Tyler Davis and Admon Gilder were all smiles last month as they represented Texas A&M at the Southeastern Conference's annual basketball media day in Nashville.
They knew the questions would come.
After arguably the best season in program history--one that delivered an SEC championship, a trip to the Sweet Sixteen and one of the greatest comebacks in the history of American sports--how do you replace essentially your entire starting lineup?
All-everything guard Alex Caruso? Gone. The star power of high-scoring players Jalen Jones and Danuel House? No more. The steady hand of veteran point guard Anthony Collins? Also gone.
How, the pundits asked, would the 2016-17 Aggies be able to repeat or surpass their performance from a year ago? Could the losses be too much to overcome?
"I'm ready," said Davis, with a grin spreading across his face. "We've been putting in so much work. Last year we had a great run, and now we're looking to go even further this year, compete for another SEC title, reach those Final Four expectations and win a national championship."
It is true that the reigning SEC champions will have a significantly different look this year. Of the 16 players on the roster, 13 are freshmen or sophomores. A team whose strength was in the backcourt and on the perimeter last season will now feature most of its muscle coming from the inside.
"We (lost) four seniors last year, including two fifth-year seniors," said A&M head coach Billy Kennedy. "That's a big loss for us, but we're excited about the young guys we have. We're going to be big, and we have a great front line. If we can get some solid guard play, I think we'll have a chance to compete for another SEC championship."
It would be easy to assume that A&M "lost everybody" from last year's historic team, but a closer look at the numbers reveal that isn't truly the case.
Thirteen of A&M's 16 players are freshmen or sophomores, so coach Billy Kennedy's team figures to be one of the youngest squads in school history. Admon Gilder (above) and Tyler Davis were key contributors as freshmen. Gilder played in all 37 games last season while Davis averaged 11.3 points per game on his way to being an SEC All-Freshman team honoree.
While the Aggies return just 26 percent of the starts made last season, they do bring back nearly 45 percent of the team's scoring and 60 percent of its rebounds.
Diving even deeper into the roster, most discussions start with Davis, the team's leading returning scorer, rebounder and shot blocker. As one of the top freshmen in the league last season, Davis (10.8 points per game, 6.2 rebounds per game) started 34 games in the paint and gained invaluable experience as the Aggies played one of the toughest schedules in program history.
ESPN college basketball analyst Sean Farnham was one of the national media members on hand at SEC Media Days, and he said the conference is loaded with some of the best big men in the country this year. In his opinion, those inside players will have a big say in who hoists the league trophy in early March.
"You can make a legitimate argument that six of the top 15 or 20 bigs in college basketball are in the SEC this year," Farnham said. "The ability to defend down low and the ability to rebound the basketball is really going to be pivotal in SEC play. I think that's a strength of Texas A&M going into the season."
Along with Davis, Tonny Trocha-Morelos (7.0 PPG, 3.6 RPG) and Tavario Miller (2.1 PPG, 3.7 RPG) anchor the returnees down low. The Aggies also add a pair of very talented freshmen in Louisiana product Robert Williams (6-foot-9) and Spain's Eric Vila (6-foot-11).
"We do have a lot of talent," Davis said. "We have a lot of guys who can play multiple positions. I think we'll be much more versatile than we were last year. Guys playing different spots and a lot of different lineups to go to, whether it's big or small, or we want shooters out there. It is going to be a lot of fun."
Williams, rated the No. 1 player in the state of Louisiana last season by ESPN and one of the anchors of yet another top-20 recruiting class for the Aggies, has already wowed fans with thunderous dunks during the team's "Maroon Madness" celebration in late October.
"I'm very excited," Williams said. "We're a young team. (But) I think we can be good. I'm ready to show people what we can do."
On the wing, sharp-shooter D.J. Hogg is back for his second season. The sophomore was second only to House last year in three-pointers, draining 46. His 6.2 points and 2.9 rebounds per game may not look all that impressive until you realize he did so in playing only 18 minutes per game.
It is in the front court, however, that A&M will look completely different.
With the departure of Collins and Caruso, Gilder--who was tremendous off the bench last season, averaging 20 minutes and 7 points per game--will be central to the team's success. Not only will the sophomore be asked to provide production up top, but he will also be instrumental in the all-important intangible of leadership.
"From all reports and everyone I've spoken to over the summer, Admon has stepped up and really wanted to fill that role," Farnham said. "His work ethic has dictated that he's very serious about it, which I think bodes well for him and bodes well for the team."
It's a challenge that Gilder embraces.
He was one of several Aggies who spent time during the summer at a leadership camp, "trying to get out of my comfort zone," as he puts it, and learning what it takes to be a leader.
"This was a great summer for me personally," Gilder said. "I took motivation from last year knowing that we wouldn't have (those) seniors on this team. I worked even harder. I tried to make sure I was first in everything we did, whether it was in the weight room, on the track or out on the court."
A&M enters the year with a whopping 10 guards on the roster, but only Gilder and senior transfer J.C. Hampton boast significant experience. Hampton, who graduated from Lipscomb University in Nashville, was an all-conference guard for the Bison and led the team with 15.9 points per game.
"If they can stabilize the point guard position with the weapons they have, I think Texas A&M is right where it wants to be in this conference," Farnham said. "It's going to be in the upper echelon (of the league) and back in the NCAA Tournament."
Kennedy admits that with such a young roster, the luxury of having a "coach on the floor" like last year may not exist, at least early on. But he does not question the determination of players like Gilder and Davis when it comes to owning the responsibilities of leadership.
Pundits say one of A&M's strengths will be in the paint, where Tonny Trocha-Morelos (above), Davis and Tavario Miller all boast significant experience. Additionally, 6-foot-9 freshman Robert Williams wowed observers early on with a spectacular 16-point, nine-rebound, six-block performance against St. Edward's during an exhibition game Nov. 4.
"They work hard," Kennedy said. "They're in the gym all the time, on the weekends and on their own. And they bring it every day in practice. They have to be able to lead verbally in the games, not just by example."
The changes didn't just come on the court for A&M. With all the success and accolades of last season came opportunities for several coaches, too.
Kyle Keller earned his first head coaching position, taking over at Stephen F. Austin, while Rick Stansbury is back as a head coach, this time at Western Kentucky. Kennedy filled the void with exciting young additions to the staff in Issac Chew and Ulric Maligi. Chew comes to A&M after a two-year stint at Virginia Tech and has previously worked at Marquette, Missouri and Murray State. Maligi, meanwhile, is a Texas native and a strong recruiter who helped revive SMU's program in 2012-15.
"They bring great energy," Kennedy said. "Ulric brings a feel for Texas. He was an AAU coach in the state and has coached at UTA, Stephen F. Austin, Houston and SMU. He's a Dallas guy, a great recruiter and is great with people. And he's a really good coach. Issac was with me for four years at Murray State and got experience at Missouri, Marquette and most recently working with Buzz Williams at Virginia Tech. He's been to the Sweet 16. He can recruit outside the state."
Defending a championship in any league is difficult. That challenge becomes magnified in a power league like the SEC, and even moreso when you have to replace four starters, proven leadership and several coaches.
But if any group is up to the challenge, this Aggie team appears prepared to attack the new season with talent, youth and plenty of heart.
Many in the nation have taken notice of the strides A&M has made in recent seasons.
"The good thing is they had great leadership last year to learn from and understand what the culture is," Farnham said. "Billy Kennedy has done a phenomenal job (and) his coaching staff has done a phenomenal job of (not only) recruiting at a really high level but getting guys with great character. These guys now understand the process. They're going to put themselves in positions to be successful."
To be certain, the Aggies are not resigned to rebuilding this season. This team has designs on defending its SEC championship and perhaps venturing further into March than any other in school history.
"I told (Kentucky head coach) John (Calipari), you're used to playing freshmen and sophomores and competing for championships," Kennedy said. "We have (13) players who are freshmen and sophomores and we're competing for a championship. This is new territory for me."
Championship territory. There is nowhere else these Aggies--and the 12th Man, for that matter--would rather be.
Matt Simon, director of digital media for 12th Man Productions, is a 1998 graduate of Texas A&M University.
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