Category archive: Texas A&M Aggies
His voice had energy and was clear.
Kennedy attended his first SEC meeting as Texas A&M joined Missouri for their inaugural meeting in advance of officially joining the conference next season.
He said he's feeling much better. And it's obvious. Six months ago, he was slammed with a double diagnosis: the early stages of Parkinson's and exhaustion.
Kennedy took a leave from coaching in October/early November before returning to the sideline on Nov. 13.
The Aggies were riddled with injuries in his first season and finished a disappointing 4-14 in their final Big 12 season and 14-18 overall.
Khris Middleton declared for the NBA draft, and the Aggies will be rebuilding in Year 2.
Kennedy's job in the offseason is to prep rebuilding Texas A&M so it can create an identity in the new 14-team SEC.
And his plan is for the Aggies to be more physical. "We can be a physically imposing team defensively, like my teams at Murray State,'' said Kennedy. "I think we can do that. I want us to be physical like a football team.''
Missouri is ready to be a top-half SEC team with the addition of elite transfers and a solid returning core. Frank Haith's squad is loaded, regardless of league affiliation.
The Aggies can't be irrelevant early.
Kennedy isn't making promises. He said most of the perimeter players are new. So if the newcomers come through, the Aggies can be a pest in the SEC. They have five newcomers and four of the five play on the perimeter. The onus will be on rising senior Elston Turner, who is the top returning scorer. "We'll have new players and we'll have a transition, and we're in a new league,'' Kennedy said. "But we've got to get better right now. Hopefully, it equates to more wins.''
The Aggies are being paired with LSU as a traditional rival. And Kennedy said he anticipates a growing rivalry as the two schools are locked in to play each other twice every season. "There is a rivalry in football, and I think there can be one in basketball,'' Kennedy said.
Kennedy said he loved the atmosphere at the SEC meetings in Destin and called the league first class. "All the coaches get along well and they want to improve what is going on in basketball,'' said Kennedy.
But most importantly for Kennedy is that he is hitting the offseason feeling a 100 times better than he did when the season started.
He has a life-altering condition, but he at least can understand how to manage it going forward. "I'm the only one [who] would know if something is wrong, and I haven't had any issues,'' Kennedy said. "I'm working out every day. I know what to do. I'm doing exercises that are helping, and I'm doing well now.''
Missouri should be able to find its way toward the top five in the SEC, while Texas A&M will have to slog through a muddled middle of the conference.
The absence of a Missouri-Kansas and Texas-Texas A&M rivalry will hurt the Big 12. No one will debate that fact since those four games are always well-attended and hotly contested, and usually mean something in the standings.
And while Mizzou and A&M plan to continue the rivalry, Kansas and Texas have said no.
So, ultimately nobody in the Big 12 appears to be whining over the departures. The 10-team Big 12 can go forward without a hitch in its new round-robin schedule and its equitable conference tournament.
West Virginia's location in Morgantown is just another college campus that isn't easily accessible by a major airport, so that's nothing new for the Big 12. Try getting to other league schools in Columbia, Ames, Lubbock, Stillwater or Manhattan. TCU, in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, is actually easier to get to by air or car than Texas A&M is in College Station.
TCU has plenty to do to be highly competitive in the Big 12. But West Virginia will step in immediately and provide a highly competitive team that will be a tough out in Morgantown and on the road.
The Mountaineers have a top transfer sitting out this season, former La Salle big man Aaric Murray, and ex-Dayton guard Juwan Staten isn't too shabby, either.
No one seems to care about the Mountaineers' roster as long as Bob Huggins is the coach. He was universally applauded by his new Big 12 colleagues Tuesday.
"He's one of the most respected coaches in the country," Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg said. "They instantly will make our league tougher. We're getting an outstanding program, one with great tradition. West Virginia has been an NCAA tournament team in six of the last seven years."
Kansas coach Bill Self said that West Virginia adds tremendous value, and with TCU the Big 12 schools can recruit in the Metroplex area even more.
"It all adds stability to an already great league," said Self.
Kansas State's Frank Martin said the addition of West Virginia ensures that the Big 12 will be even stronger going forward.
"We're adding a Final Four team, and a Hall of Fame coach," Martin said.
Martin's praise is understandable. He's one of Huggins' closest friends, having worked for him at Cincinnati and heading to Kansas State with him for one season before Huggins went to his alma mater at West Virginia. Martin then replaced him at Kansas State.
"I have tremendous respect for that league," Huggins said Tuesday. "We're going from one great league to another."
Huggins said the travel won't be an issue for West Virginia.
"We've got a lot further to go than everybody else, but we'll just charter in and out," Huggins said. "I tell you what impressed me [in the Big 12] is the student turnout is terrific. When the students are in there, there is such enthusiasm."
Huggins is right. The Big East's college campus arenas don't come close to the Big 12's arenas. The Big 12 blows the Big East away, save a few places like Louisville and Pitt.
Huggins said the Mountaineers will be in the mix immediately in the Big 12 with the transfer additions, even with the departure of senior Kevin Jones.
West Virginia is still scheduled to play Kansas State in a return game, but Huggins said he'll let Martin out of the game unless he wants to come to the state twice in the same season.
West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said on a conference call Tuesday that the Backyard Brawl in football between Pitt and West Virginia won't be played in 2012. If that's the case, then don't expect it to be played in men's basketball as the Mountaineers will have an 18-game Big 12 schedule and will need to adjust their nonconference slate. Pitt will still play an 18-game Big East schedule in 2012-13. The Big East was noncommittal about the changes to the Big East schedule with a 15-team league for one regular season and conference tournament. Pitt and Syracuse could still depart for the ACC a year earlier than projected, but not for 2012-13.
The ACC got better with those additions. Those moves weren't done for survival, though. The Big 12 had to replace Mizzou for 2012-13 or face a nine-team league that would have been down a notch. West Virginia allows the Big 12 to avoid a major hiccup. The league should still have one of the most competitive conferences with multiple bids in 2013, too.
I've seen 20 teams in a number of venues on both coasts.
So after a thankful day to be with my family -- and a big thanks to all my tremendous colleagues who grind every day on our editorial operation on ESPN.com and on both sides of the camera on ESPN -- here's a look at what I've picked up on after two weeks on the road. And remember, this only includes games I've seen in person.
Best venue: It was natural to be skeptical about whether or not the Carrier Classic could be pulled off. But it far exceeded my expectations. The Navy did what it does best -- tremendous organization. The enormity of the USS Carl Vinson was awe-inspiring. The men and women who serve on the ship, as well as the ship's leadership, couldn't have been more welcoming. They were so grateful to have a chance to show what they do on a daily basis. The two teams -- North Carolina and Michigan State -- were model guests and displayed tremendous appreciation. The pageantry of the event, from the patriotic opening to the scenic view of downtown San Diego, will be hard to ever duplicate due to the uniqueness of 11-11-11 and the inaugural nature of the game. And the outdoor game may have seemed like a gimmick, but it was well-played in spurts for being the season opener for both teams.
Best team: North Carolina. The Tar Heels have lived up to the hype as the No. 1 team in the country. They have flaws, especially their perimeter depth. But the overall length of the frontcourt, the ability to get out on the break and the potential to hit scoring spurts and run out on teams is impressive. The Heels have three players -- Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and Kendall Marshall -- who will compete for the ACC POY and two others -- John Henson and James Michael McAdoo -- who will be tough to defend.
Signature moment: When Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski won game No. 903 against Michigan State, passed his mentor Bob Knight and became the all-time winningest men's coach in NCAA history. The impromptu embrace by Coach K and Knight was met by a swarm of photographers and a rare teary eye from Coach K. The moment was genuine, real and showed the true emotion of such an arduous task of grinding out wins in this sport for three-plus decades.
Most impressive half: Kentucky's complete domination of Penn State in the first half at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The Wildcats made it look like it was a guarantee game with an opponent from a weak Division II conference. To Penn State's credit, the Nittany Lions did respond the next day and beat South Florida. But Kentucky showed on this day that it had more offensive versatility with the emergence of Doron Lamb and Kyle Wiltjer.
Most dominating performance: Jared Cunningham, Oregon State. Cunningham went off for 37 points in an overtime win over Texas in the Legends Classic. Cunningham was a highlight reel a year ago but has settled down, working on his game and finding ways to score in a variety of ways. Hofstra coach Mo Cassara said he was the best guard they've gone against in quite some time after Cunningham lit up the Pride for 35 in Corvallis prior to the Texas game. Cunningham is a legit Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate.
Best sub: Syracuse's Dion Waiters. Waiters jump-started the Orange with 11 points off the bench in the comeback win over Virginia Tech in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal. Waiters is a game-changer when he's on the floor. He gives Syracuse a different look because of his ability to get into the lane quicker than Scoop Jardine. He's not as refined as Jardine and can be hit or miss, but when he's on he gives the Orange a different look.
Most courageous: Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy and St. John's coach Steve Lavin. Kennedy is trying to come back from a series of health setbacks, most notably being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He went through incredible fatigue over a five-week stretch that weakened him and it doesn't help that he has bone spurs in his shoulder. The first-year A&M coach is beat up, but is making a comeback one step at a time. He's an inspiration and a model of perseverance.
Lavin, meanwhile, is returning from prostate cancer surgery that was more extensive than most. He had a seven-hour procedure to take out his prostate and also scrape other lymph nodes to ensure that the cancer was all gone. He said he is cancer-free, but is still working his way back from the exhausting surgery. Lavin has to manage his energy and that's why he was able to coach in the Garden for two days in a row but then needed to take a day off from the rigors of coaching earlier this week.
Biggest surprise: Stanford's blowout win over Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were obviously a bit distracted on Wednesday. Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, who has been crushed by the horrific plane crash that cost the lives of women's coaches Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna, said there were no excuses. And there is this: Stanford was that good. Josh Owens scored 21 points and is, like Cunningham, a Pac-12 POY candidate. I'm not sure Stanford can continue this early-season success, but the Cardinal certainly have the look of an upper-division Pac-12 team.
Two to single out: Over the past three weeks, I took notice of two players who continue to exhibit maturity and professionalism in the way they handle themselves with the media and the respect they have for those older than them. Texas freshman Myck Kabongo has a tremendous presence about him. So too does Michigan State senior Draymond Green. You sense that both of these young men will be stars in whatever they choose to do going forward.
Player only scratching the surface: Kentucky's Anthony Davis will be a star by season's end with his ability to control the paint. He is such an immense talent with his length and game-changing shot-blocking. His offense will only continue to diversify.
Most important wins: Vanderbilt beating NC State and Oregon State in the closing moments. The Commodores found ways to win the Legends Classic with key defensive stops and timely shooting at the IZOD Center. The Wolfpack and Beavers are vastly improved from a year ago, but the Dores had to win these games to shed the sour taste of getting beat up by Cleveland State at home. Vandy will get big man Festus Ezeli back in a few weeks. So these wins were critical for this team's confidence.
Two teams to watch: Oregon State still has to win the games it should over the next month -- all against teams outside the power-six conferences and perhaps none against teams bound for the NCAA tournament. But the talent is in place with this team to make some noise in the Pac-12. The emergence of Ahmad Starks as a push-it point guard, the length of Eric Moreland and Devon Collier, the soft hands of Joe Burton inside and the scoring of Cunningham make this team a good watch.
NC State had talent when Mark Gottfried arrived and it has only gotten better. C.J. Leslie is a potential big-time scorer. Scott Wood can make shots. C.J. Williams and Alex Johnson are solid role players. DeShawn Painter is a rugged face-up and inside post player and the potential exists for Thomas de Thaey and Jordan Vandenberg to cause problems when they body people up in the lane. The ACC is weak beyond the top three, opening up a spot for the Wolfpack.
The great enigma: Mississippi State. After dropping a home game to Akron, the Bulldogs won the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer with wins over Texas A&M and Arizona. Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney provide one of the tougher matchups of any big man combo. Dee Bost is a veteran point guard who knows how to run a team. But the two players who may hold the key to this team are Deville Smith and Rodney Hood, a pair of freshman guards who can change the game with their speed and shooting when inserted.
Incomplete read: Drexel. The Dragons were without two of their top three guards in Chris Fouch and Tavon Allen. Yet Drexel pulled away from Rider in impressive fashion during the Tip-Off Marathon. The CAA favorite has a tough inside, undersized player in Samme Givens and a grinding guard who can get points in Frantz Massenat. But then the Dragons fell flat in the Virgin Islands and lost to Norfolk State and scored 35 points against Virginia. Let's see how Drexel does once it's healthy before giving a full review.
Best coaching jobs: Kansas' Bill Self and Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg. Neither team won when I saw them but they were going up against top-five squads in Kentucky and Syracuse. Self and Greenberg are maximizing the talent on their teams. They do have studs in Thomas Robinson (Kansas) and Dorenzo Hudson (Virginia Tech), but they get their teams to play as hard as they coach. Kansas' play in Maui deserves high praise and the Jayhawks will once again be in contention to win the Big 12. The Hokies will find a way to be on the bubble again. Neither team is as stocked as it has been in the past, but these two coaches will get these teams to reach their potential.
Best teams: Nothing I saw changed my opinion that North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse are all legitimate Final Four contenders. I have yet to see Ohio State, but put the Buckeyes in that group, as well.
Best game I missed: Well, that one is easy. The Kansas-Duke championship game at the Maui Invitational will go down as one of the best 40 minutes of the regular season. What a show that was.