When discussing college basketball blue bloods, the Texas A&M program does not come to mind. In fact, the Aggies often get about as much respect as comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who got none.
But over the last few years, you get the sense that something truly enduring is brewing in College Station. In 2017-18, head coach Billy Kennedy led the Aggies to their eighth NCAA tournament appearance in the last 13 years, and with a 22-13 mark, A&M completed its 10th 20-win season in the last 14 tries, which is no laughing matter.
In addition to A&M’s team success, prowess on the recruiting trail has led to players like DeAndre Jordan, Acie Law IV, Tyler Davis, and Khris Middleton passing through College Station before hitching to their respective NBA posts. Jordan is an 11-year veteran who was selected to the NBA All-Star Game in 2017 and made his auspicious acting debut in a State Farm commercial with the famous line, “We got robbed!” After beginning his career in Detroit, Middleton has seen a five-year increase in Milwaukee. In 2017-18, he was the Bucks’ second-leading scorer behind Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Now back to A&M. In last year’s NCAA tournament, the Aggies blitzed North Carolina 86-65 by netting 10 3-pointers and shooting 51.7 percent from the field. In addition to Tyler Davis’ 18 points, TJ Starks poured in 21 and Admon Gilder added 12. A&M’s 21-point win, the worst tournament loss ever suffered by a Roy Williams-coached team, forced the Tar Heels coach to admit he felt “inadequate.” However, the A&M train was derailed in the following round by red-hot Michigan, led by head coach John Beilein and German sensation Moritz “Moe” Wagner. While A&M watched from home, Michigan played Villanova for the title—and lost.
Half a year removed from that spectacle, Davis is now with the Oklahoma City Thunder and his defection to the NBA has preseason prognosticators scratching their heads about whether A&M can survive such a difficult blow. And even though the Aggies return Starks (9.9 ppg/2.3 apg), Gilder (12.7 ppg/7.9 rpg) and 6-foot-9 hoss Christian Mekowulu (12.7 ppg/7.9 rpg), they were recently picked 12th in the preseason SEC media poll.
But don’t bet against this team. Gilder and Starks, a formidable backcourt duo, provide necessary leadership, and with Mekowulu and Savion Flagg (4.1 ppg/3.4 rpg), the A&M frontcourt is more than solid. Recently at SEC Media Days, Gilder said, “We are not getting the recognition we deserve. But that’s what happens when you are overlooked for so long and you’re predominately a football school. But I think it’ll change around this year.”
Starks believes that respect comes with winning. “We are looking to win games and championships. That’s the only thing that matters in our program now, so that’s all we are focusing on,” he said.
Believe it or not, Texas A&M has a fairly viable basketball history. Shelby Metcalf, essentially the lynchpin for Texas A&M basketball, is one of the most successful college coaches you’ve never heard of. The quick-witted Metcalf posted a 438-306 record with six 20-win seasons sprinkled across those 27 years. He directed the Aggies to a Sweet Sixteen bid in 1979-80, when the team was bounced by Louisville, the eventual national champion, in the Midwest Regional.
According to an article written for the Houston Chronicle, one of the most famous Metcalf moments occurred with an exchange with a referee. It went something like this:
“Can you give me a technical foul for what I’m thinking?” Metcalf asked.
“No, I cannot.”
“Well, I think you’re a (bleep),” Metcalf replied.
No technical was called.
After Metcalf’s departure, A&M basketball went in the proverbial tank. Kermit Davis, the current Ole Miss coach, had the helm for one season in 1990-91 but went 8-21 and resigned amid allegations of illegal recruiting. Tony Barone and Melvin Watkins waltzed with flux for nearly 15 seasons until Billy Gillispie, formerly the head coach at UTEP, came in and did the unthinkable: he began turning the program around.
But in the end, Gillispie turned out to be a Walkaway Joe. After teaching the Aggies how to dance again in his second season, after taking the team to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen his third year, he promptly bolted for bluer pastures, becoming the head coach at Kentucky. And no one outside of central Texas faulted him for it.
In came Mark Turgeon, another fly-by-nighter. For the next four seasons, head coach Turgeon built on the foundation Gillespie started. The team reached the Big Dance for four consecutive seasons before Turgeon left to become Maryland’s head coach.
A&M began looking for a coach who viewed the program as a destination job, not a stepping stone. They found that person in Kennedy.
A journeyman who had been the head guy at Murray State for five seasons, Kennedy became coach of the Aggies in 2011. No stranger to campus, Kennedy was one of Kermit Davis’s assistants on that ill-fated 1990-91 team, and prior to Murray State, Kennedy had been the head coach at Centenary (La.) and Southeastern Louisiana, compiling an overall record of 211-179.
Adversity struck during Kennedy’s first season, as it was announced in October 2011 that he had Parkinson’s Disease. But his courage and tenacity in the midst of those circumstances has inspired many, including his players. “What he’s been through, and the way he’s fighting to this day, it’s incredible to see,” Tyler Davis once told the Houston Chronicle.
Over the last six years, Kennedy’s teams have posted a 115-85 record with a high-water mark of 28-9 in 2015-16. They’ve lost in the Regional Semifinal in two out of the last three seasons. They can now say they have big-game experience. They know what it takes to make it to the tournament and have success in late March. They have a battle-tested coach, both on and off the court. All of that adds up to the conclusion that Texas A&M basketball is here to stay.
So it’s befuddling why this program is not getting more respect.
It’s safe to say that if the Davis-less Aggies stand up again and rock the national stage, failing to give them the props they deserve will be nothing short of comedic. H&A
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All photos by Al Blanton