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Can Buzz Williams get more out of Texas A&M than Billy Kennedy did?

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Texas A&M has the most returning possession-minutes in the SEC.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

The turning point of Billy Kennedy’s tenure as Texas A&M’s head basketball coach came on December 30, 2017. The Aggies went to Tuscaloosa with an 11-1 record and ranked fifth in the country — which, by the way, tied for the highest ranking in Texas A&M’s history.

They lost, 79-57. Then they went on to lose four more. By the end of January, the Aggies were 14-8, 3-6 in the SEC, and while they might never have been in real danger of missing the NCAA Tournament, they clearly weren’t going to consistently be an elite team, either. Two games in March pretty well summed up that team: the Aggies blew out defending national champion North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Tournament; then they got run off the court by Michigan in the Sweet 16.

And, to be sure, this all sounds like a microcosm of Kennedy’s eight-year tenure in College Station. The highs were some of the highest Texas A&M had seen: the program’s first regular season conference title in 30 years; two Sweet 16 appearances. But the overall product was something considerably less than that: a 66-78 conference record (that’s counting a year in the Big 12), and just two NCAA Tournament appearances in eight years. That’s the kind of overall resume that gives a coach relatively little security when his program has a down year.

And 2018-19 was very much a down year. After opening the season with a win over Savannah State, the Aggies lost four straight — to good competition, but still — and took an ugly, 15-point loss to Texas Southern just before New Year’s. They started 1-8 in SEC play and while they did rally to go 5-4 over the latter half of the conference schedule, it wasn’t enough to save Kennedy’s job. Their season ended with a blowout loss to Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament.

Even Kennedy’s good teams at Texas A&M were plagued by sloppy play on the offensive end and relied on defense; the 2015-16 team won the SEC while ranking 192nd nationally in 3-point percentage and 117th in turnover percentage. These things shouldn’t be a problem with the new coach.

Buzz Williams was the obvious hire to end all obvious hires. Williams made the NCAA Tournament five years in a row as Marquette’s head coach and then, after jumping to Virginia Tech, made three straight NCAA Tournaments at a place where that had never happened before. In 2019, he got the Hokies to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1967. The native of Van Alstyne, Texas, would have been an obvious hire for anyone, but especially at a school located in his home state that really hasn’t had a ton of success — Texas A&M, somehow, has never advanced beyond the Sweet 16. And after suffering through mediocre offense even in the good years, Aggie fans will get a coach whose last three teams at Virginia Tech ranked in the top 30 nationally in offensive efficiency.

But he’ll have his work cut out for him here. The good news: Texas A&M returns 73 percent of its possession-minutes from last season, the highest number in the SEC. The bad: that was off a team that went 14-18, and the newcomers on the team probably aren’t the kind to lead an overnight turnaround.

Who’s gone?

Player MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG Notes
Player MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG Notes
Christian Mekowulu 21.4 8.3 6.4 0.5 0.3 1 graduated
Brandon Mahan 22.5 5.9 2.8 0.7 0.6 0.3 transfer/UCF
Isiah Jasey 9 3.8 2.4 0.2 0.8 0.8 transfer/SMU
John Walker III 13.2 3.3 2.3 0.6 0.4 0.2 transfer/Texas Southern
Chris Collins 14.7 0.7 1.2 1.1 0.5 0 graduated

There are a couple of significant losses in here, both of whom only played a year at Texas A&M. Christian Mekowulu rated as one of the SEC’s best rebounders, though he wasn’t much of an offensive force, and Brandon Mahan was their best three-point shooter. The latter may well have seen the writing on the wall with the coaching change, though, as his minutes were already dwindling toward the end of the season: in five March games, he averaged 16 minutes per game, including 9 in the regular-season finale at Mississippi State.

The others won’t be missed quite as much. Isiah Jasey transferred five games into the season, and John Walker III was much more upside than actual production. That Chris Collins needed to be mentioned was more a testament to the depleted roster that Texas A&M fielded last year than anything to do with his own ability — the former walk-on started 12 games while shooting 3-of-35 from the floor on the season.

Who’s back?

Player MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG Notes
Player MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG Notes
Savion Flagg 34.8 13.9 7.7 2.3 0.7 0.3
Wendell Mitchell 30.7 13 4.2 2.3 1.8 0.1
TJ Starks 27.5 12.3 2.2 3.5 1.2 0
Jay Jay Chandler 23.7 8.3 3.2 1.3 1.3 0.2
Josh Nebo 19.6 8.1 5.4 0.3 0.2 2.3
Mark French 6 0.9 0.4 0.6 0.2 0 former walk-on

Texas A&M returns most of its core from 2018-19; the problem is that at least last season, it wasn’t a very good core.

Savion Flagg is the star player here. The 6’7” junior from Alvin, Texas, had ten games of 20 or more points, including four in the last five games of the season. He also had seven games with 10 or more rebounds, and his shooting percentages weren’t bad: 54.1 percent on twos, 33.8 percent on threes. The one real knock on his game was that he was fairly turnover-prone, though perhaps given Billy Kennedy’s history, that was more a function of the offense than anything specific to Flagg. And down low, 6’9” senior Josh Nebo actually ranked second in the SEC in blocks in spite of playing just 21.4 minutes per game; he also led the SEC in offensive rating, albeit in a role that was mostly limited to stick-backs and dunks.

The guards, though, left a lot to be desired. For whatever reason, Billy Kennedy seemed bound and determined to have TJ Starks be the focal point of the offense: Starks led the SEC in percentage of possessions used while also ranking dead-last in offensive rating. Starks lost his starting spot in February with Texas A&M sitting at 1-8 in the SEC, and the Aggies promptly won four of their next six. And he missed the final five games of the season after suffering a shoulder injury. A lot of Starks’ shots ultimately went to 6’3” senior Wendell Mitchell, who actually led Texas A&M in scoring in SEC play but was only marginally better than Starks. 6’4” junior combo guard Jay Jay Chandler actually was relatively efficient in SEC play, but that only came after he shifted from a starting job into a bench role.

Who’s new?

Player Height Weight Notes
Player Height Weight Notes
Cashius McNeilly 6'4" 180 #131 in 247 Sports composite
Emanuel Miller 6'7" 213 #146 in 247 Sports composite
Jonathan Aku 6'10" 245 #149 in 247 Sports composite
Quenton Jackson 6'5" 171 #6 (JC) in 247 Sports composite
Andre Gordon 6'2" 185 #294 in 247 Sports composite
Yavuz Gultekin 6'7" 201 #299 in 247 Sports composite
Bakari Simmons 6'4" 210 #471 in 247 Sports composite

This is a Buzz Williams recruiting class, not a Billy Kennedy recruiting class. Kennedy’s three recruits were all released from their Letters of Intent after the coaching change (and one, Sahvir Wheeler, wound up at Georgia.) Meanwhile, Cashius McNeilly, Emanuel Miller, Andre Gordon, and Yavuz Gultekin all signed with Virginia Tech in the fall and followed Williams to Texas A&M.

To that group, Williams added one of the top JUCO prospects in the country. Quenton Jackson averaged 18.3 ppg at the College of Central Florida and should compete for playing time immediately on the perimeter. But otherwise, this has the feel of a class that’s more of a long-term play than one for immediate help. There isn’t a single recruit in the top 100 nationally, and one of the three in the top 200 is a guy who reclassified from the 2020 class and may be a redshirt candidate.

Schedule

Date Opponent
Date Opponent
11/6 Northwestern State
11/11 UL Monroe
11/15 Gonzaga
11/20 Troy
11/28 vs. Harvard (Orlando Invitational)
11/29 Orlando Invitational
12/1 Orlando Invitational
12/8 vs. Texas (Fort Worth, TX)
12/15 A&M-Corpus Christi
12/21 Oregon State
12/30 Texas Southern
1/4 at Arkansas
1/7 Ole Miss
1/11 at Vanderbilt
1/14 LSU
1/18 South Carolina
1/21 at Missouri
1/25 Oklahoma State
1/28 at Tennessee
2/1 at Georgia
2/4 Missouri
2/8 at South Carolina
2/12 Florida
2/15 Georgia
2/19 at Alabama
2/22 Mississippi State
2/25 Kentucky
2/29 at LSU
3/4 at Auburn
3/7 Arkansas

The biggest news of the nonconference schedule: Texas A&M scheduled Texas in a regular season game for the first time since the Aggies left the Big 12. On the other hand, the game is in Fort Worth for no particular reason rather than on either campus; they scheduled the game but still couldn’t get it right. The Aggies also host Gonzaga and Oregon State (the latter projected to be a top 100 team in KenPom) and Oklahoma State in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. They’ll play Harvard in the first game of the Orlando Invitational; the rest of the field: Maryland, Temple, USC, Fairfield, Davidson, and Marquette. There’s at least enough substance here that Texas A&M could have a good strength of schedule.

In SEC play, Texas A&M will face Arkansas, LSU, South Carolina, Missouri, and Georgia twice. That’s reasonable.

Outlook

Your opinion on Texas A&M entering 2019-20 really comes down to what you think of the three incumbent guards on the roster (Wendell Mitchell, TJ Starks, and Jay Jay Chandler.) If you think they’re good players who were misused by Billy Kennedy, you can see Texas A&M working its way into the middle of the pack of the SEC standings and potentially challenging for a NCAA Tournament bid.

If you’re like me and view them as average players who were forced into bigger roles than their skills would dictate, then you probably have them toward the bottom of the league. And if you don’t view any of the newcomers as being particularly likely to contribute much in their first year, then you’re picking them 13th in the league. Savion Flagg is a good enough player to keep Texas A&M in a lot of games (and Buzz Williams will probably correctly conclude that he’s the best player on the team, which did not appear to be true of the previous coach), but it’s hard to see the Aggies getting enough guard play to avoid the first night of the SEC Tournament.

Williams will get the program turned around and perhaps establish a higher level of consistency than was seen in Kennedy’s eight-year tenure, but he’ll probably need a year or two to hit cruising altitude. This is a transition year, albeit one where the team might manage to sneak its way into a postseason bid if everything goes well.