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2017-18 SEC Basketball Season Preview: Texas A&M Aggies

The Aggies had one problem in 2016-17, but it was a big one.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Texas A&M Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Texas A&M Aggies 2017-18 Season Preview

Head Coach: Billy Kennedy (115-85, 6 years; 326-264, 19 years overall)

Last year: 16-15 (8-10 SEC); KenPom rating: 64

Returning starters: 5

Returning possession-minutes: 80.5%

Recruiting class ranking: #27 nationally, #7 in SEC


How Did We Get Here?

Sometimes, a team’s statistical profile tells you literally everything you need to know.

In 2016-17, Texas A&M ranked 1st in the SEC in offensive rebounding — and dead last in turnovers. They ranked 1st in defensive block rate, and 11th in defensive turnover rate. They ranked 5th in two-point field goal percentage, eighth in three-point percentage (while not attempting many threes), and 13th in free throw percentage.

That sounds like a team with a very good frontcourt and no point guard, which is exactly what Texas A&M was.

Oh yeah, and they ranked 1st in defensive free throw rate, but 13th in offensive free throw rate. A team that wasn’t committing any fouls and wasn’t really trying to draw contact on the offensive end. You’d expect that from a team with a short bench ... which also described Texas A&M.

Texas A&M had an impressive collection of talent in the frontcourt, but the problems last season were both obvious and predictable. The Aggies had one real point guard in incoming freshman J.J. Caldwell, and when Caldwell was ruled ineligible, the Aggies had no point guard. And the Aggies went about seven deep, and one of those was a walk-on. Oh, and when starter D.J. Hogg went down in February, the Aggies went six deep. And one of those was a walk-on.

Some preseason prognosticators last year fell in love with the Aggies’ upside, but once Caldwell was ruled out for the season, the Aggies didn’t have a point guard. Admon Gilder, a natural shooting guard, tried to do it. So did Chris Collins, a walk-on. But point guard play, or lack thereof, was an issue all year.

Texas A&M started the season well, going 8-3 to open the season with all three losses coming to NCAA Tournament teams (USC, UCLA, and Arizona.) But the team hit a funk when SEC play started, dropping 5 of 6 and then mostly playing .500 ball the rest of the way. Desperate to find a point guard, Billy Kennedy tried graduate transfer JC Hampton, then tried Collins for eight games, then went with Gilder. But turnovers were a problem all season long, and the offense never really got going.

But there’s good news. Texas A&M didn’t waste last year’s talented frontcourt, because it’s returning intact this year: Robert Williams passed on the NBA Draft to return for his sophomore season, and Tyler Davis, DJ Hogg, and Tonny Trocha-Morelos all return as well.

And this year, the Aggies might have a point guard! Caldwell is now eligible after missing last season (though he’ll be serving a five-game suspension to start the season before making his debut.) If not Caldwell, Kennedy also added Marquette grad transfer Duane Wilson, and freshman T.J. Starks is another option.

Oh, and depth shouldn’t be an issue — not with 12 scholarship players on the roster. Kennedy signed five recruits, all from the state of Texas. Suddenly, last year’s main problems look to be solved.


Frontcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
1 D.J. Hogg 6'9" Jr. 12.0 ppg/5.1 rpg/3.4 apg
5 Savion Flagg 6'7" Fr. #55 recruit
10 Tonny Trocha-Morelos 6'10" Sr. 8.1 ppg/5.2 rpg
15 Isiah Jasey 6'10" Fr. #299 recruit
24 John Walker III 6'9" Fr. #397 recruit
32 Josh Nebo 6'9" Jr. sitting out 2017-18
34 Tyler Davis 6'10" Jr. 14.1 ppg/7.0 rpg
44 Robert Williams 6'10" So. 11.9 ppg/8.2 rpg/2.5 bpg

When Robert Williams III decided to return to Texas A&M for his sophomore season, passing up a likely selection in the NBA Draft lottery, the Aggies’ frontcourt for 2017-18 went from good to great. Williams started his freshman season coming off the bench, but he worked his way into the starting lineup on the trip to South Carolina on January 7 and never relinquished his starting job the rest of the way (with the exception of playing 35 minutes off the bench in the regular-season finale against Kentucky, when Tavario Miller got his obligatory Senior Day start.) In SEC play, Williams averaged 12.6 ppg and 9.0 rpg, along with 2.5 blocks per game. The 6’10” sophomore is probably the best shot-blocker in the SEC.

And if Williams isn’t enough for opposing teams to deal with, the Aggies will have 6’10” junior Tyler Davis alongside him. As a sophomore, Davis emerged as one of the SEC’s best rebounders and inside scorers. Last season, he averaged 14.1 ppg and 7.0 rpg, while shooting 61.9 percent from the floor. While Williams has a decent face-up game, Davis is a bully on the low block; just one of his 498 field goal attempts in two years at Texas A&M has come from beyond the arc. The one knock on Davis has been conditioning: last season, he averaged 26.2 minutes per game. That’s not bad, but you’d like to have a player as good as Davis playing more like 31 or 32 minutes a game.

The wing is a bit more unsettled, but at least there are options. 6’9” junior D.J. Hogg did well as a freshman, when he was A&M’s sixth man on an SEC title team, and less well as a sophomore when he was a starter. But he actually got better shooting beyond the arc, as his three-point percentage jumped from 33.1 percent to 36.7 percent. However, his new role led to him handling the ball a lot more often, and that didn’t go so well: his turnover rate jumped from one of the SEC’s best to one of its worst. What’s more, Hogg missed nine games down the stretch due to injury. The talent here is obvious, but Hogg needs to do better than he did last year.

6’10” senior Tonny Trocha-Morelos was technically the fourth big man, though he started 27 games — briefly losing his starting job when Williams entered the lineup, but getting it back when Hogg went down. In conference play, Trocha-Morelos actually played the most minutes of any of A&M’s frontcourt players and averaged 8.3 ppg and 5.2 rpg. Trocha-Morelos became less efficient as a junior as his jump shot disappeared; his three-point percentage dropped from 37 percent as a sophomore to 26.7 percent as a junior. But he’s versatile enough to play anywhere from three through five and as a result, he’ll probably wind up being a super sub spelling the other three and playing a good amount of minutes.

The depth is, again, a question mark. 6’7” freshman Savion Flagg was a four-star recruit who’s probably the most likely to see minutes off the bench and could see more than 10-15 minutes a game if Kennedy wants to play matchups against smaller teams. Two more freshmen — 6’10” Isiah Jasey and 6’9” John Walker III — are more projectable and will probably function as emergency bigs in case the starters (and Trocha-Morelos) are in foul trouble. At 170 pounds, Walker will pretty clearly need to add strength.

6’9” Josh Nebo will sit out this year after transferring from St. Francis (PA), but the Houston native will be available in practice.


Backcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
0 Jay-Jay Chandler 6'4" Fr. #152 recruit
2 T.J. Starks 6'2" Fr. #149 recruit
3 Admon Gilder 6'4" Jr. 13.7 ppg/3.9 apg
4 J.J. Caldwell 6'1" Fr. ineligible in 2016-17
11 Mark French 5'8" So. walk-on
12 Chris Collins 6'2" Jr. 1.4 ppg/1.4 apg
13 Duane Wilson 6'3" Sr. 4.8 ppg/1.6 apg (Marquette)
22 Frank Byers 5'10" Jr. walk-on
33 Cameron Alo 5'9" Fr. walk-on

One of the best ways to sum up Texas A&M’s depth issues in 2016-17 was that 6’4” junior Admon Gilder ranked second in the SEC in minutes per game.

The rest of the top 5: J.J. Frazier (who was a fraction of a minute ahead of Gilder), Sindarius Thornwell, Sebastian Saiz, and Antonio Blakeney. This isn’t a knock on Gilder, but the other four players on the list were notably better players, or at least more important to their respective teams.

Gilder averaged 35.8 minutes per game in SEC play, including an eight-game stretch in January and February during which he averaged 40 minutes per game. That’s right: for eight games in a row, Gilder literally never came off the floor. Then again, during that stretch Gilder did average 17 ppg, so maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing — but it was less a reflection on Gilder than on Texas A&M’s depth. There was almost literally no one behind Gilder who could have played instead. Playing out of position at point guard led to him averaging 2.7 turnovers per game. But he’s a fine shooting guard, as he shot 40 percent from beyond the arc in SEC play, and he could be one of the SEC’s better perimeter defenders too.

But all of that depends on whether Texas A&M can find somebody else to play the point. Last year, it was supposed to be J.J. Caldwell, but he was ruled academically ineligible prior to the season. Without Caldwell, Texas A&M struggled to find even decent point guard play. Walk-on Chris Collins was the starter for part of the season, and while Collins is back, the Aggies likely won’t need him to play significant minutes this year. Caldwell is more of a pure, pass-first point guard who should get the lion’s share of minutes at the point this year.

Then again, Caldwell will be suspended for the first five games of the season, so depth is (again) a concern. Gilder could play it for a bit, as could Marquette grad transfer Duane Wilson, a combo guard who saw his minutes (and shots) dwindle as a junior for the Golden Eagles. Wilson did average 4.0 assists and 2.0 turnovers per 40 minutes, however. True freshman T.J. Starks, a 6’2”, three-star recruit from Lancaster, Texas, could also see time at the point in Caldwell’s absence and will provide depth throughout the season.

Another three-star freshman, Jay-Jay Chandler, is a 6’4” combo guard from Katy, Texas, and should be a depth player at both guard spots. Depth was something Texas A&M lacked last season, especially in the backcourt. Just a hunch, but Admon Gilder probably won’t be averaging 36 minutes a game this season.


Schedule

Date Opponent
10/25 vs. Texas (exh.)
11/3 Tarleton State (exh.)
11/10 vs. West Virginia (Ramstein AFB)
11/17 UC Santa Barbara
11/20 vs. Oklahoma State
11/21 Legends Classic (Brooklyn)
11/24 Pepperdine
11/26 at Southern Cal
11/30 UTRGV
12/5 vs. Arizona (Phoenix, AZ)
12/9 Prairie View A&M
12/13 Savannah State
12/19 Northern Kentucky
12/21 Buffalo
12/30 at Alabama
1/2 Florida
1/6 LSU
1/9 at Kentucky
1/13 at Tennessee
1/16 Ole Miss
1/20 Missouri
1/23 at LSU
1/27 at Kansas
1/30 Arkansas
2/3 South Carolina
2/7 at Auburn
2/10 Kentucky
2/13 at Missouri
2/17 at Arkansas
2/20 Mississippi State
2/24 at Vanderbilt
2/28 at Georgia
3/3 Alabama

This is the non-conference schedule of a team with NCAA Tournament aspirations. The Aggies have tough, neutral-site games against West Virginia and Arizona (okay, okay, playing Arizona in Phoenix might as well be a road game), a road trip to Southern Cal, and the Aggies drew Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge in January. The Legends Classic field might not end up being too difficult — Texas A&M will see Oklahoma State in the opener, and either Penn State or Pitt in the second game.

It’s also the kind of schedule, though, that if Texas A&M doesn’t figure out its point guard issue early on, they might pick up a few more losses than you’d like. With Caldwell out for the first five games, that will include the neutral-site game against West Virginia and the Legends Classic (though A&M shouldn’t have any trouble with UC Santa Barbara or Pepperdine either way.) The trip to USC would be his first game.

In SEC play, Texas A&M draws Kentucky twice, as well as Alabama, Arkansas, and Missouri — all of which should be at least decent. LSU might be one of the worst teams in the conference, though.


Outlook

Texas A&M shared the SEC regular-season title in 2016, then predictably took a step back after losing four starters off that team. So does Billy Kennedy have another chance to make a run at a conference title this season?

That could be the case. We already know that the Aggies have one of the league’s best frontcourts: Robert Williams III is a future lottery pick and one of the best rim protectors in the country, and he’s capable of playing alongside Tyler Davis, one of the SEC’s best inside scorers. A bounceback season from D.J. Hogg could make this unit even better, and there’s depth, too, with Tonny Trocha-Morelos and Savion Flagg, and a couple of interesting projects in Isiah Jasey and John Walker III.

Last year, though, the issues all stemmed from the backcourt. Admon Gilder is an underrated player; he also was playing out of position at the point and Texas A&M basically had no depth behind him. That appears to be fixed with J.J. Caldwell eligible and Duane Wilson arriving, along with a couple of true freshman backups in Chandler and Starks, but there are no guarantees in that bunch.

Of course, that frontcourt with even decent point guard play is a NCAA Tournament team. Texas A&M doesn’t need Caldwell to be special, they just need him to be decent and this team can go a long way -- because it appears to be set at the other four spots on the floor.