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Can Texas A&M sustain last year’s breakthrough?

The Aggies have talent at the top, but there’s almost no depth here.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Texas A&M vs Oklahoma Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

In Billy Kennedy’s first three years in College Station, Texas A&M seemed to return to the old normal. Before 2006, Texas A&M hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in 19 years, and hadn’t won a tournament game in 26 years. Billy Gillispie ended both of those droughts in his second year in College Station, and that begun a streak of six consecutive years in which the Aggies not only made the NCAA Tournament, but won at least one game while there.

But in 2016, in addition to returning A&M to the level the program saw in the Gillispie and Turgeon years, Kennedy ended a different drought that had eluded both Gillispie and Turgeon: he won a conference title. That hadn’t been done since Shelby Metcalf split the SWC title in 1986. It earned Kennedy a contract extension, after his job might have been on the line entering the season.

While Billy Kennedy’s first four teams at A&M played good defense, in 2016 the Aggies went from good to excellent on the defensive end. And much of that was accomplished by being one of the best teams in the country at forcing turnovers. The Aggies had the SEC’s best defense in terms of efficiency, in spite of only being average at defending shots (in SEC play, opponents had an effective field goal percentage of 49.3 percent, eighth in the conference), but the team’s prowess at forcing turnovers more than made up for that.

What’s more, the Aggies were second in the SEC in offensive efficiency after being fifth the year before — and 13th the year before that. The improvements on the offensive end were minor, but when paired with a suffocating defense, they were enough to propel the Aggies to a share of the SEC title and a Sweet 16 berth.

But now, can the Aggies sustain that level? Last year’s team was good, but the Aggies started four seniors who accounted for 59 percent of the scoring and 52 percent of the rebounding. That’s quite a lot to replace, though there’s some good news in the fact that Texas A&M didn’t suffer any further defections. That had been something of a problem for Billy Kennedy in previous years: after the 2014-15 season, six players left the program with eligibility remaining. The year before that, three players left.

Texas A&M also lost two assistant coaches as Kyle Keller took the Stephen F. Austin job and Rick Stansbury went to Western Kentucky.

But the good news is that while four starters are gone off a 28-9 team, the guys replacing them have star potential. Texas A&M signed the 4th-ranked recruiting class in the country in 2015, and those players are now sophomores after being solid role players in 2015-16. The Aggies have a lot of role players who are going to be asked to step up their game this year, but at least those role players were rated highly as recruits and played well in limited roles as freshmen.

So what’s the bad news? Well, although Texas A&M’s 2016 recruiting class was ranked 18th nationally, two of the five recruits were ruled ineligible by the NCAA (and one of them went to a JUCO). Thanks in large part to those rulings, the Aggies only have ten scholarship players available, and only three of those are upperclassmen — and one of the upperclassmen has spent three years playing in the Atlantic Sun Conference.

In other words, while there is a ton of potential in College Station, it’s also pretty easy to see how this could go horribly wrong. Still, the Aggies were picked to finish third in the SEC in a poll of seven TSK contributors. So perhaps after last season, people trust Billy Kennedy to push the right buttons again — but A&M will also need some good fortune with injuries to live up to their potential, because the depth behind the talented sophomore class is pretty sketchy.

Backcourt

# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG SPG WS Notes
Danuel House 30.9 15.6 4.8 2.1 1.8 0.5 4.1
Alex Caruso 28.8 8.1 3.6 5.0 2.4 2.1 4.4
Anthony Collins 25.7 4.5 1.5 4.2 1.4 1.0 2.6
3 Admon Gilder 6'4" 198 SO. 0.9529 20.4 7.0 2.3 1.3 0.7 0.9 2.9
0 Kobie Eubanks 6'5" 206 SO. 0.9464 4.5 1.5 1.3 0.4 0.1 0.4 0.2
5 J.C. Hampton 6'1" 192 SR. NR 32.9 15.9 3.6 2.7 1.9 1.2 2.6 Grad transfer (Lipscomb)
23 Caleb Smith 6'0" 178 FR. NR
4 J.J. Caldwell 6'1" 184 FR. 0.9744 Ineligible 2016-17

Admon Gilder was one of the SEC’s top reserves as a freshman; in 20.4 minutes per game, he averaged 7 ppg and also posted the SEC’s seventh-best steal rate in conference play. The latter might be important, as this year he’ll be asked to step up his game and replace Alex Caruso, who was one of the nation’s best perimeter defenders. Gilder could ultimately wind up being a better offensive and all-around player than Caruso.

But that’s only one of three starting guards from last year who need to be replaced, and the other two replacements aren’t so clear. Anthony Collins had his limitations, but as pass-first point guards went, he was pretty solid; now, after freshman J.J. Caldwell was ruled ineligible for this season, the Aggies may not have a true point guard on the roster. J.C. Hampton, a graduate transfer from Lipscomb, is probably better described as a combo guard or, if you’re being charitable, a scoring point guard; he’s also coming from an Atlantic Sun Conference team that went 12-21 last year. Sometimes, star players from the low end of Division I do fine when they take a grad transfer year in a power conference, but other times they don’t.

Freshman Caleb Smith was a late addition to the 2016 recruiting class who didn’t commit to the Aggies until June, and while exceptions do exist, usually there’s a reason that a player is still available that late in the recruiting process. Smith may be the closest thing to a true point guard on the roster, though, and in any case the Aggies’ bench is pretty thin with only four scholarship guards available, so Kennedy may have no choice but to play him.

Kobie Eubanks joined the team at midseason last year — and for unknown reasons, Billy Kennedy decided to burn a year of eligibility in order to have him play 36 minutes of mostly garbage time. Needless to say, Eubanks will be playing a lot more in 2016-17 as the Aggies need someone to at least attempt to replace House’s production. In one of the few times that Eubanks played extended minutes last season, he did notch six points and seven rebounds in a win over LSU in the SEC Tournament. Eubanks was highly rated out of high school and could be a key player for the Aggies this year.

Frontcourt

# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG BPG WS Notes
Jalen Jones 27.3 15.3 7.2 0.6 1.6 0.3 3.7
Elijah Thomas 9.9 3.8 2.5 0.8 1.1 1.0 0.2 Transfer (Clemson)
34 Tyler Davis 6'10" 270 SO. 0.9870 22.8 11.3 6.2 0.7 1.6 1.1 4.4
1 D.J. Hogg 6'9" 220 SO. 0.9878 18.2 6.2 2.9 0.9 0.6 0.1 2.1
10 Tonny Trocha-Morelos 6'10" 224 JR. 0.8966 17.4 7.0 4.3 1.0 0.7 0.6 2.7
42 Tavario Miller 6'8" 227 SR. 0.8964 10.8 2.1 3.7 0.3 0.8 0.3 1.0
2 Eric Vila 6'11" 206 FR. 0.8467
44 Robert Williams 6'9" 237 FR. 0.9759

Billy Kennedy scored a recruiting coup a couple of years ago when he landed D.J. Hogg and Tyler Davis, star players for a state championship team in Texas, and that paid big dividends in 2015-16. Davis was one of the SEC’s best freshmen in 2015-16, shooting 65.5 percent from the floor and emerging as one of the SEC’s best rebounders. And that was in just 22.8 minutes per game.

So why can’t Davis keep that up in more minutes? Well, Davis was something like the Aggies’ third or fourth option as a freshman, and that probably won’t be the case this year (Or it might be; Billy Kennedy seems to have an annoying habit of not feeding his big men). The other issue is that the reason Davis only played 22 minutes a game as a freshman was poor conditioning, in addition to frequent foul trouble. If those problems aren’t fixed, Davis might not be able to go 30 minutes a night. Let’s just say that A&M is not a tournament team this year with Davis playing 22 minutes a game.

Hogg was more up and down as a freshman. He struggled with his jump shot (shooting just 33.1 percent on threes) and also at the foul line (64.7 percent). Scouts continue to insist that he has huge upside, but as a freshman he seemed to be pretty far away from reaching it: After scoring 45 points in the Aggies’ first three games of the season, he reached double figures in scoring just four more times the rest of the season. But that was as a bench player behind Danuel House and Jalen Jones; this year, A&M needs Hogg to contribute much more than he did as a freshman. And while there’s reason to believe he’s capable of doing that, it’s certainly not a guarantee that he will.

The Aggies have a couple of interesting upperclassmen in the frontcourt. Tonny Trocha-Morelos, the 6’10” junior from Colombia, is a solid shot blocker and rebounder. He also has one of those stat lines that’s a real head-scratcher: A 37 percent shooter from three-point range ... and a career 46 percent shooter at the foul line. 6’8” senior Tavario Miller doesn’t shoot well from the foul line, or anywhere really — but in terms of rate stats, he’s been one of the best rebounders in the SEC over the last three years, albeit in limited minutes. That’s made him useful as a backup, but his extremely limited (to put it kindly) offensive game means he’s not much more than that. Both Trocha-Morelos and Miller will see time backing up Davis and Hogg up front.

If not them, the Aggies also have a couple of freshman with size. Robert Williams, a 6’9” freshman from Vivian, Louisiana, has good length and athleticism but needs some more polish (it’s never a good sign when the highlight tape consists of nothing but dunks and blocked shots). Eric Vila, a 6’11” freshman from Girona, Spain, was another late addition to the signing class, though he’s rail-thin at 206 pounds. But if A&M has a slew of injuries or foul trouble in the frontcourt, Vila may have to play early on.

Schedule

Date Opponent Time (CT) TV
11/11 Northwestern State 8:00 PM SEC Network
11/14 American 7:00 PM SEC Network+
11/18 Southern Cal 6:00 PM SEC Network
11/24 to 27 Wooden Legacy (Fullerton, CA)
12/5 A&M-Corpus Christi 7:00 PM SEC Network+
12/7 Denver 7:00 PM SEC Network+
12/10 South Carolina State 7:00 PM SEC Network
12/17 vs. Arizona (Houston, TX) 11:00 AM ESPN2
12/21 St. Francis (PA) 7:00 PM SEC Network+
12/29 Tennessee 8:00 PM SEC Network
1/3 at Kentucky 8:00 PM ESPN
1/7 at South Carolina TBA CBS
1/11 LSU 7:30 PM SEC Network
1/14 at Mississippi State 12:00 PM CBS
1/17 Arkansas 6:00 PM SEC Network
1/21 Georgia 11:00 AM ESPN or ESPN2
1/25 at Ole Miss 6:30 PM ESPN2
1/28 at West Virginia 11:00 AM ESPN
1/31 Vanderbilt 8:00 PM ESPNU
2/4 at LSU 8:00 PM ESPNU
2/8 Missouri 7:30 PM SEC Network
2/11 at Florida 11:00 AM ESPN or ESPN2
2/16 at Vanderbilt 6:00 PM ESPN or ESPN2
2/18 Auburn 3:00 PM ESPNU
2/22 at Arkansas 7:30 PM SEC Network
2/25 Alabama TBA ESPN or ESPN2
2/28 at Missouri 6:00 PM SEC Network
3/4 Kentucky 11:00 AM CBS

Texas A&M’s nonconference schedule includes a neutral-court game against Arizona, West Virginia in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, and the Wooden Legacy — which has an okay field, but nothing special (Dayton and UCLA are about as good as it gets there) — and is otherwise fairly nondescript. It’s fitting for a relatively young team, but probably not for one with NCAA Tournament aspirations.

The Aggies draw Kentucky twice in SEC play, and also have two games apiece against Arkansas and Vanderbilt, but LSU and Missouri (who are two of the Aggies’ “permanent” rivals on the hardwood) potentially being two of the SEC’s worst teams doesn’t help. The finishing stretch is pretty tough, though, with road trips to Florida, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas as well as a visit from Kentucky.

Outlook

How much mileage will Billy Kennedy be able to get out of the 2015 recruiting class? When Texas A&M signed Kennedy to a contract extension, that decision was based almost entirely on the 2015-16 season: In four years prior, the Aggies were 30-42 in conference play.

The 2015-16 season showed that Kennedy might have some upside in College Station, but how sustainable is it? Three of the four seniors on the team had transferred in from elsewhere; the 2015 recruiting class was ranked 4th nationally by 247 Sports, but Kennedy’s two prior recruiting classes had ranked 44th and 50th What changed was that Kennedy hired Rick Stansbury as an assistant coach to handle the recruiting, and he’s now gone. The 2016 recruiting class did rank 18th, but two of the players didn’t qualify.

In short, while the 2015-16 season showed us Texas A&M’s upside under Billy Kennedy (good), 2016-17 will tell us a lot about whether that was a flash in the pan or if it’s something the Aggies can build on. The Aggies have talent at the top, but almost none of it is proven (the closest thing there is to a proven entity is Tyler Davis, and it’s not clear he can play 30 minutes a night), and with only ten scholarship players there’s precious little depth.

It’s easy to see how this season could end in the NCAA Tournament, but the floor for this team is awfully low: The Aggies are probably an injury or two away from total disaster. In a lot of ways, this team reminds me of Vanderbilt from last year (for both good and bad), and we saw how that ended. So while the pick for now is third, that almost feels like a best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is pretty bad.