Sorry, Texas A&M, but there is no Johnny Basketball.
The Aggies are grinding their way through a difficult first SEC hoops season without a program-changer like Johnny Manziel to stick them in the national spotlight.
A&M isn’t bad, with a 15-9 overall record and 5-6 SEC mark, but it is mired in a tie for eighth place in what as rated the weakest power conference in the country.
Then again, that’s an improvement over last season’s 14-18 mark and 4-14 disaster in the Big 12.
The natives are even starting to get a tad restless with their second-year coach. The Battalion, A&M’s student newspaper, recently ran a column titled, “Billy Kennedy a good coach, not the right one.”
A&M, which reached unprecedented heights with six straight NCAA tournament trips under Billy Gillispie and Mark Turgeon, will miss its second in a row barring a spectacular finish. The Aggies have a 64 RPI and a power rating in the 70s to 80s.
“We’ve been pretty good defensively, that hasn’t been the issue,” Kennedy said earlier this week. “It’s been making shots, having enough firepower and depth on the offensive end to finish games.”
A&M, No. 276 in scoring, raised eyebrows by marching into Kentucky last month and whipping the Wildcats 83-71. But the Aggies promptly lost their next four games. They’ve traded wins and losses the last two weeks.
Guard Elston Turner, who dropped 40 on the Cats in Rupp Arena, is an excellent player, averaging a team-high 16.5 point and guarding the opponent’s best player every night.
“Everything we do goes through him,” Kennedy said. “He knows how to create opportunities for himself. He’s the one guy who can score on a regular basis. There’s a lot of weight on his shoulders. We’ve got to get more production from other guys.
“Our team has to taken on more of his personality and play with more energy and enthusiasm.”
Turner, whose father Elston Sr. had an eight-year NBA career, is a senior, though, and on the way out. Freshman guards Alex Caruso and J’Mychal Reese are projects, and the next recruiting class doesn’t have any top-100 players.
Missouri, the other SEC transplant from the Big 12, is making out better with an 18-6 record and tied for fourth at 7-4 in conference play. The Tigers, with a 34 RPI and a power rating in the 25-35 range, expect an NCAA bid.
“They’ve got two guys, Phil Pressey and Laurence Bowers, who have been in the program a long time and have won a lot of games,” Kennedy said.
All has not gone smoothly, however, for former Texas assistant Frank Haith, still under NCAA investigation for his days at Miami.
Pressey, the SEC preseason player of the year, has been erratic at point guard. Power forward Bowers missed five games with a knee injury. Touted UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi only recently hit his stride. Mike Dixon, the Big 12’s sixth man of the year in 2011-12, is transfering after two sexual assault claims went public.
Still, the Tigers are enjoyable to watch, 20th in scoring, 33rd in scoring margin and third in rebounding margin. Six players average double-figuring scoring, topped by Oregon transfer Jabari Brown at 15.1.
“We’re getting close to being really good,” Haith said.
Bullish Big Ten
The Big Ten not only has three top-10 teams and five in the top 20, but the league is running away in the attendance race with a 12,704 average. No one else is over 10,000. Plus, the Big Ten Network said January was its highest-rated month ever in prime time, thanks to hoops.
“There’s a buzz. You stop at the grocery store or fill up your car with gas, everybody is talking about the league.” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
With three weeks left, seven teams remain unbeaten in conference play: Miami (ACC); Gonzaga (WCC); Memphis (Conference USA); Akron (MAC); Louisiana Tech (WAC) and Norfolk State and North Carolina Central (MEAC).