In one of Aggie Basketball’s smaller intricacies, you have to call inside the basketball office to get someone to come open the door to let you in to the practice complex.. In those moments between calling and someone actually coming out, you get a microcosm of what Aggie Basketball is at this time.
Kennedy hopes that Elston Turner can have an even bigger season in 2012 playing his natural shooting guard spot full-time.
Partly, it’s the quiet. Unless there’s a career fair or Breakaway going on, basketball lives in a quiet world on West Campus. Aggie hoops has never lived under the microscope that the football team has, and so for the most part its inner workings are a mystery. But mostly, like me on this particular October day, it’s the waiting. We’re waiting to see what the season holds, and waiting to see if Billy Kennedy can get things going again.
A&M fans want to be excited. They want to be hopeful. They, and I in a much more literal sense, want to be let in.
It’s almost one year to the day from the announcement that Kennedy was taking a leave of absence from the basketball program for then unspecified health reasons. As the Aggies were set to begin practice last fall under their new head coach, he had to step away from the program.
Today, when the Aggies start practice full time, it will be with Kennedy the sidelines. For that, before the subject really turns to basketball, Kennedy is thankful. But his health isn’t the only think that Kennedy is excited about.
“I’m just thankful to be in a position where I can do what I love doing first of all. I’m healthy, that’s the first thing,” he said. “Secondly, I think we know our team. We have a better relationship with the new guys we recruited and the old guys that are returning, so we’re further along that way. Those are the positive things at this point.”
Kennedy’s first season in College Station was one that he, and the fans, would like to move on from. The 15-18 season broke a streak of six straight NCAA tournament appearances.
“There was no rhythm throughout the whole year,” Kennedy said. “Khris (Middleton) got hurt, came back and then got hurt again. Dash’s situation, Kourtney’s situation, we had no rhythm the whole year. The expectations, knowing what we know now, were out of whack and that heightened things even more so.”
“You look back on a team and you research what you lost and how they scheduled the year before and how fortunate they were to win some games, well we went the other way. We didn’t get those breaks and we had the injuries, and we really missed some leadership in our program from missing BJ (Holmes) and (Nathan) Walkup. We didn’t have a lot of leadership last year.”
Bryan's J-Mychal Reese is one of the programs biggest recruits ever, but will he be ready to play right away?
The fact that Kennedy missed the first of the season with his new team also didn’t help their chemistry problems any, but he said it was the injuries more than anything that hurt them last season.
“It didn’t help,” he said. “If we would have still had the injuries that happened with key guys, we lost three potential starters for a lot of games. Kourtney, Khris and Dash started on our trip to Europe and then we only had them for six games together all year, it hurts when you lose that kind of talent and experience, but we’re further along. We’ve got more toughness in our group and we’re excited about the young guys we’ve got and the new guys we have. We think we’re further along than we were last year, hopefully that equates to more wins.”
Heading into last year the biggest mystery was the coach. Everyone already knew most of the players, and freshmen Jordan Green and Jamal Branch had been committed for years. This year, it’s the exact opposite. The Aggies return just a handful of players, and they bring in a large group of newcomers. Nobody really knows what to expect from this group yet, and that includes their coach.
“It’s a big mystery this year for us also,” he laughed. “You look at our team and out of our twelve scholarship players, seven of them didn’t play division one basketball last year at Texas A&M. That’s counting Kourtney and our transfer Antwan Space. There is a lot of unknown. These guys haven’t been at this level before so we’re figuring it out, but we’re excited about our perimeter play.”
“J-Mychal (Reese) and Fabyon Harris at the point guard create good competition at that spot. Elston (Turner), Shawn Smith, Jordan Green and Alex Caruso are competing at the two and the three. Four new perimeter guys and two returners, that’s it. You only have to guys who were in the program so we have a young and inexperienced backcourt besides Elston, he’s going to have to have a good year. In the post you’/re looking at Ray Turner, he’s another senior that’s going to have to have a good year. Then you’ve got some guys that have just played sparingly in the past. Andrew Young is hopefully going to fill the void of David Loubeau and bring us some toughness around the basket and some scoring ability.”
It’s already been a big year for freshmen in Aggie Athletics, and fans are hoping that Bryan native J-Mychal Reese can do for the basketball team what Johnny Manziel has done for the football team. However, Kennedy cautions against fans setting their expectations too high early on for Reese. He’s still working his way back into form a knee injury last season that caused him to miss most of his senior season.
“He missed a month also with mono in August so he’s catching up,” said Kennedy. “It’s an adjustment. It’s hard to count on freshman at any level much less the highest level in the SEC this year. We think he’s healthy now, he’s getting a feel for what we need and what we expect of him, but it’s going to be a learning process. There aren’t a lot of freshman that start at the point guard spot at this level and play significant minutes, it’s usually a gradual thing. We have to be patient with him. But he brings some quickness and tempo and we have to get easy baskets.”
With Reese coming along, the lead guard spot will be held down by transfer Fabyon Harris. Harris has the speed and quickness that Dash Harris had, but he also brings the ability to score off the bounce. According to Kennedy, the ability get to the basket and create points has been his biggest point of emphasis this offseason.
Transfer Fabyon Harris is the likely starter at point guard.
“We really think all of our guys are better and more equipped to get in the lane. That’s been our biggest emphasis all year,” he said. “We have to get in the paint, we have to get fouled, we have to get some transition baskets and we have to score off of dribble penetration. We’ve emphasized that with trying to play more up-tempo. We tried that last year but it’s hard when you don’t have wings that can run. Khris wasn’t healthy and Elston had to play the one. It was hard to gain any confidence in our running game but we’re hopeful that we’re able to do that with the guys coming in.”
Injuries have already been a story this offseason. Kourtney Roberson took longer than expected to rejoin the team, and Keith Davis was seen in a boot earlier this fall. However, Kennedy said the team is good to go for the start of practice today.
“We’re healthy right now,” he said. “The interesting thing is Kourtney’s been cleared to do everything, he didn’t get the chance to do much with us the last couple of months. He’s the one guy that I think is going to take a little bit longer than everybody else, everybody else should be good to go so we’re excited about that.”
Kennedy found out the hard way last season just how hard it is to keep basketball momentum going with the fans at Texas A&M. The crowds at the end of last season looked less like the white-clad madhouses of recent years and more like the ghost towns of the Melvin Watkins era. Kennedy said that they have to find a way to get fans involved every week, but it starts with winning.
“We’re going into a new league and we have got to get the fans and our students engaged in the Auburn’s, the Ole Miss’s, the Georgia’s. Teams we aren’t familiar with,” he said. “Fans in Texas aren’t familiar with those teams and you can’t assume that they’re not good basketball programs. They are good basketball programs or they wouldn’t be at the BCS level. We need people to understand that we need them to support us in the SEC. It makes a difference when you have a home court advantage. Obviously you have to win, and in certain parts of the country you have to win big, we’re working on that right now.”
There’s at least one game where attendance won’t be a problem though. When the schedule was released a few months ago, one game caught everyone’s attention. The Aggies will welcome defending national champion Kentucky to Reed Arena. As I was trying to think of the date to ask the question, Kennedy stopped me mid-sentence. You can tell it’s a date that they have circled on the calendar.
“It’s February 2nd,” he said. “I’m excited about it for our fans. I’m excited about it for our student body and for our players and our program. They’re the height of college basketball right now, and we’ll find out where we’re at. We have a ways to go before then but we’re looking forward to it.”
The big question now is how good can this team really be? With all of the newcomers and their sub-par season a year ago, there’s plenty of reason not to expect much out of this team. However, Kennedy said that their expectations haven’t changed.
“Our goal is to get to postseason play,” he said. “We don’t have a big margin for error with our youth and inexperience on the perimeter. We lost three players who played a lot of minutes with this program over the last four years. We need to be patient, but we need to max out on every possession on both ends of the floor. We can’t get guys hurt, we need a little favor there, but I think we’ve got a chance to go to the postseason if everything comes together like we’re capable of doing.”
With A&M’s non-conference schedule and the number of young players they’re trying to bring into the mix, it may be awhile before we know what this team really has. But for now Kennedy is just excited to back on the floor.
“I’m really excited to get in basketball mode,” he said. “Unfortunately, only a small part of my job is basketball. You wouldn’t think it but with recruiting and what it takes to run a program at this level, making sure guys are academically right and in meetings and those things are high maintenance sometimes. Basketball is a release so I’m really looking forward to having our team here and getting into a routine of being here and working with our team on a daily basis.”
The Cox-McFerrin Center for Aggie Basketball at Reed Arena will forever be the house that Billy Gillispie built. But if Gillispie built it, Mark Turgeon decorated it. (To be fair, with a lot of help from Gary Blair.) But now, it’s Kennedy’s turn to really make the program his own. With all of the injuries and his own personal health situation at the start of last season, Aggie fans want to give him a pass. They want to believe that this season will be different and that the Aggies are heading the right direction again. But they need a sign, a reason to get excited again.
For now though, whether it's the fans hungry to return to winning or this reporter standing outside on a warm October day. We wait.