Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy still has visions of the Aggies being a title contender if they can get quality guard play in the second half of the season and into March.
Kennedy, a guest on the NCAA.com/Turner Sports podcast March Madness 365, said the Aggies can still be in the mix, despite a slew of injuries and suspensions that have contributed to a 13-7 overall and 2-6 SEC record. Listen to the podcast here.
“If we get the guard play like we had early in the year then we’re definitely a tournament team,’’ said Kennedy. “We’re a team that could win a couple of games and if we get hot a chance to get to the Final Four. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.’’
The Aggies were once as high as No. 7 in mid-December when they were 7-0 heading into a game against Arizona in Phoenix. The Aggies lost but then won four in a row before the start of the SEC. The Aggies had started the season with a win over West Virginia in the Armed Forces Classic in Germany. Kennedy said that game feels like it was a “long, long, long ways,’’ ago. He said, “I wish I could tell you it was more recent. But it feels like it was a long ways away.’’
Here’s what has happened: The Aggies have only played seven games out of 20 where there were no suspended or injured players. The laundry list of issues is long.
Savion Flagg (five game), Isiah Jasey (2), Robert Williams (3), Admon Gilder (5), TJ Starks (1) and Duane Wilson (3) were all injured at various points this season. JJ Caldwell (5 games, then 1 game), Williams (2), Gilder (1), Hogg (1 and then 3 games) and Starks (1) all were suspended at times this season.
“The injuries and inconsistent guard play have been the two biggest keys,’’ Kennedy said. “It was somewhat a surprise that we did so well early ... The early start and high ranking was probably premature to where we were as a team and the adversity we had after that.’’
The suspension of Hogg couldn’t have come at a worse time. He missed the the first two SEC games, at Alabama and against Florida, two losses for the Aggies. Texas A&M would go on to start 0-5 in the SEC. But that did include just a one-point loss at Kentucky.
The problem with the Aggies now is that they are taking two steps forward (wins over Ole Miss and Mizzou) and one step back (loss at LSU). Playing at Kansas (4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge Saturday can serve as a golden opportunity or another step back.
“Anytime you’re playing Kansas on a national spotlight like we are it’s good for the program,’’ said Kennedy about the matchup between two former conference foes. “We’re thankful and excited about the opportunity.’’The Aggies do have chances, with games against Kansas, two against Arkansas, another one against Kentucky, a road game at Auburn and a second game against Alabama. Toss in a road game at Georgia and the Aggies will have plenty of chances against possible NCAA tournament teams. And here’s the crazy thing about the Aggies: The RPI is at 37, and they have a 3-4 record in quadrant 1 with the wins over West Virginia on a neutral court, Buffalo (the best in the MAC), and at USC. The Aggies are 2-2 in quadrant 2, with wins over Oklahoma State on a neutral court and Missouri at home.
This team is not dead yet.
“I just want us to get better,’’ said Kennedy. “We’ve got a lot of games left.’’
What's on the line in each Big 12/SEC Challenge game:
Texas Tech at South Carolina, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Red Raiders impressive profile would be enhanced by a true road win against the Gamecocks. South Carolina has a long haul to get a bid. This would help dramatically.
Baylor at Florida, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: The Gators need to find consistency after losing at home to South Carolina. The Gators need to regain the finishing touch they had at Kentucky the previous week.
Ole Miss at Texas, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Longhorns are a tournament team. Ole Miss is a spoiler. Texas is still searching for consistency.
Georgia at Kansas State, 2 p.m. ET, ESPNU: Georgia desperately needs to get a road win. Mark Fox, returning to Manhattan, has had to sweat out too many Selection Sundays. The Wildcats have become a tough out at home after knocking off Oklahoma at home last week.
Big 12/SEC Challenge preview: 11 things we are looking forward to this weekend
Oklahoma at Alabama, 2:15 p.m. ET, ESPN: Trae Young-Collin Sexton. This is appointment TV. The Sooners are coming off a home win over Kansas. The Tide stumbled at Ole Miss.
Tennessee at Iowa State, 4 p.m. ET, ESPNU: The Vols will be a tough out in March. Book it -- they will be in. The Cyclones have proven they won’t go quietly after knocking off Texas Tech at home last week.
TCU at Vanderbilt, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Horned Frogs played their best game of the Big 12 at the most important time, beating West Virginia at home. The rebuilding Commodores have been a major pest for anyone coming into Nashville (wins over LSU and Alabama in the SEC).
Oklahoma State at Arkansas, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Cowboys beat Oklahoma, but then lost at Texas Tech. This is a young team that, naturally, can stumble on the road. Arkansas is a different team at home, save one outlier against LSU.
Kentucky at West Virginia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Nevermind that the Wildcats have struggled and lost two of their last three (the win over Mississippi State stopped the skid). This will be an intense affair. Kentucky hasn’t played as good a pressing team as West Virginia and the Mountaineers will be jacked to play well after losing at TCU. But this is the kind of game the Wildcats rise up in, when they appear to be struggling. Still, it’s hard to see West Virginia losing two at home after falling to Kansas last week.