The favorite for the SEC’s regular season championship is no longer located in Lexington, Kentucky.
It does not have the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft in Ben Simmons on its roster, nor is it situated in the middle of the bustling center of American country music with three potential first round picks.
It’s not dealing with replacing a coaching legend in Billy Donovan, and it doesn’t possess one of the supremely famous coaches who entered the SEC over the past two offseasons.
Instead, the SEC favorite is in the midst of the culmination of what has been a five-year project that involved switching leagues, taking chances on transfers, and building toward this season, the first featuring a full roster recruited by the current staff.
Indeed, Texas A&M has flown under the radar not only as a contender in the SEC, but also nationally for the first two months of the season. Why is that the case? I asked their coach, Billy Kennedy.
“You know, I really don’t know,” Kennedy answered. “I can’t put my finger on it. We’re at a great school. We’re in a good league. I thought we were really good last year, and just came up a bit short. We could have finished second at the end of the year with one more win in the league. So, I just don’t know what to tell you. We’re boringly good, I guess.”
Kennedy gave a slight chuckle when rolling off that “boringly good” line, but he has a point from the national narrative perspective. The Aggies are a senior-heavy group, featuring four players in their fourth or fifth year in college basketball. They hang their hat on the defensive end, currently ranking ninth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. They have All-SEC-level talent, particularly in Danuel House and Jalen Jones, but no one quite on the level of a potential All-American. That’s likely in part because they share the ball as well as anyone, assisting on a higher percentage of their field goals than all but three other teams in the country.
Not exactly sexy, right?
But good trumps sexy and that’s exactly what this group is. The Aggies are currently sitting at No. 10 in the AP Poll, No. 8 in the Coaches Poll, and No. 7 in KenPom. The resume isn’t exactly lacking either. At 16-2, they have a top-40 strength of schedule rating and their five top-50 wins are only eclipsed by Villanova and Iowa so far. They’re the lone unbeaten team left in the SEC at 6-0.
There’s just really not much to dislike about what the team has done so far, and that’s more than you can say for anyone else in the SEC. Plus, look at how the schedule lines up for them the rest of the way. Their last non-conference game is a home matchup against Iowa State next Saturday. Then, the rest of the SEC schedule kicks into gear, but sets up perfectly for a run. They only have to face the two other top contenders in the SEC, South Carolina and Kentucky, once, and they get to do so at Reed Arena. They do get a home-and-home against Vanderbilt and road contests against LSU and Arkansas that could be tricky, but beyond that the schedule is eminently manageable. That’s a major part of why KenPom currently projects them to finish 15-3 in the conference, which is a full three games better than anyone else.
Calling them the favorites for the regular season crown in the league is not an overreaction at this point, it’s simply just reality. How did we get to this point? Well, that’s a pretty long story.
When Kennedy first got to Texas A&M from Murray State in 2011, expectations were high after returning six of eight leading scorers from a group that had just made the NCAA Tournament under Mark Turgeon. Plus, the school was on a run of making six straight tourney appearances after a 19-year absence previously. It was named the co-favorite of the Big 12 in its final year in the league along with Kansas.
However, Kennedy was then beset with a significant hardship before he ever coached a game. He was diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson’s disease. That forced him to miss about a month early in the season. Then, the team was hit with a rash of injuries that it never recovered from. It stumbled to a 14-18 record, including a 4-14 mark in the Big 12. And just like that, things were off to a bit of a disappointing start.
But from that point on, it’s just been a steady growth for the Aggies, with a win improvement in conference every season. From four league wins in that first year, to seven wins in Year Two, to eight wins in Year Three, to 11 wins last season. Already, they’re more than halfway to topping that mark in Year Five. He’s gotten this far by focusing on two things: building his own culture around the team, and taking back the state of Texas.
“Ten of our scholarship players this year are from the state of Texas,” Kennedy said. “We’re trying to get the best players in Texas, and win with them. That’s what you’ve gotta do. That’s what Florida did. They got some kids nationally, but they got the best kids from [the state of] Florida. I think that’s key.”
So far, so good on that front. All four of his senior leaders — House, Jones, Alex Caruso and Anthony Collins — are from the state of Texas. Furthermore, his three high-upside freshmen — Tyler Davis, D.J. Hogg, and Admon Gilder — are also from the state. Of his top-eight players, only Tonny Trocha-Morelos is from outside of Texas (he’s Colombian).
But more than that, as you can see from that list, this is a deep team. Eight guys average at least five points per game. They’re two-deep at every spot due to the positional and lineup versatility they have. They regularly play two point guards surrounded by shooters to break high-pressure schemes. They can just as easily run out an offensive linup that bases its production in the post as they can play a five-out group where every player on the floor can knock down shots from behind the 3-point line. Defensively, it’s a team who can wall off the paint with their conservative halfcourt defensive scheme, or they can force turnovers with their ball-hawking guards. They can matchup with you by going big, or they can put a speedier small lineup out there. Depth is the key here, and Kennedy knows as such.
“We don’t put a bad or even an average player on the floor,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got good players, guys playing well, and guys that can play better. And that’s the thing. I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball outside of the Georgia game.”
That Georgia game was a 34-point road beatdown of a solid Bulldogs team with experience. But on the whole, Kennedy is right. This is a team that has a high floor because it has consistent senior leadership that unwaveringly will show up and perform night after night. But it also has a high ceiling once it gets stronger production from high-end freshmen like Hogg and Davis, each of whom are still acclimating to the college game. Plus, while the rest of House’s game has been great this season, he’s a terrific shooter that hasn’t really had shots fall as consistently as you’d expect this season.
“Early, he took some tough shots, but he’s really tried to improve that recently,” Kennedy said. “He’s just missing shots now that he’s capable of making. At some point, he’s going to start making them. He’s too good of a shooter and he works too hard at it for them not to.”
That there is still room for growth on this team is a scary proposition for the rest of the SEC. But just because they’re the presumptive favorite at this point doesn’t mean they’re the shoo-in. Kennedy knows that, and preaches it to his team daily.
“The biggest thing is just to stay humble,” Kennedy said. “Don’t try to do things we haven’t been trying to do. Share the ball. Keep getting better defensively. Make that your priority. Then hopefully we’ll be blessed and stay healthy.”
That’s a simple answer. One that isn’t splashy.
But then again, neither is this Texas A&M team. And that’s just the way they like it.