Listening to Texas A&M basketball coach Billy Kennedy talk about his 2016-17 team, there is a sense of the glass being both half-empty and half-full.
“We have a lot of question marks when you talk about losing four starters that played a lot of minutes,” Kennedy said. “But also [we’re] talking about four returners that played a lot of minutes so we know they are good players.”
Gone are Danuel House (Washington Wizards), Alex Caruso (Oklahoma City D-League), Jalen Jones (Boston D-League) and Anthony Collins. The four accounted for 44 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists a game. The four returnees are sophomores Tyler Davis, Admon Gilder, DJ Hogg and Tonny Trocha-Morelos, who all averaged at least 17 minutes a game and contributed 32 points and 16 rebounds. There is also 6-foot-8 senior Tavario Miller, who averaged 3.7 rebounds in 10 minutes a game.
Then there is the disparity between A&M’s inside and perimeter players.
“[This team] is a lot different, because it’s rare when you say [freshman] Robert Williams is capable of starting just about anywhere in the country and he could be coming off the bench all year,” Kennedy said. “We need some depth on the perimeter, that is one of our weaknesses.”
The 6-9 Williams and 6-11 freshmen Eric Vila join Davis, an All-SEC preseason selection, Hogg and Trocha-Morelos and Miller on the front line. Gilder is the only perimeter player with SEC experience. Point guard JC Hampton is a graduate transfer from Lipscomb, much like Collins was last season.
From there, Kennedy must hope junior college transfer Chase Carlton, redshirt freshman Chris Collins or freshman Caleb Smith can give him quality minutes. Sophomore Kobie Eubanks, a Top-100 recruit who joined A&M last December, could also be an answer, but has had to overcome offseason surgery.
Hampton and Gilder will start in the backcourt, with Hampton at the point. Gilder will play point when Hampton is not on the floor. Vila, despite being listed at 6-11, and the 6-9 Hogg could also see time at the off guard.
“We are going to wait for our big guys if we have to,” Kennedy said. “We still want to run and get easy baskets but it’s not a team that you are going to say is blitzing up and down the court. It’s a Big Ten type team, just grind it. It’s a little bit different but it’s a fun different because these kids are good kids. They listen, they are unselfish and they like playing with each other.”
Despite being thin on the perimeter, a strength should be 3-point shooting with Hogg, Trocha-Morelos and Vila.
“The exciting thing about our team is we’ll put four shooters on the floor every possession,” Kennedy said. “Carlton and JC Hampton, the one thing they can do is make a shot.”
To keep the opposing team from making shots, the Aggies, with all their length, will play a lot more zone than Kennedy teams have in the past.
“It would be foolish of me to not take advantage of our size and depth inside to not go big,” Kennedy said. “I’ve studied every zone in the country. Coach [Don] Maestri my new assistant, he’s got 25 DVDs from the Gonzaga zone to the Syracuse zone for what is going to best fit us.”
A&M opens the season at home on Friday at 8 p.m. against Northwestern State (8-20 last season). A week later, the Aggies host Southern Cal before traveling to the west coast for the Wooden Legacy tournament, where they could face former A&M assistant coach Buzz Williams’ Virginia Tech and possibly No. 16 UCLA. Just before Christmas break, the Aggies will play No. 10 Arizona in Houston.
With all the changes, Kennedy warns it might take a while before the new Aggies hit their stride and possibly show the ability of repeating last season’s accomplishment of going 28-9, sharing the SEC regular-season title with Kentucky and making it to the Sweet 16.
“It will be a process and I just have to remember to be patient because it will take us some time,” Kennedy said. “We got a chance to be really good, it’s just a matter of time and when. I’m really excited about our unselfishness, our size and our young talent.”