Kennedy sees changes in men's program sparking progress in 2014-15
by Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine
In the spring of 2013, Texas A&M men’s basketball coach Billy Kennedy had an opportunity to have dinner with University of Texas head coach Rick Barnes in Austin.
The two veteran coaches discussed many things, including the Longhorns’ extremely disappointing 2012-13 season, in which Texas missed the NCAA Tournament, finished near the bottom of the Big 12 standings and ended the year with a 16-18 record after being eliminated in the CBI Tournament.
According to many college basketball “insiders,” Barnes was supposedly on the hot seat because Texas was also losing its top four scorers from 2012-13. The Longhorns were projected to finish eighth in the 10-team Big 12 Conference in 2014, ahead of only Texas Tech and TCU.
But over dinner, Barnes told Kennedy he believed that the 2013-14 season could be an outstanding one for Texas. He liked the chemistry in the locker room created by some new personnel additions, and he believed some wholesale changes needed to be made.
Barnes was right. Without much early fanfare, the Longhorns bounced back in a big way in 2013-14, going 24-11 before losing to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.
“(Barnes) had just lost a lot of kids with a couple of transfers and various other reasons,” Kennedy said. “He talked about addition by subtraction and that he thought there needed to be some changes for his program in order to take another step. He felt really good about the changes.
“It’s similar to how I feel this year about my team. I didn’t anticipate all this change happening this year, and it’s always disappointing to lose guys. It’s also hard to say goodbye to people who’ve been a part of your program. But I thought changes needed to be made. The program comes first, and I really feel good about how things are coming together.”
Indeed, Kennedy and the Aggie men’s basketball program appear to be piecing together an impressive team, adding some marquee recruits and well-known coaches to the roster and staff.
There have also been some significant departures, as last year’s leading scorer Jamal Jones (13.4 points per game) announced via Twitter on May 6 that he would not return for his senior season. And, while Kennedy turned heads nationally when he announced on May 7 the hiring of former Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury to his staff, he also had to say goodbye to former associate head coach Glynn Cyprien.
Some of the changes have been difficult, Kennedy acknowledges. But Kennedy, who has compiled an overall record of 50-49 in three seasons at Texas A&M, says he feels especially good about the chemistry and cohesiveness of the current roster, including newcomers like University of Houston transfer Danuel House, SMU transfer Jalen Jones, freshmen point guards Alex Robinson and Avery Johnson, freshman shooting guard/forward Peyton Allen and highly touted freshman center Tonny Trocha-Morelos, who has starred previously with the Colombian National Team.
“We’re really excited about adding these new guys to the mix, along with the progress (sophomore-to-be) Davonte Fitzgerald is making in his rehabilitation (from knee surgery following a torn ACL he suffered in a Feb. 12 win over LSU). Fortunately, he is way ahead of schedule, and we are excited about the progress he is making from a health standpoint.
“I’m eager to work with all the guys we have coming back and the guys we have coming into the program because they embody what Texas A&M is all about. I really believe this group is going to do something special. I’ve been (in this rebuilding situation) before, and I’ve always been able to tell when we were about to take the next step. I think we’re ready to take that next step here.”
In his last two previous head coaching stops, Kennedy turned programs around at Southeastern Louisiana and Murray State. At Southeastern Louisiana, the Lions went 36-74 overall in Kennedy’s first four years and then won back-to-back Southland Conference titles in his fifth and sixth seasons. And at Murray State, the Racers won the Ohio Valley Conference and compiled 31 wins in Kennedy’s fourth season.
The turnarounds have never been “overnight,” but Kennedy has always built a winner.
“Billy always has a plan and is persistent with it,” Murray State athletic director Allen Ward recalled. “I could see from year one to two to three that we were improving steadily under Billy. If Aggie fans are patient, they will be very pleased with the product he puts on the floor.”
The upcoming season could be the year which Aggie basketball fans have been anticipating. That’s a sentiment that is being discussed nationally.
In April, CBSSports.com college basketball writer Jon Rothstein listed A&M as one of the five schools (along with SMU, Maryland, Miami and Utah) that is expected to rise in 2014-15.
“The Aggies were a point guard and big man away from being an NCAA Tournament team this season and will have both next season,” Rothstein wrote. “Lightning-quick freshman Alex Robinson (is) the point guard Billy Kennedy has salivated for since he arrived in College Station, and Tonny Trocha is a legit 6-10 center who will have an immediate impact defensively. Another potential difference maker is SMU transfer Jalen Jones, who led the Mustangs in scoring and rebounding two seasons ago…The Aggies should challenge for a berth in the field of 68 next season.”
Similarly, in late April, BlearcherReport.com national college basketball columnist Kerry Miller listed A&M as one of his 10 teams (along with Richmond, Utah, Georgetown, Temple, Illinois, Miami, Colorado State, Ole Miss and Minnesota) and that is “set to break out in 2014-15.”
Both stories were written prior to the announcement that the 6-foot-8, 197-pound Jamal Jones had decided not to return for his senior season (he had previously played at Ole Miss and Lee College). But with the addition of the 6-foot-7, 195-pound Danuel House, the second-leading scorer last year at Houston, the 6-foot-7, 220-pound Jalen Jones, who averaged 14 points and 7.7 rebounds per contest in 2012-13 at SMU, and the return of the 6-7, 205-pound Fitzgerald, the impact of losing Jamal Jones could be minimal. House is seeking a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately in 2014-15, but that decision is pending.
Regardless, the Aggies should have far more depth in 2014-15 than at any other time during Kennedy’s tenure in Aggieland. The 6-foot-10 Trocha-Morelos, who was also recruited by Arizona, Kentucky, Ohio State, Oregon, Providence and UCLA, gives the Aggies a versatile offensive threat and a strong defensive presence in the paint.
In the backcourt, the Aggies were hamstrung last season when sophomore point guard J-Mychal Reese was dismissed from the team. That forced Alex Caruso to play point guard. The 6-foot-5 Caruso had a sensational sophomore year, leading the SEC with 5.0 assists per game. But he may be better suited to play off the ball, with the addition of freshmen point guards Alex Robinson (the No. 42-ranked player in the country by Scout.com) and Avery Johnson, the son of former NBA player and head coach Avery Johnson.
True freshman Peyton Allen, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Chatham, Ill., also should give the Aggies a tremendous three-point shooter who can create his own shot on the perimeter.
Kennedy has also added some impressive newcomers who will not be in uniform.
Stansbury spent 22 seasons at Mississippi State, including 14 as head coach (1999-2012). He compiled a 293-166 (.638) record while guiding the Bulldogs to the postseason 11 times, including six NCAA appearances.
Mississippi State made five-consecutive postseason tournament appearances (2001-05) for the first time in school history, including a streak of four-straight NCAA Tournament berths. The 54-year-old Stansbury, the 2004 Associated Press SEC Coach of the Year, is the ninth-winningest coach in SEC history.
Additionally, Kennedy added one of his former players to the coaching staff, as Amir Abdur-Rahim was once a three-time All-Southland Conference player at Southeastern Louisiana before entering the coaching ranks at Murray State under Kennedy. A native of Atlanta, Abdur-Rahim is the younger brother of former NBA All-Star Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
He also served as the director of player development at Georgia Tech and was most recently an assistant coach at the College of Charleston, where he served on Doug Wojcik’s staff the last two seasons.
“I felt like I needed somebody who could communicate well with the players and who knew me,” Kennedy said of Abdur-Rahim. “He knows all my drills and knows me. I also knew he could help me in recruiting. Amir knows Georgia and the Southeast. I think he will be able to develop a bond with the players that we need in our program.
“With (Stansbury), I have known Rick for a long time. He certainly knows the SEC. He is a great recruiter and was a very good coach in the SEC for a long time. To be a head coach in the SEC for 14 years means you are doing something right. To have someone who has that background and can recruit the Southeast, it’s just a win-win situation for Texas A&M. We’re really excited about the positive things happening with our program right now.”