Shootaround: Billy Kennedy's plan to turn Texas A&M into a perennial SEC contender beginning to take shape
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — On Wednesday morning, Billy Kennedy looked out his window and everything was beautiful again. It was a sunny, 70-degree day in southeast Texas, and Texas A&M's basketball coach figured there were more than a few people swinging golf clubs as he spoke. He guessed a couple thousand folks would head to the Aggies' softball game at 6 p.m. and sit outside and eat sunflower seeds for a couple hours. But mostly this was a beautiful day because, on Tuesday, Kennedy's team beat Ole Miss to snap a five-game SEC losing streak.
"Oh, it's definitely a relief, but it's good," Kennedy said a few hours after the 71–56 win. "Nobody walked out of the locker room feeling bad about anything."
Bad feelings abounded during the five-game skid, which included some excruciating moments. There were the three charging calls that wiped out three and-one opportunities in a three-point loss at Arkansas. There were senior guard Anthony Collins's two missed, potentially game-tying free throws at Alabama with 2.9 seconds left in a one-point defeat. Leading scorer Danuel House fell hard on his back early in that game in Tuscaloosa and didn't score the entire first half. Collins got sick at LSU. Still, in the bigger picture, Texas A&M still is having the sort of season Kennedy and his staff have aimed for since their arrival in 2011, on track for an NCAA tournament berth with a 19–7 record (8–5 in league play). And on Saturday, the opportunity for a signature victory arrives when No. 14 Kentucky comes to town.
Texas A&M may be two games out of first place in the SEC race, but there is an argument that it is evolving into a primary foil for the conference's resident powerhouse, thanks to its upward trajectory and recent recruiting success. This matchup is a chance to bolster that argument. "Anytime you beat a team with the prestige that Kentucky has, it goes a long way for your program," says senior guard Alex Caruso. "Even if we come up short and play a good game—which, I mean, we're not planning on, we're planning on winning—it shows that's what the program is about. It's about competing with the best in your league and in the country."
No, the Aggies are no longer the nation's fifth-ranked team, as they were three weeks ago, after a 17–2 start. Despite falling out of the polls this week, they appear to be building toward sustained success. Texas A&M has veterans leading it in the present—three of its top four scorers are seniors. The future also seems secure, with four freshmen that were among the consensus top-100 prospects from the Class of 2015, with two more consensus top-100 recruits en route out of the Class of '16.
In the long view, those five SEC losses don't matter too much. But a single game against Kentucky might. Texas A&M doesn't have to be Kentucky any more than the other SEC schools do. (Kennedy concedes that's impossible.) The Aggies are not comparing themselves to Kentucky. But they want to be that good, or better.
One way to be that good: Tap into the state of Texas' fertile recruiting ground, which was Kennedy's primary objective when he arrived from Murray State. As he savored that Ole Miss victory and the fine College Station weather, Kennedy ticked off the names his program had pursued in recent years: Julius Randle (who signed with Kentucky from the Class of 2013), Andrew and Aaron Harrison (Kentucky, 2013), Justin Jackson (North Carolina, 2014), Justise Winslow (Duke, 2014), Myles Turner (Texas, 2014), De'Aaron Fox (Kentucky, 2016). "We're involved with all those kids," Kennedy says. None, of course, signed with Texas A&M. This was not unexpected. "Being new, we didn't have the relationships we needed to have," Kennedy says. Indeed, bonds with top-tier prospects can be forged by the time they're in ninth grade, if not earlier. Kennedy and his staff arrived in May 2011 scrambling to work from behind, and all they had to sell was promise.
Now, Kennedy says, he can pitch the idea of chasing championships to top-shelf prospects. Nine of the consensus top-100 recruits for the Class of 2015 were from Texas; and Kennedy and his staff signed four of them. One, 6' 10" center Tyler Davis, from Plano, is the team's third-leading scorer (10.9 points per game). That haul may be a coup beyond even what the Aggies coach envisioned four years earlier and it may be difficult to replicate. But continuing that sort of recruiting success in a state teeming with talent can equip Texas A&M like few of its SEC peers.
"When we started getting the best Texas kids, which we should be doing, that's really helped us turn this thing," Kennedy says. "That's the great thing about basketball—if you can get one or two a year of the elite guys, you can build something special."
Moreover, while the Aggies ought to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011—they lost to Florida State in the round of 64, after which coach Mark Turgeon left for Maryland—they contend it's a year late anyway.
Last season, Texas A&M was a 20-win club attempting to bolster its NCAA tournament résumé when House broke his foot in a loss at Florida on March 3. That was followed by defeats to Alabama in the regular–season finale and Auburn in the SEC tournament. And those were followed by an NIT invitation. (The Aggies beat Montana and then lost to Louisiana Tech in the second round.) The near-miss was nothing to celebrate, but like the recruiting whiffs, there was still hope amid that shortcoming: An NCAA bid was finally attainable, and it seemed that Texas A&M was on the correct trajectory.
"We always talk about that we were a year behind, because we didn't know the holes that we had when we got here," Kennedy says. "We would've liked to have been at this point last year, and we were close to being at that point."
House's decision to return for his senior year instantly improved Texas A&M's prospects for this season. Averaging 15.6 points with just two single-digit scoring efforts on the year, he is the bedrock and the life-saver behind the Break Glass In Case of Emergency sign for the Aggies. "He's such a talent," Caruso says. "He's capable of getting 20 any night that he's out there, and he's improved a lot as a defender, so that's helped us be a more complete team."
So here comes Kentucky, again, and a victory would be a watershed moment in Billy Kennedy's long play in College Station. Last January, Texas A&M and Kentucky engaged in a two-overtime rock fight in Lexington. The Wildcats escaped with a 70–64 win and the moment for the Aggies passed.
More than a year later, there reportedly will be as many as 10 top-flight recruits visiting Reed Arena to witness a rematch. They'll be there to see Texas A&M. They'll also be there to see Kentucky—even Billy Kennedy isn't kidding himself about that. But they'll be there.
"Just to have them on our campus—that didn't happen here before," Kennedy said.
What Texas A&M is building won't crumble if Saturday's game goes sideways. The plan to become a viable SEC contender has to be bigger than one game. But everyone understands what a boost that one game can be.
The five best games of the weekend:
No. 11 Miami at No. 5 North Carolina (Saturday, 1 p.m., CBS). The Hurricanes and Tar Heels are both 10–3 in the ACC. The winner takes over sole possession of first place in the conference.
No. 3 Oklahoma at No. 10 West Virginia (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN). The Sooners are in trouble. Their 38.2% shooting at Texas Tech on Wednesday made it four straight games of less than 45% accuracy. Will "Press" Virginia (which turns its opponents over at a nation-leading rate of 25.9%) rattle Oklahoma too?
No. 17 Purdue at No. 22 Indiana (Saturday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN). The Hoosiers, playing for a bye into the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, start a taxing final stretch: Three of their last four opponents are the Boilermakers (21–6), Iowa (20–6) and Maryland (22–5).
No. 25 Baylor at No. 24 Texas (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN). One of Shaka Smart's notable accomplishments: Reclaiming the Frank Erwin Center. The Longhorns are now 6–0 there in Big 12 play after finishing 5–4 at home in league games last season.
Connecticut at Cincinnati (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN2). Desperation can make for a good game. One bubble team will emerge a win that could be a coveted top 50 RPI victory in the end. The Huskies, fresh off a huge victory over No. 21 SMU, don't want to suffer a season sweep by the Bearcats.
The five best airports in America that I can remember flying through:
Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP). The unchallenged, runaway champion of airports. Spacious, overrun with quality eating options, multiple areas set aside as work stations. Like flying out of a great mall—which is also almost literally the case, with the Mall of America situated on the other side of I-494.
Raleigh-Durham (RDU). Renovations turned this into a bright, sharp place to hunker down. On a good day, you can get from home through security and to Gordon Biersch or Five Guys in about 20 minutes.
Columbus, Ohio (CMH). You had me at Tim Horton's before security.
Chicago O'Hare (ORD). I know, I know. Stop yelling. Just listen ... Yes, if you fly through O'Hare, it can be a nightmare. When it's your home airport? Then your home airport has amenities upon amenities, including not one but two Tortas Frontera locations.
Washington-Reagan (DCA). Clean, easy, and you can just about walk to some of your favorite tourist destinations.
(Sixth Man: San Francisco (SFO). Tough call between this and Detroit (DTW), the latter of which overhauled its terminals and now offers tons of space and multiple sit-down restaurant options. It's SFO, though, for good space, many outlets, Peet's Coffee and the fact that, when you land, you're near San Francisco and thus an In-N-Out Burger.)
Two on Two
Each week, The Shootaround will talk to a pair of assistant coaches for a brief scouting report on a key upcoming matchup. This week focuses on Louisville's Damion Lee (16.5 points per game) and Duke's Brandon Ingram (17.3 ppg). The Blue Devils visit the Cardinals Saturday at noon.
Jon Scheyer, Duke assistant coach: "[Lee] has played college basketball for a long time, and if you can score the ball, you can score the ball. And he can score the ball. That's something that always translates wherever you are. The thing that strikes me about him is how confident he is—he can have a game where he doesn't shoot well, and he can come back the next game and hit seven threes. That's one of the things that's so dangerous about him. He shoots the ball from deep, and he gets it off quick. You really need to be right with him at all times, and if you're not, he's going to make you pay for it. Because of his shooting ability, he's able to put the ball on the floor, especially because you need to respect the way he can shoot. He has good size, so he can get to a spot and pull up over you. The thing for all great shooters, you can't give him a lot of room. Even though we're still playing our normal defense, where we're help-side and all that—you're a little less with him. You need to know where he's at, at all times, whether it's zone or man. You need to have a feel for where he is."
Kenny Johnson, Louisville assistant coach: "[Ingram] as a four creates so many dilemmas for you, especially for a team like us that's playing a matchup zone. You never know who you're going to have to guard him with. He's obviously quicker than [bigs], he can drive them to the basket, he can obviously bring them out farther than they're comfortable. And you can't guard him with a guard, because he's backing him down or shooting over the top of him. But he's also capable of handling the ball like a guard to get to his sweet spots. Where you would like to say, O.K., he's undersized inside, so let's try to be physical with him—he's gotten used to the bumps. Now he's really holding his ground, gobbling up defensive rebounds. You try to attack him the way you would any other big guard. You don't want to leave him isolations. You want to jam him on the catch and make him put the ball on the floor because he's such a great shooter, but then once he puts it on the floor, you want to trap his dribble. And defensively, you want to put pressure on him, to make him guard bigger players closer to the basket, or get him in isolation situations where he has to get over ball screens himself."
Court of Opinion
Duke beat North Carolina on Wednesday with, basically, five guys. Notre Dame reached the Elite Eight a year ago playing, basically, six guys. I used to be convinced that a short rotation was a glaring problem in college basketball. I am not as convinced anymore. Foul trouble will haunt a coach relying heavily on six players, yes. But as long as you have smart players, and as long as you're not pressing for 40 minutes, relying solely on the guys you trust seems to be a viable option. This isn't an 82-game season, and these aren't 30-year-olds. These are college kids, who are built to believe there's time to rest when they're dead.
As I live roughly 100 miles away from South Bend, Ind., I wouldn't call passing through this Michiana burg "travel." But then Crooked Ewe Brewery didn't exist until the summer of 2015, so it feels like a new destination. Snuggled up against the St. Joseph River, a downstairs dining room overlooking the water suggests an ideal spot to be in June or July—roughly when the lake-effect snow squalls stop.
Alas, early February basketball brought me there. Fortunately, the place is equipped to insulate you against northwest Indiana chill by gorging you with an all-over-the-globe menu. This visit, all I required was the Ewe Tso (tempura cauliflower and fried rice with a touch of kimchi) and Tandoori Pickles. If you don't have a game to cover, the Revolucion Cubana sandwich (pulled brisket, house sausage and bourbon barrel aged mustard) and some Vital IPA are worth the post-feast fog. One of my dining compatriots praised the Cast Iron Ewe Burger (cheese curd, bacon, pork belly and, ahem, "stone fruit leather"). It dawned on me that Crooked Ewe is ideal for the Bend: Might as well open a place that encourages hibernation for the winter.