Lost in the chatter about Texas A&M’s veteran savvy heading into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, thanks to the presence of four seniors in the starting lineup, is one undeniable fact:
Other than those seniors, the Aggies who have played the most minutes this season are three freshmen from the Dallas area who watched last year’s version of March Madness while still in high school. But they did so while basking in the afterglow of a combined four UIL state basketball championships.
That level of achievement, combined with this season’s contributions to a 26-8 team that earned the No. 3 seed in the West Region, has convinced A&M coach Billy Kennedy that he has nothing to worry about in regard to freshman jitters when Tyler Davis, Admon Gilder and D.J. Hogg compete in their first NCAA tournament game Friday in Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.
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Because that trio combines to average 24.2 points and 11.1 rebounds per game for the SEC co-champions, the comfort level of A&M’s freshmen on the big stage will have a lot to do with how far the Aggies advance. Kennedy is counting on all three to match or raise their typical production levels when the Aggies meet Green Bay (23-12) in Friday’s NCAA opener at 6:20 p.m.
“These three freshmen really don’t surprise me a whole lot. They’re not scared,” Kennedy said. “I’ve seen them do it for a long time at the high school level. And now, I don’t consider them freshmen. They’re a little more seasoned than that. They’ve won state championships and they’ve been good for us all year.”
From a statistical standpoint, the best of the bunch has been Davis, a 6-foot-10 center who is the only non-senior starter in the A&M lineup. Davis, who teamed with Hogg to lead Plano West to the 2015 Class 6A state championship, averages 11.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Hogg, a 6-8 forward, averages 6.3 points and 2.7 rebounds in 18.3 minutes per game off the bench.
The only reserve who averages more minutes per game is Gilder (19.6), a 6-3 guard who led Dallas Madison to two state championships in high school (2013, 2014) and earned 2015 Gatorade Texas player of the year honors as a senior. He’s averaged 6.8 points and 2.3 rebounds for A&M while shooting 43.3 percent from the field, including a 37.0 mark from beyond the arc.
Gilder said he and his fellow freshmen have anticipated big things for this team since they were part of A&M’s August trip to Italy and Greece that included four games against international opponents.
“With the freshmen and all the seniors, we knew we’d have a good team if we kept working hard. And things are going our way,” Gilder said. “My role, being a freshman, is to learn things and the pace of the game. I think I’m doing that.”
Kennedy agrees. In particular, he likes Gilder’s poise and versatility.
“He’s just a good player. He does everything well,” Kennedy said. “He feeds the post well. He defends. He can drive the ball and score. He can make 3’s. He makes big free throws in late-game situations. He’s got great poise.
“Just watching him the last few years in high school and knowing his work ethic, he didn’t get as much hype nationally as some of the other guys. But we liked him. I like him. I recruited him pretty much by myself. So I’m not surprised by anything he does.”
Nor is Kennedy surprised by the smooth transition to the college game made by Davis, who has led the team in scoring three times and topped the Aggies in rebounds on nine occasions. Davis also leads the team in blocked shots (38).
But the only freshman with a 20-point game this season is Hogg, who reached that figure against South Carolina-Upstate. He also grabbed a team-high seven rebounds against South Carolina and leads the team in 3-point field goals (44). Hogg has connected on 34.6 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Despite playing multiple positions, his role is a simple one.
“Just do what coach tells me. Offensive rebound, rebound and hit shots,” he said.
As the Aggies prepare for their first NCAA appearance in five years, Hogg said the freshmen in the playing rotation are comfortable with how things have unfolded this season. But bigger goals remain.
“This is what the freshmen wanted to come here to do,” Hogg said. “I think we’re capable of doing a lot and, hopefully, making it to Houston (for the Final Four). I think we’re still improving. We’ve got the talent this year to really do something special, as long as we stay focused and stay together.”
Avoiding any freshman jitters Friday against Green Bay would be a good place to start.
at Oklahoma City
Texas A&M vs. Green Bay
6:20 p.m. Friday, TBS
Texas vs. Northern Iowa
8:50 p.m. Friday, TBS