COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) — As Buzz Williams tried to put his stamp on the team as he prepared for his first season in charge at Texas A&M, he acknowledged there were some growing pains along the way.
But pretty soon the players started to buy in.
"As time transpired they began to become better teammates toward one another ... it's all brand new. They knew nothing about it," he said. "Former players embellish what it really is (but) as time went by they got to where they were running toward the work instead of trying to dodge it."
Williams replaced Billy Kennedy, who was fired after the Aggies went 14-18 in his eighth season. Williams came to Texas A&M after spending five seasons at Virginia Tech, where he made the NCAA Tournament the last three seasons, capped by a trip to the Sweet 16 this past spring. It's his second stint with the Aggies after he worked as an assistant under Billy Gillispie from 2004-06.
The Aggies got a leg up on the season this summer when they made a seven-day trip to Costa Rica for some practice games against all-star teams and to do some community service.
Through that trip and the early days of practice, Williams believes his players are starting to understand what he expects from them, but he knows they've still got some progress to make before the season starts.
"They're trying real hard, but we're not yet ready for a game," Williams said. "We're trying to get to a point where we can be really good in consecutive practices."
The Aggies return five players from last year's team, led by Savion Flagg, who topped the team last season by averaging 13.9 points and 7.7 rebounds. Also returning are Wendell Mitchell and TJ Starks, who combined to average more than 25 points per game. Williams is looking for Josh Nebo to take a step forward this year after leading the team with 69 blocks last season. But he hasn't been able to get any work in so far because of an injury that has kept him from practicing. The team's last returning player is Jay Jay Chandler, who started 18 games last season as a sophomore.
One of the first things Williams let the players know when he arrived was that there would be no more guards, forwards and centers on this team. It's a change that Williams believes is the way to go but that will require some extra work on defense.
"I think the game is going to position-less, so we're OK with that," Williams said. "But in order to be position-less, you have to be able to guard multiple positions. It sounds cool offensively, where it becomes a bind is defensively can you guard multiple positions?"
After last year's tough season where the Aggies won just six Southeastern Conference games, they didn't get any love from the media and its preseason poll. Texas A&M was picked to finished 12th in the league of 14 teams. But Williams said he has far too many other concerns as he begins his first year in A&M than what outsiders think about his team.
Williams is excited about freshman Jonathan Aku. The 6-foot-10 Aku was born and raised in Nigeria before coming to the United States in 2017. Because he was enrolled in school late, he wasn't able to take part in any summer activities with the team. Despite that, he's already given Williams reason to believe he could be a big part of this year's team.
"He could turn into a monster," Williams said. "I don't know what level of monster, but he's going to play a lot partly because of the void we have."
Williams knows that it might be tough to get fans out to see his team this season after the struggles of last year's team. But he's prepared to do whatever he can to drum up support and get people out to see what he's done with the team.
"Anybody that wants to come we want them to come," he said. "We'll give away free tickets probably for a while but we just want to make sure they come back."
The Aggies open the season Nov. 6 when they host Northwestern State and will get an early test with a visit from No. 8 Gonzaga on Nov. 15. Another highlight of their non-conference schedule comes on Dec. 8 when they meet old Big 12 rival Texas in the Lone Star Showdown in Fort Worth.
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