Texas A&M is moving from the Big 12 to the SEC next season -- yet another football-driven decision -- and the Aggies have already gotten a taste of what life in their new conference will be like.
That came on November 17 when A&M lost to Mississippi State 69-60 in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden. The Bulldogs turned it into a 70-possession game and forced the Aggies into 16 turnovers, a 23.0 turnover rate and a 0.6 assist/turnover ratio.
"Mississippi State is one of the most athletic teams in the country, and it really highlighted what I know we have to improve upon when we move into the SEC and that's our overall athleticism," first-year Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. "The SEC is noted for being an athletic league. We have to recruit players who can enable us to compete with the athletes in that league."
Not that Kennedy inherited a roster full of stiffs from Mark Turegon, who left College Station last spring to become the coach at Maryland. Texas A&M is 8-1 and No. 22 in the Associated Press poll, though KenPom.com has the Aggies ranked as just the 59th-best team in the nation, primarily because he rates their non-conference strength of schedule 344th among the 345 Division I teams, ahead of only Tulane.
"Though I say we need to become more athletic, I still like our guys, I like them a lot," Kennedy said. "They work extremely hard and have good chemistry. But we will need to have a different kind of team to compete year in and year out in the SEC."
Texas A&M will get another look at the SEC on Saturday and the opportunity to strengthen that ridiculously low strength of schedule rating when it plays Florida in the Orange Bowl Classic at Sunrise, Florida. The Gators are 7-2, 13th in the AP poll and No. 11 in the KenPom.com rankings.
"We're playing a much better team than the teams we've played," Kennedy said. "Florida plays at a frenetic pace on offense and shoots the ball quickly from the three-point line. They definitely want to speed things up and score a lot of points. We're going to have to find a way to get back on defense, stay in front of them and slow them down. We're two teams that are very opposite. We're two different types of teams."
Texas A&M plays at the 24th-slowest tempo in the country at 63.5 possessions a game while Florida plays at 67.9 possessions, ranking 142nd. Kennedy's teams did not play at a breakneck pace during the five seasons he spent as Murray State's coach and ranked 294th last season with 63.9 possessions a game. However, the Racers were somewhat more appropriately named in 2010 when they won 31 games while playing at 66.7 possessions.
Kennedy knows he will have to speed things up in the SEC. For now, though, he is playing with Turgeon's recruits and preparing for the Big 12 season. Thus, he is utilizing the strengths of his players. Kennedy also had to adjust to playing without junior guard Khris Middleton for seven games while he recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery performed after Texas A&M's opener.
The offense flowed through Middleton last season on a 24-win team that reached the NCAA tournament. He led the Aggies with a 14.3 scoring average, 27.9 percent of possessions and 28.2 percent of shots. Middleton came back strong off his knee surgery last Saturday as he scored 24 points in 28 minutes in a 67-54 victory over Louisiana-Monroe.
"He struggled through the first five or 10 minutes offensively while getting used to the game pace and facing pressure defense," Kennedy said. "He had five turnovers and didn't look like himself early but then he settled down in the second half and made some shots. Obviously, he's a big key for us. We need another perimeter guy who can shoot and score. He's a guy we have to have in order to compete in this league."
Texas A&M is considered a serious threat to end Kansas' run of six consecutive regular-season Big 12 titles. Junior forward Ray Turner (13.0), junior guard Elston Turner (12.1) and senior forward David Loubeau (11.1) are all scoring in double figures.
Ray Turner has taken a big step forward after averaging just 3.9 points and 13.6 minutes a game last season. He is 61st in the nation in effective FG percentage (63.8), 123rd in true shooting percentage (63.0) and 56th in offensive rebounding percentage (14.5).
"He's become a much better scorer from 15 feet and in," Kennedy said. "He has a lot more confidence than he did in the past in his offense. We like him on the block, around the basketball and his ability to score has been a pleasant surprise. He's played quality minutes and helped us win games. He's still a work in progress. He has room to improve."
The same could be said about Texas A&M as a whole. Kennedy was forced to miss the first three weeks of preseason practice because of the early onset of Parkinson's Disease. He is feeling better and has no coaching restrictions but there is still catching up to do.
Kennedy believes his absence has something to do with the performance disparity between Texas A&M's defense, which ranks 17th in the nation with 88.9 adjusted rating, and offense, which is 144th with a 100.9 mark.
"The guys on our staff did a great job of getting our guys prepared defensively while I was away from the team but we're behind because of my being sidelined by my unfortunate situation," Kennedy said. "We're still trying to catch up on the offensive end and we're not quite there yet."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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