COLLEGE STATION -- In a sport that defines a successful season during three weeks of March Madness, there are no must-win games in January. But Saturday came as close to that as it gets for first-year Texas A&M men's basketball coach Billy Kennedy.
And the Aggies delivered in grand fashion, laying a 67-54 beatdown on visiting Texas Tech in the Reed Arena return of Red Raiders coach Billy Gillispie. A&M fans remember Tech's first-year coach as the Man Who Made Basketball Relevant during Gillispie's three-year stint in Aggieland, marked by a combined record of 70-26 from 2004-07.
Kennedy's initial A&M team, a preseason favorite in the Big 12 race, has failed to deliver on that hype in a half-season marked by medical issues (Kennedy's ongoing battle with Parkinson's disease), injuries (Khris Middleton's knee, Kourtney Roberson's ankle) and attrition (departure of guard Jamal Branch).
With both teams winless in league play heading into Saturday's contest, another loss by A&M -- especially to a Gillispie team in rebuilding mode -- would have been disastrous to the Aggies' chances of rebounding from their early struggles and emerging as an NCAA Tournament team.
"It was really good to get a win. We needed one," Kennedy said. "It wouldn't have mattered if we played A&M Consolidated [High School]... and it has nothing to do with Billy. Billy helped build this program and I'm thankful for that. It was really good to get a win and do it in a fashion where you thought your team got better offensively and defensively."
A&M (10-6, 1-3 in Big 12) still has a steep hill to climb if the Aggies are going to earn their seventh consecutive NCAA berth. But the Aggies showed several encouraging signs Saturday, starting with a second consecutive strong performance from Middleton (12 points, career-high three blocks) and an airtight defensive effort that kept Tech from posting its first field goal until 9:43 remained in the first half.
The Red Raiders (7-9, 0-4) missed their first eight shots and finished with a 33.3 shooting percentage from the floor. In Kennedy's defense-first system, it marked a milestone moment for a team in need of one. Especially with Gillispie, still an A&M fan favorite, watching from the opposing bench.
But the bigger concern, said A&M point guard Dash Harris, was bouncing back from a three-game losing streak to start league play.
"We couldn't go 0-4. It's tough enough being 1-3," said Harris, one of A&M's five double-digit scorers (11 points, 7 assists). "Our back was against the wall and we stepped up. That's what we needed."
For A&M to turn this victory into a winning streak, the Aggies will need more games like it has gotten this week from Middleton, last year's leading scorer who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in November.
Middleton followed up Wednesday's 19-point effort in a 61-51 loss to Texas by scoring the first six points against Tech. That helped the Aggies race to an early 14-2 lead that ballooned to more than 20 points throughout much of the second half.
Gillispie, understandably, did not enjoy the bottom-line result in his first -- and only -- scheduled appearance in College Station since leaving A&M to spend two seasons at Kentucky. But his voice cracked when he reflected on Saturday's opportunity to reconnect with several individuals from his past.
"It was a special deal today," said Gillispie, who paused 10 seconds to collect himself before continuing. "There's a lot of great people here and a lot of special relationships with players. I'm just disappointed that all those people who know what we can do didn't get a chance to see us compete like we know we can... We got our tails kicked. I didn't like it. This was a business venture for us. We came down here and didn't take care of any business."
But A&M did. The Aggies held Tech's starting five to a season-low 14 points. Five players scored in double figures. And A&M avoided losing a game it absolutely could not afford to lose, not after previous home losses to Rice (65-58) and Iowa State (74-50).
Whether A&M uses Saturday's victory as a springboard toward meeting preseason expectations is unclear. But an interested observer likes their chances.
"That team is going to be exactly where everyone expects them to be at the end of the year," Gillispie said of the Aggies. "I like their team. I like them a lot because they play good defense... With an 18-game [conference] schedule, you're not in bad shape after losing your first three games. And they should have a lot more offensive confidence after today."
For the Aggies, it wasn't a must-win triumph. But for January, it was as close as you can get.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760