KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Texas A&M arrived at Big 12 basketball media days with expectations to contend for a league championship.
The Aggies left the Sprint Center with a No. 19 ranking in the inaugural USA Today/coaches' poll, released Thursday, and a feeling that they still have plenty to prove at the national level.
Like the rest of his teammates in attendance, point guard Dash Harris preferred the ballots cast last week by Big 12 men's basketball coaches that placed the Aggies, for the first time in school history, as league co-favorites heading into the season.
A&M shared the top spot with Kansas, which placed 13th in Thursday's national poll, one spot behind No. 12 Baylor.
So, do the national coaches underestimate the Aggies, who return three starters from a 24-9 team?
"I think so," said Harris, the team's primary senior leader. "I've been here four years ... and we've had three great teams. I think this is the best team we've had. It feels good to finally be recognized. We're definitely one of the top teams in the country."
If A&M proves good enough to end Kansas' seven-year run of regular-season titles in the Big 12, it would cap a precedent-setting inaugural season for coach Billy Kennedy, who remained in College Station because of an undisclosed medical condition.
Glynn Cyprien, A&M's associate head coach, said Kennedy is expected back "real soon" but offered no timetable. Cyprien also said the Aggies made significant progress in expediting the first-year staff's adjustment period during a 10-day trip to Europe that included four games in August against teams from Switzerland and France.
"The European trip really helped us get ahead of the curve," Cyprien said, citing "pleasant surprises" from three newcomers at guard: Elston Turner, a transfer from Washington, and freshmen Jordan Green and Jamal Branch, an Arlington Grace Prep graduate.
"Those three guys are really going to be able to help us out," said Harris, one of three returning starters on a list that includes last year's top two scorers, forwards Khris Middleton (14.4 avg.) and David Loubeau (11.8 avg.). "We have a lot of depth. You can't have just a 'Big Three' or a starting five and win this league. You need a strong bench. And we're going to be able play 10 or 12 guys ... without any real drop-off."
Cyprien said the European trip showed A&M coaches that Harris and Loubeau offer "really good senior leadership," a quality that has been useful while dealing with Kennedy's health issues and elevated preseason expectations.
"We addressed it on the first day for about five minutes. And it hasn't come up again," Cyprien said of A&M's status as a league co-favorite. "Because they're a veteran team, these guys understand that it's not where you start, it's where you finish."
Four schools in the 10-member league earned first-place votes in the Big 12 coaches' poll, leaving no clear favorite. Kansas coach Bill Self described the Jayhawks as a "thin team that's pretty talented" because it lost six players to graduation or the NBA Draft and will not have the services of three signees because of academic issues.
"We've still got good players, but I think expectations will be tempered a little bit," Self said.
Baylor coach Scott Drew said his team, which missed the postseason with an 18-13 mark last season, deserves to have "question marks" attached until it shows it can perform at a high level when dealing with preseason expectations.
Loubeau said A&M can handle the heat.
"It puts a lot of pressure on us," Loubeau said. "But it will make us get in the gym and work hard. We've got to go out and prove it. We're excited about that."
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Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760