For a team that went 19 years between NCAA Tournament appearances, the Aggie fan base certainly got spoiled quickly. Billy Gillispie came to Texas A&M from UTEP and raised the Aggie basketball program from the Dark Ages. Six consecutive trips to the tournament after nearly two decades of life in the basketball abyss will do that to one of the most passionate fan bases in the nation. Donations to the program started flowing in and new facilities were built to attract recruits from nearby hoops hotbeds (Houston and the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex). Legendary basketball programs took notice and became interested in Aggie basketball coaches. After two coaches made the decision to leave College Station for greener basketball pastures, the Aggies are heading towards what is likely their second consecutive season without an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
There are plenty of arguments that can be made for why the current state of the program is one that is struggling to get big wins and struggling to get fans inside Reed Arena. One reason is the lack of depth on the current roster. The Aggies are muddling through their first SEC season with only 8 scholarship players. Current head coach Billy Kennedy has made public remarks about the talent on the roster being nowhere near the level he expected when he took the job in Aggieland. Most people will point to the talent Billy Gillispie inherited when he arrived at Texas A&M as a reason he was able to see such early success. What Coach Gillispie actually inherited was a talented Sophomore in Antoine Wright and two complete question marks in Freshmen Acie Law IV and Marlon Pompey. The stories of Acie and Gillispie not seeing eye to eye are not a secret to anyone that has followed the Aggie basketball program. Rather than leaving the team like he had intended to, Acie stayed with Coach Gillispie and developed into a point guard that the Aggie faithful will never forget. Players like Joseph Jones, Dominique Kirk, and Chris Walker all developed as players under Coach Gillispie. There was talent on the roster, and it was developed to the level that begin to spoil Aggie fans.
Aggies and college basketball fans alike can look at the record of the current team and not see any cause for concern. A 12-6 record isn't the worst thing that could be happening. If you've watched enough games over the past two seasons, it should be clear that something is just off. It's kind of like that feeling when you board an airplane and then you get the first sign of bubble guts just before takeoff. Things might work out and things might be okay, but deep down you know it's all over. I'm not saying this season is over for Aggie hoops. There are plenty of games left to play and then the SEC tournament that could be fascinatingly bad. The Aggies are one Elston Turner going bananas against Kentucky away from being in the bargain bin of SEC basketball. This year's team didn't have massive expectations on its shoulders, but everyone needs to understand that the SEC is a really bad basketball conference this season. The one point loss to Alabama contains no moral victories. They are a very beatable team with the roster the Aggies have. I'm not even going to discuss the loss last night to a terrible LSU team. Those games serve as eye-openers for fans to figure out where this program stands. In the age of advanced analytics and trending data, it can often be relieving to go back and look at information to put your mind at ease. Other times it can open up a can of worms that you wish you never opened.
Judging a coach on his year one records and performance hardly seems fair. After all, coaches often bring in an entirely new staff and new system. In their second seasons at the helm of the Aggie basketball program, Billy Gillispie and Mark Turgeon had an average RPI win of 146 and 135, and an average RPI loss of 40 and 39 respectively. In his second season, Gillispie had four wins over RPI Top 60 teams. In Turgeon's second season at A&M, he had 7 wins over teams in the RPI Top 60. Gillispie's worst loss in year two was to an RPI of 110. Turgeon's worst loss in year two was to an RPI of 119. Neither had another loss in those seasons worse than an RPI of 89. Of Gillispie's 9 losses in year two, 6 were two teams ranked in the top 20. Mark Turgeon had a similar efficiency in year two with 5 losses to teams ranked in the top 20 of his 10 losses. These were two pretty special seasons for the Aggie basketball program with one being their first trip back to the tournament, and the other being a team that could have made a strong NCAA run (be honest, we didn't stand a chance against THAT Connecticut team).
A little past the halfway point of year two under Coach Kennedy, the Aggie basketball program is far below the standard that most Aggie fans grew accustomed to. The average RPI win for Coach Kennedy is 193. Eight of the team's twelve wins came over teams ranked 144th or worse with 5 being ranked 276th or worse. Perhaps a more telling trend is that the average RPI loss of this year's team is 80. The Aggies have two losses this season to teams ranked 150+. Despite what happens from this point on this season, that is the statistic that the tournament selection will have underlined, circled, and highlighted. The highest rated win this season came against Louisiana Tech. The Aggies rank in the bottom third of the nation in points, rebounds, and assists per game. In all of the wins and losses this season, Aggie fans have been looking for improvement. There have been flashes of it, but nothing remotely consistent enough to be considered promising. Does blame fall to the players on the roster or the coach? This question is one that I wish I never tried to answer.
Billy Kennedy was a hot prospect to replace Mark Turgeon, who abruptly left Texas A&M for Maryland late in the off-season. Much of the promise that surrounded Coach Kennedy was derived from his last two years at Murray State. Kennedy took over an absolutely awful Racers team and eventually had them winning more games than any team in school history. A run to the NCAA Tournament caught the nation's attention. Taking a look at the last three seasons of Kennedy's tenure at Murray State was interesting. The average RPI win during his last three seasons at Murray State were 239, 222, and 204. The Racers had 24 wins over teams ranked in the RPI 150+ during the 2009-2010 season that ended in a tournament appearance. 17 of those wins came against teams ranked worse than 209. Of his most successful seasons at Murray State, the 2009-2010 season had the worst ranked strength of schedule (SOS). Looking at the information during these seasons can be intriguing for basketball fans. Did Coach Kennedy and his team get hot when the Ohio Valley Conference was in a slump? Is it the roster or the coaching causing the bad results against higher RPI ranked opponents and a tougher SOS? There was talent on last year's roster, but why did they have even worse results than this year's team? There are a lot of questions that can be asked about the progress of the team through year two for Coach Kennedy.
I absolutely love being an Aggie. I love that we passionately stick by our teams through thick and thin. That is one of the things that makes being an Aggie so amazing. You become part of a family that spans every known boundary with open arms. You can still be a good Aggie and not be happy with how one of the teams is performing. That's just a part of being an alumnus. You donate your hard earned money to the athletic department you can't live without. Aggies should expect greatness from our basketball team. Texas A&M has one of the largest student bodies in the country, some of the best basketball facilities in the country, and two of the best basketball recruiting cities in its front and back yard. Aggies basketball fans would be happy if they were seeing progress and trends that gave them faith of the program getting back to being a perennial tournament team. Without more than hoping for a miracle this season, the fans are left wondering if this program is heading in the right direction with the best navigator for the job.