This year, Billy Kennedy isn’t making any promises.
A year ago the Texas A&M coach guaranteed the Aggies would reach the NCAA Tournament. He proved true to his word as A&M shared the SEC regular-season championship with Kentucky — the Aggies’ first conference title in 30 years — and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for only the fourth time in school history.
Four senior starters, including all-conference selections Alex Caruso, Danuel House and Jalen Jones, have departed, so Kennedy isn’t willing to make more promises. But he’s not conceding anything, either.
The sophomore trio of center Tyler Davis, guard Admon Gilder and forward DJ Hogg gives Kennedy a strong nucleus. The arrival of a top-20 recruiting class plus J.C. Hampton, a high-scoring graduate transfer, could expedite the rebuilding process.
All SEC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Billy Kennedy
2015-16 RECORD (SEC): 28–9 (13–5)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Oklahoma 77–63 in the Sweet 16
2016-17 PREDICTION: Second in the SEC
G Alex Caruso (8.1 ppg, 5.0 apg, 3.6 rpg)
G Anthony Collins (4.5 ppg, 4.2 apg)
G Danuel House (15.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg)
G/F Jalen Jones (15.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg)
The 6'10", 265-pound Davis averaged 11.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and scored a buzzer-beating putback to defeat Kentucky in his debut season. However, he was usually the third or fourth shooting option. That won’t be the case in his second year.
“He’s going to get the ball more, I promise you that,” Kennedy says.
Davis did most of his work in the low post, but he also has a consistent jump shot from 15 feet. He didn’t show it as a freshman because he wasn’t asked to. Now, he will.
Tonny Trocha-Morelos, a 6'10" junior, needs to get stronger on the boards, but he can also take the basketball outside as a stretch-4. He averaged 7.0 points and 4.2 rebounds as Jones’ backup and hit 30 3-pointers.
The Aggies get depth from 6'7" senior Tavario Miller, who is limited offensively but plays hard and adds a measure of toughness inside. Incoming 6'8" freshman Robert Williams, a four-star prospect, brings energy, athleticism and the ability to play above the rim. He needs to work on his overall offensive game, but he can finish at the rim and should make an immediate impact on the defensive end.
The 6'8" Hogg can provide inside help, too. Last year, he was brought in to back up House at guard and was second on the team with 46 3-pointers. Yet, he was also surprisingly aggressive on the boards and in the low post and can shift inside when necessary.
In a best-case scenario, Gilder will take over for Caruso at the 2. That’s assuming one of three newcomers — freshmen J.J. Caldwell or Caleb Smith or Hampton, a transfer from Lipscomb — can step in ably at the point.
If not, Gilder has the versatility to run the offense much the way Caruso did in his sophomore and junior seasons. Like Caruso, who left A&M as the school’s career leader in steals and assists, Gilder passes well and has a knack for making a big play. He demonstrated that with a crucial steal and game-tying layup in A&M’s historic rally from a 12-point deficit with just over 30 seconds to play to defeat Northern Iowa in the NCAA Tournament.
Still, the Aggies would prefer to maximize Gilder’s shooting ability. He averaged 7.0 points and hit 35 3-pointers in a reserve role. He and Hogg figure to present a significant perimeter shooting threat.
“We expect him to play the 2,” Kennedy says. “He can play some 1. He did it for us a lot in practice. I want him to be free and be able to score. He can be a double-figures scorer night in and night out.”
Hampton can have big nights, too. He earned All-Atlantic Sun recognition last season by averaging 15.9 points and shooting 35.3 percent from 3-point range.
Sophomore Kobie Eubanks, a late addition last season, and highly regarded incoming freshman Deshawn Corprew will be counted on to provide additional perimeter scoring off the bench.
Point guard J.J. Caldwell, forward Robert Williams and guard Deshawn Corprew were listed on at least one top-100 recruiting list. Caldwell is a deft passer, Williams a tenacious rebounder and shot blocker and Corprew a threat on the perimeter and driving to the basket. Graduate transfer J.C. Hampton averaged 15.9 points last season at Lipscomb. Eric Vila, a 6'9" sharpshooter from Spain, can play multiple positions. Caleb Smith, a late addition, provides depth at the point.
Kennedy’s job was in danger entering last season, but the SEC championship warranted a contract extension. Now, he aims to extend A&M’s success. However, Kennedy probably isn’t sure exactly what to expect from his youthful roster, which is loaded with 10 freshmen and sophomores.
“Everybody we put on the floor next year is going to be in a different role than the year before no matter who they are,” Kennedy says. “Our team is going to be different.
“But I will say at the 3, 4 and 5 and even the 2 we have the ability and talent to do as well or better.”