During the summer, new Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy took his team on a 10-day trip to Switzerland and France, where the Aggies played exhibition games and toured landmarks like Paris’ Eiffel Tower. Kennedy believes the tower tour will provide some foreshadowing. He fully intends on taking A&M to unprecedented heights. “My goal here is to win national championships,” says Kennedy, who coached the previous five seasons at Murray State. “(A&M women’s coach Gary) Blair was able to get a (national) championship here (last season). We need to be the next team that gets a championship here. How do you do that? You win Big 12 championships, and you put yourself in a position to win national championships.”
Kennedy inherits a program that has advanced to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments. He also assumes control of a roster that returns three starters, including six of the top eight scorers, and a couple of potential impact newcomers.
Realistically, the Aggies don’t appear to have enough overall talent yet to duplicate what the A&M women did, but it would not be too surprising to see Kennedy and Co. scale some lofty heights during March. Just as they did last summer.
Key Aggies Stat: 51
Texas A&M has 51 Big 12 victories since 2007. Prior to that, the Aggies had totaled only 43 victories in the first 10 years of Big 12 play.
Athletic forward David Loubeau considered entering the 2011 NBA Draft before deciding to return for his senior season. It was probably a wise decision, as the Miami native had an up-and-down junior year. While he averaged 11.8 points per game — second-highest on the squad — and ranked in the top three on the team in blocks, field goal percentage, free throw percentage and rebounds, Loubeau also scored seven points or fewer in five regular-season Big 12 games. “I’d like to be a lot more consistent this year,” Loubeau says. “That’s a top priority.”
Leading scorer Khris Middleton has identical goals. In his sophomore season, the slender, smooth-shooting swingman occasionally took over games. In an overtime win against Arkansas, he scored 31 and added 28 in an overtime victory over Missouri. But physical defenders occasionally took Middleton out of his game. In a home loss to Texas, he was 0-of-9 from the floor and did not score. Middleton needs to be more assertive, and Loubeau must become a dependable go-to scorer for the Aggies to take the next step.
Likewise, the tremendously athletic Ray Turner needs to add to his offensive game. Turner, who showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, injured an ankle last year and averaged only 4.0 points and 3.2 rebounds. Turner possesses the athleticism to be a great shot-blocker and solid scorer, while sophomore Kourtney Roberson has the frame (6'9", 235) and tenacity to be an enforcer. Roberson was the top freshman last year, averaging 5.6 points and 3.8 rebounds, while fellow freshman Keith Davis made steady progress as the season unfolded.
Starting point guard Dash Harris returns for his senior season, and the Aggies are hopeful that he will be a much better scoring threat. Harris had surgery on his right (shooting) wrist in the summer of 2010, and the injury hampered his shot, as he connected on only 26.8 percent from the floor and 16.7 percent from 3-point range. As a result, defenses sagged off him and dared Harris to shoot. If he can’t make more shots, A&M will turn to true freshman Jamal Branch, a talented playmaker who can score in a variety of ways, for more minutes.
The Aggies lose clutch shooter B.J. Holmes, but they may be more versatile with the addition of transfer Elston Turner. At 6'4", Turner provides more size than the 5'11" Holmes. Toward the end of his sophomore season (2009-10) at Washington, Turner showed he could shoot much like Holmes, draining 54.5 percent of his 3-point attempts in NCAA Tournament games. A&M is also hopeful that junior Naji Hibbert can have a breakthrough season. He’s played in 67 games but has only shown glimpses of being an impact player.
Mark Turgeon didn’t leave the cupboard bare when he departed for Maryland. In fact, this appears to be one of the more athletic teams A&M has fielded, perfectly suited for Kennedy’s more up-tempo offense and pressure-oriented defense. Plenty of questions still must be addressed, especially in the backcourt. But this is a program that has won at least 24 games five straight years. Kennedy’s first team in Aggieland is quite capable of matching that, contending for an upper-echelon spot in the Big 12 and making a nice run in March.
Big 12 Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out