Texas A&M Ready to Leave Nightmare Season Behind ItPosted by dnspewak on March 8th, 2012
Danny Spewak is a Big 12 Microsite writer and will provide wall-to-wall coverage of the Big 12 Tournament from the Sprint Center in Kansas City this weekend. He filed this piece after Kansas’ 83-66 victory over Texas A&M. You can follow him on Twitter @dspewak.
The two teams selected in the pre-season to win the Big 12 met in the league tournament on Thursday afternoon.
In a quarterfinal.
That’s all you need to know about this disastrous season for ninth-seeded Texas A&M, which survived a first-round game against Oklahoma but fell to regular-season champion Kansas 83-66 on Thursday. “I mean, being here for three years, [I’ve] never lost this many games. It’s hard on everybody. Just hate losing,” junior Khris Middleton said. Five months ago, the Aggies (14-18) appeared to have it all: a first-year coach with a successful track record at a powerhouse mid-major, a budding star in Middleton and an experienced roster to surround him. Billy Kennedy‘s team would surely carry over the defensive principles instilled by Mark Turgeon, and Middleton, Dash Harris and David Loubeau formed a solid core of upperclassmen.
But this is a cruel game. And life is cruel in general. First, Kennedy learned of a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis in the fall, which kept him away from the team during critical practice time leading up to the beginning of the season. That left him helpless to establish himself as a new head coach in this program. As Kennedy began to regain his energy and return to his old self, however, the injury bug hit his team in a major way. Middleton missed several weeks during non-conference play after knee surgery and then missed a stretch of time during Big 12 play. The team lost its point guard, Harris, for most of February, and it lost Kourtney Roberson in late December. Backup point guard Jamal Brach transferred, too. By now, you’re starting to get the point, and you can probably guess what happened.
The Aggies lost. A lot. They lost by 20 points to Florida on a semi-neutral floor in December and to Rice just days later. Kennedy’s team then lost four of its first five Big 12 games, a hole it never could recover from. “The injuries are frustrating,” forward Keith Davis said. “When you’ve got three of your top players out, that’s a bind on the team. That’s the toughest part, is just the injuries.” Even through all of the adversity, Texas A&M at least remained a pest in the Big 12. It gave Kansas a game in Lawrence and also played well in other stretches of games. That’s exactly what happened on Thursday — after a 19-12 lead, the Aggies collapsed, eventually falling out of contention by halftime. Middleton used the early lead as an example of his team’s potential next year. “There were stretches we played really good for five, 10 minutes,” Middleton said. “But we just have to play good basketball for 40 minutes.”
Bill Self agreed. “I think they’re pretty good. I do. I think if Billy and his staff have had their full complement of players the whole year, that would be an NCAA Tournament team, no question,” Self said. As the program moves to the SEC next year, it will lose Harris and Loubeau to graduation, but leading scorer Elston Turner returns along with Middleton, Davis and forward Ray Turner. Those affiliated with the Aggies are also high on incoming point guard J-Mychal Reese, a four-star recruit from Bryan, Texas. Kennedy also still has a few scholarships available, meaning he can work his magic in the recruiting game to fill missing parts. “To win big at this level you’ve got to have good players, and I think we’ve got a nucleus but we’ve got to add some more talent,” Kennedy said. “And some more toughness to our team. And we’ve got to be a better defensive team where we can protect the paint.”
Nobody will pick the Aggies to win the Big 12 next year, but that will give this team a different role to play. With less expectations, less distractions and, most importantly, less injuries, Kennedy may actually have a roster he can work with. One poor season shouldn’t discount what Kennedy did at Murray State either, as he won more than 100 games in five seasons. “We’ll have more guys willing to compete [next year],” Davis said. “If we compete 40 minutes, I think we can’t be beat.”