Texas A&M’s Billy Kennedy is a man on a mission – a coach bent on proving the Aggies won’t careen from the Sweet Sixteen to a trudging dozen in the span of six months.
“Our team has changed a lot,” admitted Kennedy, the only A&M coach to lead the program to two Sweet Sixteen appearances of the NCAA Tournament, the last coming last season. “We lost four guys 6-foot-8 or bigger who started a lot of games for us. You’re going to see a different team.
“We’re going to play more up-tempo and play four guards a lot, something we haven’t done the last couple of years.”
Gone are big men Robert Williams (the 27th overall selection of the NBA Draft to the Boston Celtics), Tyler Davis, Tonny Trocha-Morelos and D.J. Hogg, all big-time contributors to one of the top teams in A&M annals. The Aggies stunned the nation last season with an 86-65 whipping of then-defending national champion North Carolina to earn a Sweet Sixteen berth.
“We’ve beaten people up over the years,” a staggered Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “The tables were reversed.”
Now Kennedy will try and keep the roughhousing rolling, only with a much smaller, speedier lineup.
“We’re going to have to play a different style and adapt to the talent we have,” he said.
The holdover among the elder statesmen is guard Admon Gilder, who briefly mulled turning pro before returning for his senior season.
“Everybody seems like they’re in a rush to try and get to the league,” Gilder said with a slight chuckle of collegians’ NBA dreams. “The time wasn’t right for me.”
Gilder is tasked with shepherding fellow guards T.J. Starks and Savion Flagg, who both contributed plenty to last year’s run, along with transfers like senior forward Christian Mekowulu and junior guard Wendell Mitchell.
“It’s going to be an interesting role for Admon, because he’s going to be relied upon defensively and offensively,” Kennedy said. “It’s somewhat similar to what he’s done before, but he’s going to have to do more and be more vocal. That’s something he’s done a good job of this fall.”
Gilder said he’ll miss the talented big men who left their mark on the program, but the notion of cutting loose up and down the court is even more tantalizing to the athletic guard.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a while,” Gilder said. “That’s just how I play, and it fits our team now to play that style of basketball. We’ve looked really good in practice when we’re in transition and up-tempo, and we have a lot of athletic players.”
Gilder added fellow Southeastern Conference teams won’t know what to think with the Aggies getting up and down the floor.
“It’s going to be hard to scout us, because teams are not used to us playing this style of basketball,” he said. “That gives us an advantage.”
Projected Starting Five:
- G T.J. Starks, So., Dallas, 6’2,
- G Admon Gilder, Sr., Dallas, 6’4
- G Wendell Mitchell, Jr., Rockdale, Texas, 6’10
- G/F Savion Flagg, 6’7, So., Alvin, Texas
- F Christian Mekowulu, 6’8, Sr., Lagos, Nigeria
Admon Gilder. The senior is fiercely loyal to the program when a couple of his heralded classmates believed it was time to move on; now he earns the chance to show the Aggies can win without a dominant frontcourt.
The Aggies’ plan is to catch the rest of the SEC off-guard with a renewed quickness and athleticism, after being so methodical of late, but that’s a tough sell. While it won’t compete for an SEC title, this team could slip in to the NCAA Tournament depending on the gelling of newcomers.
Kennedy has made the most of his two NCAA Tournament showings at A&M, with two Sweet Sixteen appearances. He’s missed the Big Dance the other five occasions, however, once again a danger this season.
Game of the Year:
At Gonzaga, Nov. 15. The transitioning Aggies earn what might be their stiffest test of the season only three games in.
Impact First Year Player:
F Christian Mekowulu. Coach Billy Kennedy and guard Admon Gilder, who’ve both witnessed their share of athletic forwards at A&M of late, rave about Mekowulu’s athleticism and quick imprint on the program.