Texas A&M’s Scenic Route to the SEC Title

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 7th, 2016

In some ways, the final Saturday of the SEC regular season played out like many thought it would in October. Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere altered shots left and right; LSU’s Ben Simmons nearly put together a triple-double; and KentuckyLSUVanderbilt and Texas A&M all entered the weekend with a shot at a share of the regular season title. Ultimately it was the Aggies and Wildcats that became this season’s SEC co-champions, and while that result isn’t at all surprising, the path that led both teams there certainly is.

Tyler Davis and the Aggies are charging into the postseason (12thman.com).

Tyler Davis and the Aggies are charging into the postseason (12thman.com).

The Wildcats’ share of the conference title is a testament to the coaching and player development of John Calipari. Kentucky appeared vulnerable in December losses to thoroughly mediocre UCLA and Ohio State teams, but Calipari coaxed a surprise season from Derek Willis and successfully navigated injuries and inconsistency to win the league. The title is assuredly a little sweeter for an Aggies program that notched its first conference championship since sharing the 1986 Southwest Conference title with TCU and Texas. During that same period, the Wildcats have won a share or more of 10 SEC regular season titles.

It was Texas A&M that took the more scenic route to the championship. The Aggies raced out to a 7-0 SEC record and a lofty national ranking before losing five straight games and ceding control back to Kentucky. Billy Kennedy then managed to pull his team out of the tailspin with a season-ending six-game winning streak featuring Tyler Davis‘ game-winning layup to down the Wildcats in Reed Arena. In his fifth season, the championship also validates Kennedy’s program. The NIT wasn’t going to be good enough this season and the head coach ensured that his players lived up to the hype. As a result, Texas A&M will return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.

In a strange twist of fate, the midseason downturn could help the Aggies in the postseason. “It doesn’t happen by accident, you have to go through some stuff sometimes and if you have good character and toughness, you can get through it,” Kennedy said after Saturday’s win over Vanderbilt. “I thought it was a credit to those seniors, setting the tone. Our freshmen, they’re not scared. They’ve won state championships and they’ve been good for us all year.” Kennedy’s rotation boasts an accomplished four-year player (Alex Caruso), two multi-year impact transfers (Jalen JonesDanuel House), a graduate transfer (Anthony Collins), and several highly-touted freshmen playing important roles (Davis, Admon GilderD.J. Hogg).

Heading into the postseason, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Aggies’ chances in Nashville and beyond, a notion that looked ridiculous just a few short weeks ago. Texas A&M has the requisite balance in offensive efficiency (KenPom #32) and defensive efficiency (KenPom #17) that has proven successful in March, and with an SEC Tournament field that is as wide open as it has been in a long time, why can’t the Aggies walk out of Nashville with its first conference tournament title in almost as long (1987).

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) (231 Posts)

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