NCAA BK

Aggies struggling in Big 12 play

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP)

(Eds: Adds details; quotes. With AP Photos.)By KRISTIE RIEKENAP Sports Writer

Texas A&M was expected to contend with Kansas for the Big 12 title this season.

Instead, a loss to the fifth-ranked Jayhawks on Monday was their fifth conference defeat. In a season filled with struggles, the Aggies must finish strong if they hope to make the NCAA tournament for the seventh straight season.

''It's pretty obvious that we're going to have to get on a run at some point,'' leading scorer Elston Turner said. ''This stretch right here would be a perfect time to do it ... if we can just get a four or five game winning streak, then we feel like our chances will be pretty good.''

It won't be easy in the Big 12. Texas A&M has 11 wins and 11 regular-season games remaining, but three of them are against teams ranked in the top 10. They face No. 6 Baylor next Wednesday and have back-to-back games against Kansas and No. 2 Missouri at the end of February.

First-year coach Billy Kennedy acknowledged Wednesday that this year has been tough and that he didn't realize exactly what he was inheriting in a program that won 24 games last season.

''It's been challenging,'' he said. ''The more you're in a program, the more you realize there are holes in the program. It's like buying a new house. You're excited the first day and then you start realizing that you've got a leaky faucet, you've got a hole in the wall somewhere that was hidden that you didn't see. That's kind of the situation with this program unfortunately.''

The Aggies have had their share of difficulties this season. Kennedy took a medical leave early in the season after being diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson's disease. Just before his return, star Khris Middleton had knee surgery that kept him out for almost a month.

Another setback came when freshman Jamal Branch, one of two point guards on the roster, decided to transfer just days before the start of conference play.

''The injuries are part of the game. We can't control that,'' Kennedy said. ''We just don't have enough depth or enough experience in our program to weather a lot of negative happenings.''

They picked up their second conference win on Saturday in overtime against Oklahoma. But Middleton banged his injured knee with a teammate in the first half and is out indefinitely. Kennedy said the injury isn't serious.

The Aggies are also waiting to see if Dash Harris, their only point guard, will be able to play when they host Oklahoma State on Saturday. Harris injured his right foot at the end of the first half against Kansas. He played most of the second half out of necessity, but looked gimpy the entire time.

If Harris can't go, Kennedy isn't sure how he'll put the lineup together. Turner is the only viable option at point guard, but that leaves other spots to fill.

''That was something that I was concerned about in May when I got the job - do we have enough guards that can get the ball up the floor'' he said. ''If everything would have went right, we may have made it through, but it didn't. So that's why we're in the situation we're in. We had some areas that needed to be shored up and we didn't get the help.''

Turner, who is playing his first year with the Aggies after sitting out a season following a transfer from Washington, isn't too concerned with having to fill in for Harris on Saturday. He's much more worried about how the two of them can get the team on the right track.

''Dash will be fine,'' he said. ''We just have to be the leaders on the floor and just make sure that when things go wrong, we've just got to keep poised and keep the team together and not have everybody pointing fingers, but just us coming together as a team.''

Turner is averaging 14.3 points a game and forward David Loubeau is scoring just under 11 points a game. Kennedy said someone has to pick up the slack to make up for Middleton's absence. Middleton is scoring 12.4 points a game this season.

The Aggies believe they're making progress despite dropping two of their last three games. They were encouraged that Kansas didn't put Monday's game away until late in the 64-54 loss.

Turner said this season has been trying for everyone, but that their shared goals have allowed them to work through the issues.

''In the long run we all want the same thing - we all want to win,'' he said. ''So I think that's why lately we've been playing a lot better. People on the team know their roles and they know what they have to do and what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are. Now people are starting to play to those strengths, and if we do that positive things are going to happen on the court.''

Tagged: Texas A&M, Kansas, Dash Harris, Elston Turner, Khris Middleton

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