Aggie Hoops Hits Crossroad

Aggie hoops will travel to Austin for the last time tonight, but there's no time for a sentimental journey. The Aggies are at a crossroads, not only for this season but as a program. Aggie Websider's David Sandhop takes a look at tonight's match-up and what it could mean in the long term for this program in flux.

When the Big 12 schedule-makers put the Aggies and Longhorns together tonight for the last time in Austin, most analysts expected a nationally-ranked battle that would go a long way in determining the conference champion. ESPN quickly snatched up the contest for a prime time national broadcast with Bob Knight calling the game.

However, the 2011-2012 season hasn't played out as expected so far. While it's early, both the Longhorns and Aggies are a combined 1-3 in Big 12 play and already have nine losses between the two perennial basketball powers. In Austin, it was somewhat expected with Rick Barnes having to replace several key players who left for the NBA. Although talented, Barnes is forced to start as many as three freshmen and an unheralded post player.

But in College Station, the Aggies were preseason selections to finish near the top of the Big 12 with a battle-tested veteran group returning despite breaking in a new coaching staff led by Billy Kennedy. The transition has been brutal and the fall has been breathtakingly dramatic. Losses to Mississippi State and Florida were not a big surprise, but a home loss to Rice and then a 24-point blowout in the team's Big 12 home opener against Iowa State has the Aggies in the conference dweller wondering what has happened.

It has been a combination of issues from the tragic news of Coach Kennedy's Parkinson's Disease diagnosis to key injuries to Khris Middleton and Kourtney Roberson to the abrupt transfer of freshman all-American Jamal Branch. As a result of these unexpected struggles, there's a concern about the health of the locker room after that uninspired and energy-lacking home loss to the Cyclones.

The question now isn't whether the Aggies can go to a record-setting seventh straight NCAA Tournament berth, but rather will this team fight through early season adversities and will play hard or will they fold and become an easy out for most Big 12 teams the rest of the way. If that happens, you have to wonder where this program goes in the future, especially with three of the remaining 10 scholarship players graduating or going pro. With two players secured in the early signing period, that means this staff must sign four additional players in a spring when available talent is harder to find. It makes the task that much tougher if the current team finishes near the bottom of the Big 12.

The staff could turn this season and bypass the dilemma of spring recruiting coming off a disastrous season if the team can turn it around. No better time to turn it around than tonight in Austin where the Aggies haven't won since 2002 in the Watkins era. That's right, given all of the success of Billy Gillispie and Mark Turgeon, they never won in Austin. Thus, even though Texas is down, winning in Austin is still a very tough task even for an A&M team playing well. The Aggies come in as 11 point underdogs, and it doesn't take rocket science to realize that if Texas A&M has any chance of winning tonight, they must get off to a strong start and gain confidence and energy. A lethargic start and this team could get run out of town.

With that said, Texas A&M does have a good match-up here. Texas is very young and very mediocre in the post and that could give David Loubeau and Ray Turner a chance to take advantage and do some damage offensively in the post. The key will be Dash Harris and Elston Turner. Can they get the ball to their bigs in the post, and can they play well enough to keep Texas from double teaming the posts when the ball goes inside. That will be the biggest challenge tonight and for the rest of the season. Texas A&M must produce on the perimeter and force defenses to guard outside which will loosen up the inside game where the Aggies have an advantage.

We'll see if the Aggies can do this, but nothing matters if the team doesn't play with intensity and energy the entire 40 minutes. Unfortunately, recent games have indicated that effort is an issue. Will the Aggies play hard? Yes, it's come to that.

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