One year ago, Texas A&M was the toast of college basketball. Down 12 points with less than 45 seconds left to play against Northern Iowa, the Aggies completed one of the biggest comebacks in NCAA Tournament history.
Texas A&M lost four senior starters, so a rebuilding season was expected. However, it hit harder than expected. After winning the SEC title in 2016 and being picked third in the preseason SEC poll, the Aggies finished tied for ninth in the conference with a paltry 16-15 overall record. Despite having top talent on the roster, Texas A&M missed every postseason tournament.
However, Texas A&M basketball got a significant gift last week. Power forward Robert Williams announced his intention to return for his sophomore season.
Williams was a surprising freshman standout, ranked just the No. 62 player in his class coming out of high school. With a 6-9 frame, 7-6 wingspan and elite athleticism, NBA teams took notice. Before he announced he was returning, DraftExpress rated him a top-10 prospect.
In college basketball, having an athletic, long front court player is a huge advantage. Pairing Williams with All-SEC center Tyler Davis with another year of experience is a front court that almost no SEC team can counter.
But while Williams’ return immediately helps the roster, it instantly raises the expectations on coach Billy Kennedy and the program.
The Texas A&M wave really started two years ago, as the Aggies reeled in the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation. Davis and high school teammate D.J. Hogg were the headliners, rated the No. 31 and 29 players in the nation, respectively. Four-star wings Admon Gilder and Kobie Eubanks rounded out the class.
This was meant to be the class that returned the Aggies to national prominence, which the program failed to enjoy since Mark Turgeon was the coach. Thanks to the upstart freshman class mixed with a senior-heavy squad, it happened.
A year after winning 20 games for the first time in four seasons, the Aggies won 28 games — most in program history — and earned a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Three freshmen — Davis, Hogg and Gilder — were part of the regular rotation.
Unsurprisingly, those players led the team in scoring as sophomores, at least before Hogg went out with a season-ending injury. However, the results were disappointing. The Aggies lost four of five nonconference games against major-conference opponents. Against SEC opponents who finished above .500 in conference play, Texas A&M was 2-9.
Again, the Aggies won the SEC in 2016 and made a Sweet 16 run. Kennedy at least proved he has the capability of coaching a nationally relevant team.
With Williams’ return, the Aggies have the talent to be competitive in the SEC. If they can’t be, the conference will move on without them.
Several schools across the SEC are making major investments in their basketball programs. Alabama hired former Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson to lead the program. Tennessee and Mississippi State both lured coaches who have Final Four berths on their resume. This spring, Missouri and LSU made big investments with Cuonzo Martin and Will Wade, respectively. Three SEC teams were in the Elite Eight this year: South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky. South Carolina is in the Final Four.
SEC basketball is moving to the forefront of college basketball. Texas A&M must move with it, or risk falling to the bottom of the conference. The Aggies won’t have more than one more season with Williams. Kennedy must make the 2017-18 season count.