Liberty-Texas A&M Preview
Texas A&M hired coach Billy Kennedy in May and the Aggies played four games on a 10-day European tour this summer that helped them get to know each other.
Then came the unexpected news that Kennedy was taking a leave of absence to deal with the early stages of Parkinson's disease. With no timetable set for his return, associate head coach Glynn Cyprien has been left in charge of a team that is expected to contend for the Big 12 title in its last season before going to the Southeastern Conference.
Cyprien doesn't expect to lead No. 20 Texas A&M for long, calling himself a fill-in starting with Wednesday night's opener against visiting Liberty in the 2K Sports Classic.
"We're hoping for a speedy recovery," Cyprien said. "We're hoping to have him back pretty soon here."
Kennedy came to Texas A&M from Murray State to take over for Mark Turgeon, who left after four seasons to become Maryland's coach after Gary Williams retired.
The Aggies and Kansas were selected as favorites to win the Big 12 in the preseason poll by league coaches. Texas A&M, which is moving to the SEC in July, is coming off a 24-9 season and its school-record sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
The Aggies return three starters and 10 lettermen from the team that lost to Florida State in the second round of the NCAA tournament last spring.
Cyprien isn't worried about this team dealing with the high expectations of being a preseason favorite.
"We addressed it on the first day for a total of about five minutes," he said. "And I think these guys ... because they're a veteran team, understand it's not where you start but it's where you finish. And it hasn't come up again."
The Aggies think their trip to Europe in August was a good chance to bond with the new coaching staff and get the season off to a good start. They went 2-2 in games against the Swiss National Team and a team composed of players from French professional leagues.
"(We) got a chance to kind of see where we were at in terms of a team, philosophy-wise and what adjustments we'd have to make as a staff," Cyprien said. "And it couldn't have helped any better, just the timing of the trip and everything worked out in our favor, especially with what we're going through right now as a program."
Junior forward Khris Middleton leads A&M's returning starters after averaging 14.4 points and 5.2 rebounds a game last season. He was a unanimous Big 12 preseason first-team selection. The Aggies have seen a lot of growth from Middleton this offseason.
"He's really become a better leader, become more vocal," Cyprien said. "Obviously, from an offensive standpoint we expect a lot out of him. But really for the last four or five days we've stressed defense and how he can really help this team on the other end of the floor.
"So we are expecting big things from Khris, and I think he understands that, and, boy, he's really worked hard up to this point."
The Aggies also return forward David Loubeau and point guard Dash Harris. Loubeau averaged five rebounds and almost 12 points a game last season. Harris averaged 4.2 points and 3.1 assists last season while struggling with a wrist injury for much of the year.
Harris is healthy now and the Aggies believe that his leadership as a senior will help the team this season. He'll need to step with the graduation of fellow guard B.J. Holmes, who averaged almost 10 points and more than three assists last year.
The Aggies also lost Nathan Walkup, a forward who averaged 9.4 points and 5.5 rebounds a game a year ago.
Texas A&M will deal with the loss of Holmes and Walkup with guard Naji Hibbert and forward Kourtney Roberson coming back after combining for almost 11 points and more than five rebounds a game last season. They'll be joined by four newcomers in freshmen Jamal Branch, Jordan Green and Grant Jolly, and senior transfer Zach Kinsley.
The Aggies could encounter some rowdy fans on the road this season on their Big 12 farewell tour in what could be the last season in a while in which they play longtime in-state rivals Texas, Baylor and Texas Tech. Cyprien thinks there might be a bit more excitement for some fans, but doesn't think they'll face anything too wild.
"I think it will be a little more warmer than it would normally be based on our situation," he said of the fans on away from Reed Arena, where the Aggies have won 33 of the last 36 games. "But, you know, this is a great league and great rivals in this league. So we expect people to act a certain way."
Liberty went 19-13 last season but ended on a five-game losing streak after falling 66-60 to High Point in the first round of the Big South Conference tournament.
The Flames also lost their leading scorer in the offseason, as Evan Gordon transferred to Arizona State after averaging 14.4 points. John Brown returns along with fellow guard Jesse Sanders, who was named to the preseason all-Big South team.
Brown averaged 11.3 points and a team-best 10.8 rebounds in 2010-11. Sanders also scored 11.3 points per game and led Liberty with an average of 5.7 assists while being named the top player in the conference.
This will be the first meeting between these schools.