Very few programs in the SEC challenge the basketball royalty of the Kentucky Wildcats. But in just their fourth year in the conference, the Texas A&M Aggies did just that, splitting the regular season championship with the Wildcats and gaining quite a bit of national attention along the way.
Finishing with a 28-9 record (13-5 SEC), the Aggies’ success didn’t stop with a top finish in the SEC. The Aggies waltzed into the Big Dance with a No. 3 seed, and survived and advanced until a date with Buddy Hield and Oklahoma in the Sweet 16.
With head coach Billy Kennedy, the reigning SEC Coach of the Year, the Aggies look to continue in their efforts in competing with Kentucky for the SEC, all the while regrouping after losing three of their four leading scorers (Danuel House, Jalen Jones and Alex Caruso).
Texas A&M was picked to finish third in the SEC in the conference’s preseason media poll, and was left out of the preseason coaches poll’s top 25.
No one had a stronger frontcourt in the SEC than Texas A&M and their three-headed monster consisting of seniors Jalen Jones, Danuel House and freshman Tyler Davis.
Jones and House, first and second team All-SEC selections, are graduated. But Davis, the All-Freshman center, is back for his sophomore year in College Station.
Davis led the team in rebounding (7.2 per game) and blocks (1.1 per game), and was the third leading scorer, averaging 11.3 per contest. In a team anchored by seniors, Davis was a boy among men.
But that boy, is now the man for coach Kennedy and the Aggies.
Selected first team All-SEC for the upcoming season, Davis is very much in play for a run at SEC Player of the Year. He was a solid candidate for the conference’s Freshman of the Year last season, but was overshadowed a bit by LSU’s Ben Simmons, the eventual No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
But the 6-foot-10, 270 pound center — while likely capable of holding down the paint himself — will not be alone, despite the team’s departures. Of A&M’s solid four-man recruiting class (No. 3 in SEC, No. 18 nationally according to 247sports), two are power forwards. Eric Villa, a 6-foot-11 forward from Spain, and Robert Williams, 6-foot-9 out of Louisiana, will have the immediate opportunity to step into the rotation to fill the hole left by Jalen Jones and complement Davis in keeping the Aggies strong down low.
While Texas A&M had a respectable offensive presence, sixth in the SEC in points per game in conference play, defense was its strong suit.
In SEC play, the Aggies had the No. 1 defense, allowing just 67.2 points per game. They dominated in almost every facet of the game, taking away the second-most steals in the conference (4.7 per game) and bringing in about 24 defensive rebounds per contest, ranking third in the SEC.
While the Aggies are capable of continuing to dominate the paint in the 2016-2017 season, everyone knows what dominates basketball in this era — the three-point shot.
The Aggies are proficient in sinking the deep ball themselves, ranked fifth in three-point shots made against SEC opponents, but they struggle in defending it.
Texas A&M was 10th in the SEC with the amount of three-points shots their conference opponents made, and overall, the Aggies were an abysmal 332nd in the nation in three-pointers allowed.
Anchored by the presence of its big men, Texas A&M was still incredibly successful despite its woes in defending the three. But with the loss of Jones and House down low, the Aggies will at least go through a learning curve in gaining back their dominance defensively.
The increased role of sophomore small forward DJ Hogg, an All-Freshman last season, should boost the team’s production from deep and on the perimeter in general. But to take the next step, the Aggies must be better in defending the three-point shot.
Players to watch
In College Station, the shift of power is moving from the seniors to the sophomores.
C Tyler Davis, Soph. — In a conference dominated by Kentucky and LSU’s basketball phenom Ben Simmons, Tyler Davis went somewhat under the radar last season. This will change in 2016-2017. With the Aggies’ senior stars out, Davis has taken over the reigns. His numbers will most definitely improve from an already impressive 11.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in his freshman year. He’s not just a threat to average a double-double, Davis is a legitimate candidate for being the best player in the SEC.
F DJ Hogg, Soph. — With senior Alex Caruso dominating the ball on the perimeter, D.J. Hogg didn’t have much of an opportunity to show all of his potential. But now, Hogg is suddenly the Aggies’ No. 1 option on the perimeter. In just 18.2 minutes per game, the 6-foot-9 small forward averaged only 6.2 points per game. This season, Hogg will be relied on to score in much higher volume and will hopefully lead a better year from the three-point line to give the Aggies another dimension in their game.
Matchups to watch
Dec. 17 vs Arizona — Ranked No. 11 in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll, this Arizona team has the potential to be coach Sean Miller’s first Final Four contender. And in a high-profile tournament a couple weeks before conference play, this game is a major opportunity to show they can still compete on the national stage like they did last season. A win would be a standout piece on Texas A&M’s NCAA Tournament resumé, and would set the tone and build momentum before diving into SEC play.
Kentucky (home and away) — Not only did the Aggies split the regular season conference championship with Kentucky, but they beat the Wildcats to give themselves the edge in scoring the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament. While they eventually fell to Kentucky in the championship game, the Aggies impressed against one of the nation’s blue-chip programs. But this season, the Wildcats are reloaded with the nation’s second-best recruiting class (according to 247sports) and the Aggies are down a few key pieces from last year. Kentucky is a tougher draw this season, but at least one win against Calipari’s boys would be huge in competing for the conference again in 2016-2017. Texas A&M gets two shots at the Wildcats this regular season, traveling to Lexington on Jan. 3, and hosting Kentucky on March 4.
Arkansas (home and away) — Picked to finish fifth in the SEC, the Razorbacks will be one of the contenders the Aggies will need to hold off in the pursuit of dethroning Kentucky. Boasting the media’s pick for SEC Player of the Year, Moses Kingsley, and its best talent in years, Arkansas will compete among the upper echelon of the conference this season. The battle between Tyler Davis and Moses Kingsley might be the most high-profile matchup in the conference all season. Texas A&M hosts Kingsley and the Razorbacks on Jan. 17, and travels to Fayetteville on Feb. 22.
The media’s pick for A&M to finish third is spot-on when looking at the landscape of the conference this season, but thanks to Tyler Davis and DJ Hogg, the Aggies will perform slightly higher than expectations and come in at No. 2 in the conference (behind Kentucky of course). With opportunities to play non-conference opponents USC and Arizona and multiple potential tournament teams in the SEC, Texas A&M will compile enough quality wins to make the NCAA Tournament.
Edited by David Bradford
Featured image by Wikimedia Commons
Dalton, a firm believer that sporting events are best spent on Twitter, is an Assistant Sports Editor for TNJN and a sophomore studying Journalism at the University of Tennessee. Two of his favorite pastimes include beating his roommates at 2k and remaining in awe of the amount of stories fellow editor David Bradford writes. Twitter: @dk_writes