Aggies weather up and down season to reach Sweet 16
By KRISTIE RIEKEN
COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) More than once in a roller coaster season for Texas A&M, coach Billy Kennedy was asked if things could get any worse for his team.
It was something he wondered again and again as injuries, suspensions and inconsistent play had the talented Aggies clawing back from lows that good teams don't normally encounter.
"Trials can break you or make you, and I think it's made this team closer and recognize that they need each other," Kennedy said. "They've grown up a lot in a short amount of time and I just think that the faith and belief in our team that we had a good team and that we could do something special was special if we could get it right."
The Aggies did get it right, winning three straight to wrap up Southeastern Conference play and reach 20 wins to get a spot in the NCAA Tournament, where they beat Providence in the first round before knocking off defending champ North Carolina for a spot in the Sweet 16.
No. 7 Texas A&M, which is in the round of 16 for the second time in three years, will face three-seed Michigan on Thursday night in Los Angeles.
Texas A&M raced out to an 11-1 record and tied a school record by rising to No. 5 in the Top 25 with a team that included center Tyler Davis and sophomore big man Robert Williams, who returned for a second season despite being projected to be an NBA lottery pick.
It was then that things began to fall apart.
D.J. Hogg, who led the team in scoring early in the season, was suspended three games for an undisclosed violation of team rules, and starting guard Admon Gilder missed five games with a knee injury. It was also during this time that Williams missed one game and was slowed for a couple more with flu-like symptoms, leaving the Aggies extremely short-handed.
It resulted in a five-game skid that left the Aggies 0-5 in SEC play and desperate to turn things around. Hogg returned in the middle of the losing streak, and Gilder was back in the lineup when the skid had reached three games, but Texas A&M still couldn't get back in the win column.
Kennedy said he never lost faith in his team and it was during this losing streak that he vowed that the Aggies would turn things around.
"People better beat us now while we've got guys injured and making mistakes," he said in January. "Because I really believe we're going to get this team right because we've got a good group and we've got a talented group and we're going to learn from it."
The Aggies won for the first time in almost a month when they beat Ole Miss on Jan. 16 and they followed that victory up with one over Missouri. But their problems were far from over, and they dropped the next two to fall to 2-6 in conference play.
The players credit Kennedy for keeping them together and positive despite the setbacks. The devoutly religious coach would often provide his players with different bible verses that helped them keep their heads up.
"We stayed connected," Gilder said. "We could have broken down and kept losing, but being able to have that fight in us and being able to come back and win the games that we did to get in the tournament and get into the position where we are now is truly a blessing."
The Aggies went on another run after that, winning four in a row where they knocked off No. 8 Auburn and No. 24 Kentucky to boost their confidence and have them feeling good in early February. But as usual in this season, trouble wasn't far behind.
This time, freshmen J.J. Caldwell and Jay Jay Chandler were arrested for possession of marijuana, spurring Kennedy to hand out severe punishments for the two. Caldwell, who'd been suspended for another arrest in May, was kicked off the team and Chandler was suspended indefinitely. Chandler has since been reinstated.
The team suffered another blow the day after those punishments when veteran guard Duane Wilson, who was averaging nine points and led the team in assists, announced that he had a season-ending knee injury.
Consecutive losses to Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi came next to leave Texas A&M reeling again and searching for answers to keep their promising season from slipping away.
Kennedy challenged his players to recommit to the team after the Mississippi State loss and that led to their surge at the end of the regular season that propelled them into the tournament. Though certainly not ideal, the up and down season has made the Aggies appreciate their success in the tournament so much more.
"It means everything just to be able to come together and make the run that we have so far," Davis said. "It feels good but everyone knows that we've got to stay calm and we've got a lot of work to do."
Some of the Aggies talked about silencing their critics after beating North Carolina. But after the tumultuous season Texas A&M had, Kennedy doesn't blame anyone for doubting his team.
"We deserved to be hated on when you lose games and you make mistakes and you play not with a lot of energy like we did against Mississippi State," he said. "We brought some of that upon ourselves, but whatever motivates our guys I'm behind them right now ... you have to take the good with the bad, and we've had some bad that we've had to go through to get to this point."
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Updated March 20, 2018