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October 16, 2013The inaugural season in the SEC was not a pleasant one for Billy Kennedy and the Texas A&M men's basketball team. Even though they beat defending champion Kentucky at Rupp Arena and blew out Arkansas at home, the undermanned and outclassed Aggies struggled to a 18-15 record (7-11 SEC) and an 11th place finish.
For better or worse, the Aggies will have a much different look when they hit the court Nov. 8 for their season opener against Buffalo. Of the 11 players currently on scholarship, six have never played a minute for A&M. The arrival of three transfers -- sophomore forwards Antwan Space (Florida State) and guards Jamal Jones and Don Thomas (both from Lee College) -- and three freshman -- forwards Tavario Miller (Houston Wheatley) and Davonte Fitzgerald (Tucker, Ga.), as well as center Dylan Johns (Ipswich, England) -- give Kennedy a group more capable of running an offense to his liking.
"We have more length on the perimeter; we have more size, we've got some guys who can make shots and score and I hope that'll make us a better offensive team," he said, noting that this years A&M squad has five players 6 feet, 7 inches tall or more. "We're not putting guys on the floor that we don't think can help us in some way, so we're more balanced than last year."
Kennedy intends to use the length and athleticism of his team to his advantage on the offensive end of the court.
"We've got perimeter (power forwards). We'll play more four guards than we have in the past," he said. "With David Loubeau and Ray Turner the past two years, we've had guys who were good around the basket; (this year) we've got guys who can make threes. We need to utilize our strength of having long guys, 6'6", 6'7" guys who can face up and make threes. We'll spread the floor more than we did in the past."
The lack of depth last year hurt the Aggies severely at the defensive end as A&M gave up 62.1 points per game -- 71.1 points in conference play -- as many players were hesitant to play aggressive defense. Kennedy said he believes that not only should change this year, but has to change for the team to succeed.
"That needs to be our calling card. It's been the basis of my program everywhere I've been," he said of the team's defense. "We've got more offense one through 11, balance wise; we've got more offensive-minded players, but you've got to be able to stop someone, and that's my biggest concern at this point, getting better defensively. We did a poor job on the glass last year and we need to do a better job of defending the three-point line."
While last year's team was unquestionably led by senior Elston Turner and his 17 points per game, this team does not have an obvious leader or go-to player on offense. As a result, Kennedy is looking for several players, including his starters in the backcourt, to step up.
"Fabyion (Harris) averaged 13 points, nearly 14 points, in his first year in the SEC (conference play)," he said. "(J'Mychal Reese) has been more assertive. He's probably had the best spring and best summer of any of our guys. We want him to continue to be assertive. I forget, like many, that he didn't play his senior year of high school and averaged 26 minutes per game last year in a tough league, at a tough spot the the point guard position. If you look at him physically, he's gained about 10 or 12 pounds and he'll be much better. I expect him to be much better. I expect them both to be better."
Another player Kennedy will look to for scoring and leadership will be sophomore guard/forward Alex Caruso (5.5 PPG as a trus freshman in 2012).
"I have great expectations for Alex. He needs to be one of the leaders on our team, even though he's just a sophomore," Kennedy said. "He does so many things well that help you win. We need some more guys to do the intangible things, the small things, and Alex isn't afraid to do those things."
Kennedy said Space and guard Shawn Smith (who sat out last season with academic issues) add to the Aggies' athleticism and scoring options.
"Space can score. He can stretch the floor; he's one of our better three point shooters. He's just inexperienced. Decision-making is a key thing for him and getting him doing things defensively, but he's a tough matchup for most big forwards because he can go out and score," he said. "Shawn Smith is very athletic; probably our most athletic player. He's a good defensive player -- again, they've just got to learn how to play at this level. Getting them to be consistent with their effort, mentally and physically, that's key for them."
While the Aggies have far more length than last year, they still lack size. Johns and junior Kourtney Roberson (6.9 PPG, 6.6 rebounds per game) are the only "big men" on the roster, something Kennedy is quite aware of.
"One thing we lack is we don't have any true post players," he said. "Dylan and Kourtney are more faceup guys, but they're going to have to be factors for us because this league has some of the best post players in the country."
As a result of the team's makeup, both the 6 foot, 11 inch, 227-pound English freshman and the burly 6 foot, 9 inch, 249-pound junior from Louisiana will see plenty of playing time in the low post.
"I anticipate playing (Johns). He plays hard; he can make a three for being 7 foot, and he's worked extremely hard. He gives us some size," Kennedy said. "We need someone who can score around the basket. Kourtney's a guy who has more experience than anyone in the program, has a great understanding of how we want to play, and we need to get him to the free throw line more ... When he's in the lane, he's 6'9", you need to get fouled or score. He's very unselfish, so he'll kick it back out."
Even though the team has a lot of new pieces (another, center Tony Trocha, could arrive for the start of the second semester), Kennedy said he's seen better cohesiveness between members of this team than the group in 2012. That, he said, is cause for optimism.
"They seem to be a good group that gets along real well together," he said. "We've got nine guys here we've recruited. We've known these guys and have relationships with them and we've known Kourtney and Jordan (Green) two years now. The cohesiveness and the togetherness is better than it has been in the past.We only have one senior, so you're building some continuity and balance to your roster."
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