How Did We Get Here?
Four years ago, Texas A&M signed what was widely regarded as the best recruiting class in program history. D.J. Hogg, Tyler Davis, Elijah Thomas, Admon Gilder, and Kobie Eubanks were all ranked in the Top 100 of the 247 Sports composite, and the class overall ranked fourth nationally. To that group, the Aggies would add two more Top 100 recruits the next year in Robert Williams and J.J. Caldwell.
Admon Gilder is the only player left in the program out of that group, all of which should currently be juniors and seniors. Thomas, Eubanks, and Caldwell all transferred out of the program, while Davis, Hogg, and Williams left for the NBA — and Williams was the only one who was drafted. What should be the core of the 2018-19 team will largely be spending the season elsewhere.
The two-year recruiting bump did have a very real impact in College Station. The Aggies made the Sweet 16 twice and won the SEC regular season title — its first conference title in thirty years — in 2016. But it felt like it could have been a lot more than that, and so the 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes now feel like a disappointment.
What’s more, Billy Kennedy’s recruiting success seems to have only been temporary. After signing the #4 class nationally in 2015 and #19 in 2016, the last two recruiting classes have been ranked #29 (2017) and #120 (2018.) And the program’s become kind of a revolving door; over the past two years, four players (not counting the three early entries) have left the program with eligibility remaining.
The short version of all this is that while Texas A&M does bring back a couple of solid players, otherwise the roster is kind of a disaster. The Aggies will field a team with ten scholarship players, and a lot of holes left behind by all the departures are now patched up with transfers. We’ve seen this approach work before, but we also saw what Billy Kennedy could do with a good roster in 2017-18: scrape into the tournament with a 20-12 record (after being ranked in the Top 5 at midseason) which was only salvaged by a Sweet 16 run. What Kennedy might do with this roster, well... we’re about to find out.
Relatively speaking, this is the team’s strength. Admon Gilder has been a rock for Texas A&M over the last three years; he practically carried the team in SEC play in 2016-17 when the Aggies had a bunch of problems due to suspensions and injuries. His scoring average dropped from 13.7 ppg as a sophomore to 12.3 as a junior, but that was mostly a function of the Aggies not needing him to carry the team; his shooting percentages increased to 50.6 percent inside the arc and 39.5 percent outside; he’s also a good free throw shooter (77.4 percent career.) And he was remarkably reliable down the stretch last year, scoring in double figures in each of the Aggies’ final 14 games.
Sophomore guard T.J. Starks worked his way into the starting lineup in late January, though much of that had to do with Texas A&M not really having another option at the point after promising redshirt freshman J.J. Caldwell got himself dismissed from the team and Duane Wilson got injured. Starks did average 14.7 ppg over the last 15 games of the season, though he attempted 186 shots and was also a turnover machine, coughing the ball up five times per 40 minutes. To be sure, some of that was a result of him dominating the ball long before he was ready to, but aside from the scoring average none of his stat line looked particularly pretty. But with this roster, he might have to dominate the ball again.
The third returning guard is 6’4” sophomore Jay Jay Chandler, who scored 27 of the 59 points he scored in SEC play in just two games: 17 in a home loss to Florida, and 10 in a road loss to LSU. Chandler played just 11.4 minutes per game as a freshman, a number that is almost certain to go up with so little returning from last year’s team.
To that group, Billy Kennedy added a couple of JUCO transfers: Wendell Mitchell, a 6’3” junior guard who started his career at Baylor before averaging 19.8 ppg at Trinity Valley CC last year; and Brandon Mahan, a 6’5” sophomore who averaged 14.1 ppg and shot 50.3 percent from three at Chipola JC. Either one could make an impact for the Aggies, and they’ll really need at least one of them to for this team to have a chance at the NCAA Tournament.
6’7” sophomore Savion Flagg is now one of just two former Top 100 recruits on the roster, but he didn’t make much of an impact as a freshman, averaging 4.1 ppg and 3.4 rpg while playing 15.6 minutes per game.
Flagg will play more minutes this season and his production will need to increase, because the rest of the frontcourt is a patchwork. 6’9”, 244-pound junior Josh Nebo sat out last season after transferring in from St. Francis (PA), where he averaged 12.0 ppg and 8.2 rpg as a sophomore in 2016-17. Those are nice numbers, but they also came against a considerably lower level of competition than he’ll see in the SEC; the Northeast Conference is generally regarded as one of the weakest in Division I. And what little action he has seen against quality opponents hasn’t gone particularly well; in four games against Tier A+B opponents (as defined by KenPom) two years ago, Nebo averaged 9.5 ppg and shot 38.9 percent from the floor. He has size and he’s had a year of practice against Tyler Davis and Robert Williams — but if Texas A&M is counting on him to play a major role, this could be a scary year. The same, too, can be said for Christian Mekowulu, a 6’8” graduate transfer from Tennessee State who averaged 12.7 ppg and 7.9 rpg a year ago, but likewise struggled against good competition.
The Aggies also have a pair of returnees from last year’s team. 6’10” sophomore Isiah Jasey appeared in 15 games and played a grand total of 50 minutes last season, while 6’9”, 196-pound John Walker III took a redshirt year. In such a thin frontcourt, Texas A&M will hope to get some production out of both.
|11/18||vs. Minnesota (Vancouver, BC)|
|11/20||vs. Washington (Vancouver, BC)|
|12/15||vs. Oregon State (Portland, OR)|
|2/6||at Ole Miss|
|2/16||at South Carolina|
|3/9||at Mississippi State|
Billy Kennedy’s schedule almost looks like he made it thinking he’d have a better team than this. A road trip to Gonzaga, neutral-site games against what should be improved teams from Minnesota, Washington, and Oregon State, and some salty mid-majors like Valpo and Texas Southern seems like the kind of schedule you put together if you’re expecting to make a run at a NCAA Tournament bid — not the kind of schedule you want if you’re looking to avoid the basement of the SEC.
The conference schedule is rather manageable, with Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, Missouri, and South Carolina on the slate twice. I mean, it could be worse.
If you can’t tell, I am having a very hard time buying into this Texas A&M team. Part of that is because Billy Kennedy doesn’t have a great track record: he’s made two NCAA Tournaments in seven years in Texas A&M, and that was with two of the best rosters in Texas A&M’s history. Outside of those two years, he’s gone 34-38 in the SEC (and 4-14 in the Big 12 in his first year.)
And this might be the worst roster he’s had in College Station. There are two former Top 100 recruits on the roster; Admon Gilder is a proven commodity at this point, but Savion Flagg has a lot of work to do. T.J. Starks was an inefficient scorer who was a turnover machine as a freshman. And those are the proven commodities on this team. Aside from those three, Texas A&M has four transfers entering the program, and three other players who have played 306 minutes of college basketball — combined. Oh, and did we mention that there are only ten scholarship players on the roster? Texas A&M is a couple of injuries away from giving serious minutes to a walk-on. Or just playing Gilder 40 minutes a game again.
This feels quite a bit like Texas A&M’s 2016-17 team in terms of the short bench and the high volume of unproven players, but at least that team had some upside with Tyler Davis, D.J. Hogg, and Robert Williams. This team doesn’t have that — just the unproven parts and some wishes.
I started this preview series thinking that the two teams with new coaches — Georgia and Ole Miss — would be fighting over the SEC’s basement, but it’s honestly difficult to look at this roster and not think that Texas A&M will be joining those two in fighting for the bottom. And, oh yeah, Georgia and Ole Miss will probably get better coaching. This team may very well finish last in the SEC.