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SEC Hoops Preview Series: Texas A&M

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To get everyone up to speed on the upcoming basketball season, AOG is running down all fourteen teams in the SEC. Today's preview: the Texas A&M Aggies.

Somehow doesn't play for Duke.
Somehow doesn't play for Duke.
Kevin C. Cox

Basketball season is less than a month away.  You've probably forgotten about basketball since March, so to get everyone back up to speed on the state of hoops in the SEC, I'm writing previews for each of the 14 teams.  All work is my own, though I am relying on kenpom.com and sports-reference.com for some statistics.  Teams will be previewed in reverse order of their projected finish (according to me, anyway), so as this is the sixth of 14 previews, this is the team I project to finish 9th in the conference.

Texas A&M Aggies 2014-15 Basketball Preview

How Did We Get Here?

When Billy Kennedy was hired as Texas A&M's head coach in 2011, the Aggies were coming off their most successful stretch in history, having made six straight NCAA Tournaments under Billy Gillispie and then Mark Turgeon.  And Kennedy himself was coming off a successful run at Murray State: Vanderbilt fans probably remember that loss to the Racers in the first round of the 2010 tournament.  You could have expected continued success under Kennedy.

The dirty secret, though, was that Turgeon hadn't recruited all that well.  Even on his last team at A&M, two of the three best players according to Win Shares were Billy Gillispie recruits.  The short version was that Turgeon spent four years mostly winning with Gillispie's players, parlayed that success into the Maryland job, and left Kennedy holding the bag.  To add insult to injury, the best player off the 2011 team (Khris Middleton) got hurt in Kennedy's first year and wasn't terribly effective when healthy and the result was a 14-18 season.

The past two years, the Aggies have seemed to be running in place, winning 18 games both times, finishing 7-11 and then 8-10 in the SEC and never representing any sort of a serious threat for an NCAA bid.  A&M only had one senior on scholarship last season, but in kind of a recurring theme, they lost two players who still had eligibility remaining.  Kennedy enters this season on the hot seat, although he may ultimately be retained for reasons that have nothing to do with the team's performance on the court (more on that later.)

Projected Depth Chart

Quick note: For starters, I'm using the five "traditional" positions on the floor even if the players may be otherwise listed on the roster, so you may see guards listed as forwards, forwards listed as centers, etc.  Recruiting rankings are the composite rankings from 247sports.com.

Losses
  • Jamal Jones (27.8 mpg, 13.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg; went to NBA D-League)
  • J'Mychal Reese (6 games, 16.0 mpg, 7.0 ppg, 1.0 apg; transfer/North Texas)
  • Fabyon Harris (23.3 mpg, 6.3 ppg, 1.7 apg; graduated)
  • Shawn Smith (22.2 mpg, 5.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg; transfer/Lee JC)
Starting Five
  • PG Alex Robinson (6'1", 174 Fr., Arlington, TX); #13 PG and #60 overall
  • SG Alex Caruso (6'5", 184 Jr., College Station, TX)
  • SF Jalen Jones (6'7", 223 Jr., Dallas, TX); transfer/SMU
  • PF Antwan Space (6'8", 235 Jr., DeSoto, TX)
  • C Kourtney Roberson (6'9", 247 Sr., Arcadia, LA)
Top Reserves
  • G Jordan Green (6'5", 191 Sr., Flower Mound, TX)
  • F Davonte Fitzgerald (6'7", 209 Soph., Atlanta, GA)
  • G Peyton Allen (6'5", 202 Fr., Chatham, IL); #60 SG and #242 overall
  • F Dylan Johns (6'11", 231 Soph., Ipswich, England)
Bench
  • G Avery Johnson (5'11", 182 Fr., Plano, TX); #71 PG and #355 overall
  • F Tavario Miller (6'7", 226 Soph., Long Island, Bahamas)
  • F Tonny Trocha-Morelos (6'10", 224 Fr., Cartagena, Colombia); #39 PF and #156 overall (2013)
Sitting Out
  • G Danuel House (6'7", 207 Jr., Sugar Land, TX); transfer/Houston

One thing that I've always found infuriating is the equation of "leading scorer" with "best player."  Jamal Jones led A&M in scoring last year with 13.4 ppg, but he was hardly the Aggies' best player.  The more advanced Win Shares stat had Jones as the Aggies' third-best player.  And while I previously stuck up for Marshall Henderson, a similar high-volume, low-percentage shooter who a lot of people thought were overrated, in this case the stats aren't lying.

Jones was the Aggies' leading scorer because he took, by a wide margin, the most shots of anyone on the team.  He attempted 174 more shots than Kourtney Roberson, who had the second-most attempts, yet Jones only made 13 more shots than Roberson on the year.  Jones was an inefficient offensive player, one who spent a lot of time dribbling around and firing up 18-footers, or going to the basket and getting his shot blocked (the Aggies, as a team, saw 14.5 percent of their shots get rejected in conference play, the highest percentage in the SEC.)  What's more, unlike Henderson, the Aggies really did have a better option than this: the highly-efficient Roberson, who shot 58.5 percent on twos but for some reason did not get the ball very often.  This may be a rare case in which "addition by subtraction" is a fairly accurate description.

Still, though, neither Jones' playing time nor his shooting decreased as the season went on -- in fact, in the Aggies' double-overtime loss to Missouri in the SEC Tournament, Jones played 44 minutes and attempted sixteen shots.  Those numbers suggest that Kennedy either didn't have any better ideas or didn't have any control over Jones.  Either way, it's not a good look, and it also wasn't a good look when Jones took a parting shot at the coaching staff on Twitter on his way out of the program.

All of that has kind of been a feature of Billy Kennedy teams.  While Kennedy is generally a good defensive coach, his teams have frequently combined slow tempo with inefficient offenses, leading to some pretty horrendous raw offensive numbers.  The Aggies averaged 60.9 ppg in SEC games last year, and while the slow tempo played a part, this still wasn't a good offensive team.  Frequently offensive possessions consisted of a lot of dribbling around before somebody fired up an ill-advised shot; basically, there didn't seem to be any real game plan in the halfcourt offense.  While the Aggies were good at forcing turnovers on the defensive end, these didn't generally result in too many transition baskets, which might have made the offense look a bit better.

The Aggies do return their two best players according to Win Shares -- Kourtney Roberson and Alex Caruso.  The aforementioned Roberson is one of the better two-way bigs in the SEC.  Roberson is a strong rebounder and defender, and also an efficient offensive player, albeit one who needs to get more involved on the offensive end -- Roberson only attempted 6.7 shots per game last year.

He'll likely be joined up front by junior Antwan Space.  Space, a former top recruit who transferred from Florida State, struggled on the offensive end last year.  But at the very least, Space can help the Aggies on the boards and on the defensive end.  Off the bench, the Aggies have a pair of international players in 6'11" sophomore Dylan Johns and 6'10" freshman Tonny Trocha-Morelos, the latter having waited two years to get his eligibility in order, reportedly due to struggling with the English language.  (Johns, who's from England, obviously had no such problems.)  Johns showed clear potential in his limited minutes last year but also was almost totally raw.  The same could probably be said for Trocha-Morelos, who will get his first taste of college basketball this year.  Either or both could at least provide a body off the bench to take some of the pressure off Roberson.  Tavario Miller, who averaged 1.8 ppg and 2.4 rpg while only playing 9.8 mpg as a freshman, will also be available on the bench to back up Space.

To make things confusing for everyone involved, Kennedy brought in Jalen Jones, who aside from having a similar name to Jamal Jones, is a similar size and plays the same position.  Jalen Jones averaged 14.0 ppg and 7.7 rpg as a sophomore at SMU before falling out of favor with Larry Brown.  Davonte Fitzgerald was the Aggies' fourth-leading scorer as a freshman but had similar issues with inefficiency to Jamal Jones, and spent most of the offseason working his way back from a knee injury that ended his season prematurely.

Alex Caruso spent most of last season as the Aggies' point guard, but should move back to his natural shooting guard this year with the arrival of freshman Alex Robinson.  Caruso isn't a great shooter, but he's one of the best perimeter defenders in the SEC (he actually led A&M in blocks last year despite being just 6'5") and despite not looking like a particularly good athlete, he's pretty good at driving to the basket and creating off the dribble.  He also excels at diving for loose balls.  If he played for Duke, he'd currently be the most hated player in college basketball.

Robinson, one of the top point guard recruits in the country, will likely start at the point as a freshman.  But if Robinson struggles, Kennedy probably won't hesitate to go to Caruso given that he's already shown that he can handle the point at least adequately.  Another freshman, Avery Johnson -- the son of the former NBA player and Dallas Mavericks coach -- can also play the point but will probably come off the bench this year.

Jordan Green, one of just two seniors on the roster, probably won't start unless Robinson isn't cutting it at the point, instead functioning as a backup on the wing.  Green is more of a slasher than a shooter, though, as he's only shot 25.2 percent from three during his career at Texas A&M.  The lack of shooters is a general problem for the Aggies, and it's why freshman Peyton Allen could play an important role for this team.  Allen probably won't start but his ability as a shooter could earn him playing time on this team.

Schedule

Non-Conference
11/5 Texas A&M-Commerce (exh.)
11/14 Northwestern State
11/20 vs. Dayton
11/21 Puerto Rico Tip-Off
11/23 Puerto Rico Tip-Off
11/28 New Orleans
12/3 Sam Houston State
12/6 Arizona State
12/9 at Baylor
12/13 Youngstown State
12/20 vs. Kansas State (Kansas City, MO)
12/30 Mercer
1/3 Hartford
Conference Home-and-Home

Alabama, LSU, Missouri, Auburn, Florida

Conference Home

Kentucky, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Georgia

Conference Road

Tennessee, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Arkansas

The non-conference schedule is fairly strong.  While there are three games with Southland teams, two of those are against contenders (Northwestern State and Sam Houston State.)  There's also a home game against America East favorite Hartford, last year's NCAA Tournament darling Mercer (who will be rebuilding this year), and games against Arizona State, Baylor, and Kansas State, with two of those away from College Station.  Texas A&M will also see Dayton and potentially UConn in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.  There's really little to complain about with this schedule.

The conference schedule is middling.  Florida is on the schedule twice, as is LSU, but Alabama, Missouri, and Auburn aren't too imposing.

Outlook

The talent is here for Kennedy to put together a pretty good team.  But like much of the middle of the pack in the SEC, there's plenty of reason for skepticism as well.  In his career, Kennedy has almost never been able to put together a truly good offensive team; the Elston Turner-led 2013 team was decent offensively in spite of Turner being a good scorer, and other than that he had a 2010 Murray State team that had Isaiah Canaan on it.  Basically, Kennedy can't seem to coach an offense unless he happens to have a player who's so good that even Kennedy can't screw it up.

On the flipside, with Caruso and Roberson returning, you can be sure that A&M will play good defense, and that should be enough to keep them in most games.  That makes Kennedy's job slightly easier; the defense should be good enough that even an adequate offense could be enough to push the Aggies up the standings and into NCAA Tournament contention.  Jalen Jones is a nice piece, but Kennedy could stand to design more plays for Kourtney Roberson.  Going with a freshman point guard won't help things, either.

While on the surface, Kennedy enters his fourth year on the hot seat, his saving grace could be the talent that will be entering the program in 2015-16.  In addition to getting Danuel House, a former five-star recruit who transferred from Houston and is sitting out this year, eligible, Kennedy has a recruiting class coming in that is (as of this writing) ranked #2 in the country per 247sports.com.  Even if the on-court results this year are subpar, A&M brass will likely think long and hard before risking breaking up all that incoming talent, and so that recruiting class alone could get Kennedy another year in College Station.