Key Returners: Robert Williams, Tyler Davis, Admon Gilder, DJ Hogg, Tony Trocha-Morelos
Key Losses: JC Hampton
Key Newcomers: Duane Wilson, JJ Caldwell, Savion Flagg, TJ Starks, Jay Jay Chandler
Outlook: The Aggies had two main issues last year: first, they did not have a real point guard to set up and distribute to teammates (sorry JC Hampton/Admon Gilder); and second, DJ Hogg missed nine games due to injury (which compounded the PG issue, as Hogg was perhaps the team’s best passer). Lo and behold, they should be able to rectify both in 2017-18! JJ Caldwell is a perfect fit as an elite passer at the point after being ruled ineligible last season, and Duane Wilson comes from Marquette as a combo guard option who can spell Caldwell at times. Add in the likely health of Hogg’s foot – presumably, he hasn’t been hanging with Kathy Bates in Misery – and you have a Texas A&M squad that is primed for a massive bounceback campaign.
You might be thinking, “hey 3MW, a leap to 18th after finishing 8-10 in the SEC without adding an elite recruiting class seems pretty extreme!” Well, to that I would say two things: 1) Florida State went from 8-10 in the ACC in 2015-16 to a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament last year – the leap is possible if the team is talented enough. Granted, they added an NBA lottery pick in Jonathan Isaac, but TAMU has one too (Williams), and I think Caldwell will have a gigantic newcomer impact of his own. Upgrading from outright bad at PG to solid is a major change. 2) The Aggies were 287th in KenPom’s luck statistic last year, which beasically says they played far better than their 16-15 record. I’m betting that corrects somewhat this year.
No stat showed the Aggies’ aforementioned point guard issues more clearly than their abysmal turnover rate: they coughed it up on 21.2% of their offensive possessions, good for 320th in the country. They simply gave away too many possessions, which dragged down an offense that otherwise thrived on interior dominance via Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, particularly on the glass. Davis and Williams both ranked in the nation’s top 40 in offensive rebounding rate, so the benefit of simply getting a shot up and playing volleyball on the glass (versus turning it over) is even higher for the Aggies than most teams.
Having both Davis and Williams gives Coach Billy Kennedy some lineup challenges. Using those two correctly along with third big Tonny Trocha-Morelos (more of a stretchy, perimeter-oriented player) will be crucial to finding success in College Station. Here is how the various combinations fared last year, all in very similar sample sizes:
Obviously, the Williams/Trocha-Morelos combo was the best lineup – this makes sense with Williams roaming the paint on both ends and TTM (I’m lazy) providing more of a perimeter presence. On the other hand, both Davis and Williams are massively impactful big men, but playing them together doesn’t optimize their skills – neither can shoot and the offensive spacing gets cramped. Defensively, Williams has some slight ability to guard on the perimeter, but playing two true big men forced Kennedy into playing more zone than in years past (31% of possessions last year, per Synergy, compared to 13%, 19%, 19% the previous three years). The lineup with all three bigs on the floor is extremely intriguing for these zone defenses – three 6’10 players lining the back line of a 2-3 makes scoring inside nearly impossible.
While the season may hinge on the effectiveness of the newcomer point guards and the talented frontcourt, it would be unwise to forget about talented junior wings Hogg and Gilder. Gilder was an ironman last season with the team’s lack of guard depth, playing the second-highest percentage of minutes in the SEC and proving to be a shooting threat and harassing defender (but miscast at PG). Hogg is an NBA scout’s dream, a fluid 3-and-D prospect at 6’9 who can shoot and pass and play rangy, respectable defense. He was pretty clearly limited by his injuries during the SEC season last year, and a potential breakout campaign now that he’s finally healthy could absolutely be in the cards.
The true freshman class is well regarded (23rd in the country per 247sports), led by hyper-athlete Savion Flagg on the wing. He'll provide some nice insurance if Hogg's injury issues crop up again, and although he's not as skilled, he has plenty of defensive upside. TJ Starks, Jay Jay Chandler, and Isaiah Jacey are three-star guys who should provide some depth for a team that didn't have a ton last year.
Bottom Line: Texas A&M is the posterchild for a bounceback team this year – excellent returning talent, a couple crucial newcomers, and some luck flipping over to the good side all point towards A&M improving drastically on last year’s campaign. Like every other SEC team, though, they face a far more competitive conference in 2017-18, so climbing into the NCAA Tournament will be a greater challenge this year than most. We think Kennedy’s crew is up to the challenge, launching Williams into the NBA Lottery and Caldwell onto the SEC’s All-Newcomer team.