Texas A&M hopeful as Big 12 basketball play begins

Posted Saturday, Dec. 31, 2011  comments  Print Reprints

Five players to watch

Baylor forward Perry Jones III: He could have been an NBA lottery pick last year but opted for a sophomore season. Jones has all the tools to exceed at the next level and should be dominant in the Big 12. Through his first eight games, Jones is averaging a team-high 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds.

Texas guard Myck Kabongo: The freshman from Canada is arguably the best pure point guard in the league. Kabongo, who follows Avery Bradley and Cory Joseph in the long list of successful point guards at UT under Rick Barnes, has started all 13 games, averaging 9.9 points and 5.5 assists.

Oklahoma State forward Le'Bryan Nash: A McDonald's All-American at Dallas Lincoln last year, Nash had high expectations going to Stillwater. Nash has shown flashes of living up to the hype but hasn't yet. He has started eight of 13 games, shooting only 36.4 percent from the field, and OSU is off to a rocky start. But Nash has the ability to single-handedly turn the Cowboys' season around in conference play.

Kansas forward Thomas Robinson: With the Morris twins in the NBA, Robinson has become the focal point of the Jayhawks' offense. And he hasn't disappointed, averaging 16.7 points and 11.4 rebounds through KU's first 12 games.

Kansas State forward Thomas Gipson: The 6-foot-7 freshman from Cedar Hill has already emerged as the Wildcats' biggest interior threat. Through Saturday, Gipson had started all 11 games, averaging 10.6 points and 7.1 rebounds.

Five notable games

Wednesday: Kansas State at Kansas. In 2006, Kansas State ruined Kansas' conference home opener by pulling off a 59-55 victory. The Wildcats hope to do a similar thing six years later, which would likely put them in the Top 25. Kansas, though, is still a formidable foe, with forward Thomas Robinson and guards Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson leading the way.

Saturday, Jan. 14: Texas Tech at Texas A&M. Billy Gillispie returns to College Station, this time leading Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are in rebuilding mode, although they could pull off a few upsets in conference play. A&M can't fall victim to it, however, as it needs to take advantage of the lower-end teams in the Big 12, especially at home.

Saturday, Jan. 21: Missouri at Baylor. Right now, these are two of only four unbeaten teams remaining in the country. It's unlikely both will be perfect by the time this game is played, but Missouri and Baylor are strong contenders to overtake Kansas as the top team in the Big 12. The Bears have shown an ability to finish close games so far, defeating Mississippi State, West Virginia and BYU by three points or less.

Monday, Feb. 20: Baylor at Texas. Not only will this be a tough road test for Baylor, it might be one of the best backcourt battles in conference. The Bears have relied on point guard Pierre Jackson and sharpshooter Brady Heslip to carry the team just as much as they have Perry Jones III. Jackson and Heslip will have their hands full against the Longhorns, who feature J'Covan Brown and Myck Kabongo. Brown is Texas' biggest scoring threat, averaging 19.3 points through the first 13 games.

Saturday, Feb. 25: Missouri at Kansas. The final scheduled basketball game between the rival schools should be entertaining with March Madness right around the corner. Missouri has a chance to reach its first Final Four in school history under first-year coach Frank Haith, while Kansas could get hot at the right time and make another postseason run.

Have more to add? News tip? Tell us

Billy Kennedy isn't surprised by the success at Murray State, one of four undefeated teams left in college basketball. He knew he left the program in good shape, and he believes the Racers will have a chance to make a perfect run through the Ohio Valley Conference.

When he took over the Texas A&M program in May, Kennedy felt he had inherited a similar situation from Mark Turgeon. The Aggies had been to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments and returned starters Khris Middleton, David Loubeau and Dash Harris.

But things haven't gone as planned for Kennedy or the Aggies. Whatever could go wrong, it seems, has gone wrong for A&M.

Kennedy was diagnosed with early stage Parkinson's disease in October but said his health isn't an issue. Middleton has been out with a knee injury and still isn't 100 percent. Two weeks ago, sophomore forward Kourtney Roberson fractured his ankle and is expected to miss four to six weeks. And, on Thursday, Arlington Grace Prep product and freshman guard Jamal Branch announced his decision to transfer.

"We're a work in progress," Kennedy said. "It's just going to take time. We're a new staff implementing a new system and trying to get the guys to buy into the system. And I didn't realize it when I first got here, but there's a lot more work than I thought coming in. We lack and don't have too many guards, guys who can handle the ball."

Now, Kennedy and Texas A&M face an uphill battle trying to mold the team with Big 12 play beginning this week. A&M opens its conference season at sixth-ranked Baylor on Monday.

As stated, the No. 1 concern for A&M is guard play, and that won't be easy to overcome in the Big 12. All of the top teams have formidable backcourts, including Baylor (Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip), Kansas (Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson), Missouri (Phil and Matt Pressey), Kansas State (Will Spradling and Rodney McGruder) and Texas (Myck Kabongo and J'Covan Brown).

By losing Branch, the Aggies are expected to play Harris and Elston Turner more than 30 minutes a game. Freshman Jordan Green might find himself in the shooting guard role, too, even though he's more of a wing player.

"We're taking it day-to-day, game-to-game," Kennedy said. "That's what we have to do. We've had our share of setbacks, but this team has shown resiliency. We'll be able to weather it."

Before the season, the Aggies were a legitimate candidate to win the conference before heading to the SEC. But, as the nonconference season developed, the Aggies at this point are simply hoping to somehow get enough wins to be considered for the Big Dance.

The Aggies (9-3) already have a bad home loss to Rice, and their most impressive victory came against a mediocre St. John's team.

However, Kennedy and his players are confident things will eventually come together, barring another unforeseen setback.

"We've still got work to do in building more chemistry and playing together as a team," Aggies forward Ray Turner said. "When it comes down to it, though, we should be ready. This is it. Big 12 play is what we've been waiting for."

Drew Davison, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @drewdavison

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