Billy Kennedy Is Running Out of Players to Start a Crucial SeasonPosted by Greg Mitchell on November 5th, 2013
Billy Kennedy faces a pivotal year at Texas A&M. The Houston Chronicle reported last week that Aggies’ athletic director Eric Hyman recently told Kennedy that he must make the postseason to keep his job. This comes after a 31-32 overall record with no postseason appearances in his first two years. Everything is on the line now for the third-year coach, and he’s been put in an even tighter spot as two players he is counting on for big contributions in 2013-14 will miss the start of the season. Sophomore guard J-Mychal Reese was suspended by the school last week for a violation of athletic department rules, and CBSSports‘ Jeff Borzello reports that Reese is expected to miss three games. As a freshman, Reese didn’t play particularly well last year, but he has the third highest assist percentage of returning Texas A&M players (a pedestrian 15.2 percent). His three-point percentage was a solid 36 percent on 55 attempts, but his field goal percentage (also 36 percent) leaves something to be desired. Still, he earned considerable experience (26.2 minutes per game) on a team where only four returning guards averaged over 12 minutes per game.
The Aggies are already without junior forward Kourtney Roberson, who is out indefinitely after experiencing a rapid heart rate last week. Fortunately, the condition doesn’t appear to be career or life-threatening, and he is expected to return to basketball activities in only a few weeks. The big man is an important part of the plan for the 2013-14 Aggies. He has excellent rebounding potential, as exhibited by a season in which he posted a defensive rebounding percentage of 20.8 percent and an offensive rebounding percentage of 12.8 percent. Roberson paired this with a solid 116.0 offensive rating, and he is tasked with replacing the production of Ray Turner.
There is some reason for optimism despite these early setbacks. Kennedy has length and athleticism that could be difficult for other teams to match. When Roberson returns, the head coach could run a lineup of the junior big man along with guards Alex Caruso (6’5”), Jamal Jones (6’8”), forward Antwan Space (6’8”), without a major sacrifice in ball-handling or quickness. Caruso and Jones are the keys to this idea. Caruso showed that he could distribute the ball as a freshman (27.9% assist percentage) but he turned it over too much (2.3 turnovers/game). Jones has offensive promise, averaging 18 points per game at the junior college level last year. If Caruso shows better discipline and Jones adjusts quickly to the next level, Kennedy will find himself in a good place with his backcourt.
Kennedy has also considered mixing in a zone to take advantage of this length. “I’ve never played a lot of zone, but our team and our length … guys this year on the perimeter that we didn’t have last year or the year before [we have] in numbers,” Kennedy said. “So I think you’ll see us play a little bit different defensively, and maybe play a little more zone than we have in the past.” Zone defense in general will likely be more important than ever this season given the likely increase in foul trouble from the new implementation of the hand-check rules. If Kennedy and his staff have a jump on this, that could be to Texas A&M’s advantage.
Making up for the loss of the SEC’s third leading scorer, Elston Turner, is a big A&M question mark heading into the season. But senior guard Fabyon Harris could be the answer. Harris scored the 20th most points (383) in the SEC last season while posting the eighth-best true shooting percentage (58.9 percent) in the league. It’s reasonable to assume Harris got easier shots and less attention playing alongside Harris, but it’s equally reasonable to envision him improving in his final year of eligibility.
The early non-conference schedule is also Kennedy’s friend. The Aggies start the season with a tough game against MAC contender Buffalo and preseason all-MAC East Division honorees Will Felder and Javon McCrea. After that, however, Texas A&M’s toughest games are against Oklahoma and Missouri State on neutral floors, and North Texas at home. They do not play a true road game until January 11 in Knoxville against Tennessee. This is an epically weak non-conference schedule, and it could come back to bite Kennedy if the Aggies are on the bubble in March. But for a team with a lot of newcomers and two big pieces missing time early, it should serve to build some confidence.
SEC play could be make-or-break for Kennedy since Texas A&M will have few (if any, outside of Buffalo and Oklahoma) chances to build an attractive resume in the non-conference. There is opportunity in league play, though. Kentucky and Florida are clearly the two best teams, but after that the conference is filled with question marks. Tennessee and LSU probably have the most talent among the rest of the league’s teams, but both have coaches who have yet to make an NCAA appearance in their current positions. Missouri and Ole Miss were Tournament teams a year ago that both lost big pieces. There is a scrum of unproven teams with potential in the middle of the league, and if Texas A&M can establish an identity and have some early success, there is no reason they can’t take advantage of a wide-open SEC middle tier. Kennedy’s job depends on it, and the weak non-conference schedule and unsettled SEC could produce enough wins to at least warrant an NIT invite.
Billy Gillispie and Mark Turgeon revived the Texas A&M program, leading it to six straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2006-11. If the Aggies go a third consecutive year without a postseason appearance, it warrants wondering whether the program’s recent success left for the east with Turgeon. It’s therefore not surprising that Hyman is applying pressure this quickly on Kennedy. From a league-wide view, SEC officials have been concerned with improving the overall basketball profile, and Texas A&M returning to the upward trajectory it had been enjoying would be a big step in that direction. While the Aggies advanced as far as the Sweet Sixteen only once in 2007, the SEC has recently had few programs with the year-in/year-out consistency of six straight NCAA appearances.