Missouri-Texas A&M Preview
(AP) - Texas A&M's return to prominence has been several years in the making.
You will have to excuse coach Billy Kennedy if he gets a little choked up when asked about the rise of the Aggies in his fifth year in College Station.
''I'm just - I'm thankful,'' he said, fighting back tears. ''That's all I can say. So many people have been supportive of me and I'm just thankful.''
The 10th-ranked Aggies, who host Missouri on Saturday, have reeled off nine straight wins and their 6-0 start in the SEC is their best in league play since they won seven straight to open the 1993-94 season in the Southwest Conference. They're in the top 10 for the first time since 2008 and are the only team that hasn't lost in SEC play.
With a 16-2 record, this team seems destined for its first NCAA Tournament berth since the Aggies capped a streak of six straight trips in 2011. While Kennedy is certainly happy with his team's progress, he knows it is way too early to get caught up in things like that.
''We've got a lot of games left so ... I can't get too emotional right now,'' he said shaking his head. ''We've got a lot of games left, but we're doing the right things.''
The Aggies went 14-18 in his first season, 18-15 in 2012-13 and 18-16 in his third year before improving to 21-12 last season and getting an invitation to the NIT. Now that he has had time to recruit the players he wants and instill his culture in the program, he expects to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since he went 31-5 at Murray State and made it to the second round in 2010.
''It's about the team,'' he said. ''We've said that from last year on ... and these freshmen came in here and bought into it and the culture of winning and sharing the ball and playing hard defensively. It's taken shape.''
The Aggies have three senior leaders, with SMU transfer Jalen Jones (17.4 points, 6.9 rebounds per game) and Danuel House (15.2, 5.1) leading the team in scoring. Jones had 20 points in Tuesday's 71-57 win over LSU.
The undisputed heart of the roster is senior guard Alex Caruso, who grew up in College Station. Caruso does a little bit of everything for the Aggies. He averages 7.7 points, 5.1 assists and 3.4 rebounds, and he is the school's career leader with 240 steals - the most among active Division I players.
''We try to keep an even keel,'' Kennedy said. ''We stress that in how we approach every day and then we've got a guy like Alex Caruso who's done it for four years.''
It isn't just the old guys that have the Aggies back on track. Six-foot-10, 270-pound freshman center Tyler Davis has started 16 games and has developed into a major presence, averaging 11.2 points and 5.8 rebounds.
He believes his coach should get all the credit for the team's improvement.
''Coach Kennedy's the man,'' he said. ''He's a father-figure, he's got the kindest heart out of anyone I've ever met and he's a great leader. He's always talking to us. He's not just a coach. He's a friend, too, someone we know that we can come to. Someone you can trust.''
The rapport Kennedy has developed with his players makes them go out of their way to play well for him.
''It just makes it easy when you're in that huddle listening to him or when you're in practice listening to him to never put off what he says,'' said Davis, who tied a season high with 18 points against LSU. ''It just makes it a lot easier with the person he is.''
Texas A&M's streak is its longest since taking 13 in a row in 2010-11. The Aggies won both meetings with Missouri last season, and the Tigers (8-10, 1-4) enter this one on a three-game skid after falling 60-57 to Georgia on Wednesday.
Missouri lost 81-72 at then-No. 19 South Carolina last Saturday following a 33-point home defeat to Arkansas, so the Tigers feel like they're getting better.
"Going on the road here, we're mad," freshman guard Terrence Phillips said. "We want to get some wins here, so I think it is a good time for us to go (to Texas A&M) and keep fighting for this team."
The Tigers have lost 19 in a row on the road, while Texas A&M has won all 11 home games this season by an average of 21.2 points.