COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Texas A&M enters its first season in the Southeastern Conference after a year in which coach Billy Kennedy's illness and numerous injuries doomed the season and broke a streak of six straight appearances in the NCAA tournament.
The Aggies entered last season expected to contend with Kansas for the Big 12 title in their last season in the conference. Instead, Texas A&M went 14-18 and just 4-14 in conference play.
Kennedy took a medical leave early in the season after being diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson's disease last season. He's learned how to manage the disease now, and is looking forward to his second season in College Station.
"I was trying to survive the first two weeks last year, and I'm much further along obviously, but you get your priorities checked real quickly when your health is a concern," he said. "I've learned a lot about myself and (I'm) really excited about the opportunity to be at Texas A&M and represent a great school and a great league. It's going to be a lot more fun, I promise you."
The Aggies have some holes. Gone is top player Khris Middleton, who declared for the draft, and point guard Dash Harris, who was the team's emotional leader and led the team in assists and steals.
They'll now rely on seniors Elston Turner and Ray Turner this season as they try to bounce back from last season's disappointment. Elston Turner led the team with 13.8 points and Ray Turner added 9.1 points and a team-leading 5.5 rebounds a game last season.
Kennedy is looking to the pair to become leaders for his team.
"Those two guys are the only two guys that have legitimate Division I experience," Kennedy said. "We need those guys to have great years on and off the court from a leadership standpoint. I would say they've been solid but I would like for them to give a little bit more from a leadership standpoint."
Texas A&M should get a boost from the return of forward Kourtney Roberson. He was granted a medical redshirt after playing just nine games before breaking his left ankle last season. He averaged 5.6 points and 3.8 rebounds two years ago as a freshman.
Kennedy has been impressed with the 6-foot-9 Roberson so far, but knows he's not where he needs to be yet after missing so much time.
"He was as mobile and more athletic than he was last year," Kennedy said of his first practice this year. "He was quicker and had more confidence ... He was cleared about a week before practice started. I think it's going to be a process. We just have to be patient with him at this point."
The Aggies have a duo of highly-touted newcomers vying to take over at point guard. Junior college standout Fabyon Harris comes to Texas A&M after two seasons at the College of Southern Idaho. He averaged 17.1 points and 5.1 rebounds last season.
They also have J'Mychal Reese from nearby Bryan, Texas, who was rated the No. 1 point guard in Texas and among the best in the nation. He's a prolific scorer and once poured in 52 points in a high school game.
Kennedy believes that Reese and Texas A&M's other young players will add something to his team.
"It is a challenge, but the thing that I like is they bring a lot of personality," Kennedy said of his young players. "I think that's something we lacked last year was some definition and enthusiasm at times. It'll be good to have some personality on the court."
Kennedy is excited about the challenges of a new conference, but knows it will take a while for fans to adjust to the change.
"In the state of Texas, people are familiar with Texas, Texas Tech and Baylor, but they're not familiar with the Georgia's and South Carolina's," he said. "It's going to take some time for our fans to understand that this is a good basketball league. It's so good in football, baseball and all the other sports that people sometimes don't understand how good it is in basketball. Once people come out and see us play, they'll recognize how good it is in basketball."