&M to establish its credentials.

 “Winning that game helped us a bunch,” Kennedy says.

So, who was the masochist signed off on the non-conference schedule?

 “Yeah, that was me,” says Kennedy, whose team will face Kansas in Lawrence on Jan. 27 in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. “It’s kind of a beast. We thought this season we would able to handle taking this step with the program to get it more to the national level. “The Germany trip made the traveling a bit more than we had planned. But it’s rare you get to open the season on national television against a ranked team. For our school, the chance to play in front of the military made a lot of sense. That could have been a miserable flight back, but it was a lot easier because we won.”

Teams often schedule summer tours to build chemistry. The Aggies’ 11-hour, 5,000-miles (one way) trip to start helped bond a team that is shouldering a sharp-edged chip.

“We beat West Virginia, everybody said they were missing a starter (forward Esa Ahmad),” says senior point guard Duane Wilson, a graduate transfer from Marquette. “They don’t mention we were missing two of our best players. Every time we win, people seem to think it’s luck or a fluke. “We love when people doubt us. We just enjoy the process.”

The basketball process in College Station requires considerable patience. A football school in a football state doesn’t get too excited about the round ball sport. Winning would help build fan interest but the Aggies have rarely won enough to get the locals riled up like when the school pays a new football coach $75 million for 10 years. The school’s 13 NCAA Tournament appearances have produced two Sweet 16s. That’s it.

When Kennedy took over in 2011, the school had just moved from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference. If the coaching and conference changes weren’t enough of a challenge, Kennedy also was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement and is worsened with stress. Medication and Kennedy’s laid-back personality have helped keep him healthy.

“Billy’s even-handed leadership and his demeanor can’t be overlooked,” says ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, who worked A&M’s game with West Virginia. “He holds the players accountable, it’s matter of fact, he doesn’t have to scream, yell, rant and rave. I think the players have tremendous respect for him. That means he can spend his energy coaching his team.”

“There’s a lot of depth and versatility, it’s a team that can play a number of different ways. They’re a complete team that checks a lot of boxes.”

Two years ago, the Aggies shared the SEC regular-season title with blue-blood Kentucky. Thanks to an epic rally and memorable collapse by Northern Iowa, Kennedy’s team reached the Sweet 16 and finished 28-9. That followed his first four seasons when A&M won 14, 18, 18 and 21.

That steady progress slammed to a stop last season. The Aggies had to replace four starters. Then, freshman point guard J.J. Caldwell was declared ineligible a month before the season started. Kennedy compares a basketball team without a point guard to a football team without a quarterback.

“It was hard last year, we had to coach every possession, manage the game every time we had the ball,” he says. “We had to be perfect offensively and obviously we weren’t.”

The Aggies’ 15-16 record was largely a product of finishing in the middle of Division I in effective field goal percentage and near the bottom in turnovers per possession.

“Last year they were pitching it all over the place,” Greenberg says. “Good point guard play makes the game easier for everyone. That’s becoming the reality.”

Kennedy overcompensated with this year’s roster. Caldwell is available after a redshirt season plus Starks, a freshman, is a “scoring point guard.” Gilder, who played the point last year, is an emergency reserve when healthy. Wilson, the graduate transfer, has started every game and has helped stabilize the offense. Familiarity helped him choose the Aggies. Assistant coach Isaac Chew joined the A&M staff from Virginia Tech in the off-season. Chew recruited Wilson to Marquette.

“The difficult schedule, playing in the SEC, that was part of the challenge I wanted,” Wilson says. “I knew the kind of team that we could have. I’m rockin’ with these guys and we can beat anybody on any given day. Every day, every work out, every practice, we’re telling each other we’re the No. 1 team in the country in our eyes. We know we’ve put the work in.”

Wilson held off on choosing A&M until after Robert Williams’ decision last March to return to College Station. The 6-foot-10 Williams was projected as a potential NBA Draft lottery pick. His decision not only lured Wilson it raised his teammates’ hopes.

“That gave us a boost knowing that we had a guy who was good enough to help us win a national championship,” Davis says.

Last season, Williams averaged 11.9 points and 8.2 rebounds and was named the SEC defensive player of the year. His 7-foot-5 wing span and his athletic talents have become the stuff of legends. ESPN’s Greenberg describes him as “a genetic freak in a lot of ways.” Gilder calls him a “unicorn.”

When Williams arrived on campus, Gilder remembers the handshakes and the smiles. It was as if Williams was running for class president.

“Then I saw him play and it was, ‘Oh, my.’ He is a freak of nature. People don’t understand what he’s like – 6-10, 7-5 wing span, fastest dude on the team … he lifts weights, every time he lifts I think he gains about four pounds of muscle.”

The 20-year-old Williams displayed rare patience and perspective in delaying his pro career. He says he has “confetti dreams” (a national championship) and that the NBA stands for No Boys Allowed.

“So few kids today know where they are and what it takes to get to the league and be successful,” Kennedy says. “He didn’t want to go with the possibility he could wind up in the G-League because he’s so young. To his credit, he was patient about his future. It shows how unselfish he is. He enjoys his teammates, he enjoys being here, he understands what it means to be a part of a college team at this point in his life. I know that sounds corny but that’s one of the reasons why he came back. He can be as good as wants to be.”

That level has yet to be reached. If Williams was a potential lottery pick last year, is stock is likely falling. Williams was suspended for the first two games and also missed two games with a concussion. When he has played, the offensive production has been negligible, averaging 7.3 per game.

KenPom.com lists A&M as Division I’s eighth-tallest team. Williams is averaging 10.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots per game. The 6-foot-10 Davis is averaging 13.9 and 8.4. Hogg, the leading scorer, and Gilder have proven to be solid perimeter scoring threats. Wilson’s steady play at the point (12.3 points, 4.6 assists) has tied everything together.

“The fact I thought this team could be really good was one of the reasons for coming back,” Williams says. “We came in knowing that people were kind of underrating us but we knew what we had. We had the mindset that we had to change peoples’ mentality about us and the program. A&M is not really a basketball school. We believe in ourselves. I came here because I thought it could be something special.”

“Could be” are the crucial and operative words. Starting with Saturday’s SEC opener at Alabama, Texas A&M has two months to strap in, buckle down and make sure that there are no more news releases about suspensions.