South Carolina basketball beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other team in the SEC as the season approaches.
Oct. 31 Alabama
Nov. 1 Arkansas
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Nov. 2 Auburn
Nov. 3 Florida
Nov. 4 Georgia
Nov. 5 Kentucky
Nov. 6 LSU
Nov. 7 Mississippi State
Nov. 8 Missouri
Nov. 9 Ole Miss
Nov. 10 Tennessee
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Billy Kennedy (71-61, fifth year; 282-240, 18th year)
2014-15 record (SEC finish): 21-12 (11-7)
2014-15 postseason: Second round, NIT
He’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): G Jordan Green (4.5 ppg, 1.6 rpg), F Kourtney Roberson (9.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg), F Davonte Fitzgerald (transferred to Minnesota, 2.2 ppg, 0.7 rpg), F Antwan Space (transferred to Massachusetts, 2.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg), G Avery Johnson (transferred to Alabama, 1.4 ppg, 0.2 rpg), G Peyton Allen (transferred to Wichita State, 4.5 ppg, 0.8 rpg), F Derek Cahn (no longer on team, did not play), G Alex Robinson (5.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg), G Ramon White (no longer on team, 0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg), C Dylan Johns (transferred to Cal State Northridge, 1.2 ppg, 0.8 rpg)
He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-1 G Anthony Collins (Sr., transferred from USF), 6-8 F D.J. Hogg, 6-3 G Admon Gilder, 6-9 F Elijah Thomas, 5-10 G Frank Byers, 6-2 G T.J. Distefano, 6-10 C Tyler Davis, 6-5 G Kobie Eubanks (eligible midseason)
Top returners: 6-7 G Danuel House (14.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg), 6-7 G/F Jalen Jones (13.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg), 6-5 G Alex Caruso (9.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
The grumblings were loud when he didn’t reach the NCAA tournament in any of his first three seasons, quieter when he signed a Top-10 recruiting class and picked up again when last year’s team, seemingly safe for the field of 68, lost four of its last five and went to the NIT.
There aren’t grumblings now, just proclamations. Billy Kennedy says Texas A&M will be in the NCAA tournament this year. Lose two straight anytime this season and the hollers will return – but the Aggies are so stacked that losing two games, period, may be a stretch.
The class is enrolled and ready, No. 28 Tyler Davis leading a class of four Top-65 members. Hiring Rick Stansbury after his less-than-graceful exit at Mississippi State resulted in a bumper crop of recruits, and with them combining with all-SEC guard Danuel House, high-low player Jalen Jones and the SEC’s best ball-handler (Alex Caruso, 5.5 assists and over two steals per game), Texas A&M is very equipped to reach Kennedy’s guarantee, and then some (another gift arrived before the first game when former Alabama signee Kobie Eubanks, the nation’s No. 101 player, was cleared to play for A&M. He’s eligible in December).
The speculation is that it’s NCAA or bust, for the team and Kennedy. Either he gets to March or is on the bread line. Naturally, the players aren’t talking about that and say they’re ready to play in the big tournament, and stick around for a while. Staying healthy and working the new players into a cohesive mix early should get them to that goal.
House broke his foot and missed the Aggies’ last two games last year, a large part of the late collapse. He’ll lead the backcourt while the big guys (Davis and Elijah Thomas) get used to college ball after ruling high school.
A&M has height, even its guards running 6-foot-5 and 6-7. It has physicality, athleticism … everything a team needs to get to the NCAA tournament. This should be the year the Aggies get there.
Kennedy really needs his team to not make a liar out of him.
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Gary Blair (287-119, 13th year; 695-282, 31st year)
2014-15 record (SEC finish): 23-10 (10-6)
2014-15 postseason: First round, NCAA
She’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): G Tori Scott (4.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg), G Allison Chu (0.4 ppg, 0.1 rpg), F Tavarsha Scott-Williams (1.7 ppg, 1.3 rpg), F Achiri Ade (6.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg), C Jada Terry (transferred to Texas Tech, 3.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg)
She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-0 F Anriel Howard, 5-10 G Danni Williams, 6-0 G/F Jasmine Lumpkin (So., transferred from Michigan State, eligible after first semester), 5-9 G Carly Truesdale (Jr., transferred from Wisconsin, will sit out this year), 5-8 G Darienne Serna (So., walked on this year)
Top returners: 6-2 F Courtney Williams (14.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg), 6-2 F Courtney Walker (14.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg), 5-9 G Jordan Jones (9.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
Gary Blair, as he always does, charmed the room with his answer. It wasn’t just the folksy demeanor or the grandfatherly look.
It was the facts, spoken without bragging.
“Why retire if you’re good at what you’re doing?,” the 70-year-old Blair said at SEC Tipoff. “I think I still got a lot to give back to the game.”
Blair is in his 44th year of coaching, his 31st as a college head coach. He’s averaged over 23 wins per year and will win his 700th this year, despite not being named a head coach until he was 40.
He’s won a lot. He can still recruit. He’s only four years removed from a national championship. He’s obviously still sharp, able to crack wise with the best of them and earnestly explain his love for basketball.
Blair knows it won’t be easy, but winning an SEC championship is very feasible.
His group of five seniors is the class that came in after the national title. They’ve gotten to the tournament each year, going second round, Elite Eight and stunning first-round loss to Arkansas-Little Rock last year.
So maybe if serve holds, the Aggies get back to the Final Four this year. The league is much improved (for instance, Blair disciple Vic Schaefer is doing big things at Mississippi State) and A&M has slipped from dominant to good. The freshman class is good and the Aggies have some key transfers, so they’ll be good.
But they aren’t satisfied with being good. They want to be dominant.
As usual, it’s the Courtneys’ show. Courtney Walker and Courtney Williams, leaders since they enrolled, will lead the Aggies. “If I had another daughter, I’d name her Courtney,” Blair said. Jordan Jones will lead the offense after a nearly 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ration last year. If A&M can weather the stretch from Jan. 31 to Feb. 11, where it plays South Carolina, Tennessee and MSU (although all are at home), it will be back in the top four.
Blair is used to building. He’s done it everywhere he’s been, and he always reloaded when all was thought lost. Coming off a disappointing year, he’s ready to show 70’s the new 30.
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