Tonight brings the second day of college basketball games that count with the four host teams in the 2K Sports Classic Benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer on the floor. Arizona, Mississippi State and St. John's all played games on Monday night, and tonight marks the beginning of the season for the Texas A&M Aggies. The Aggies are expected by many to contend in the Big 12, but things haven't gone as smoothly as anyone connected to the program would have hoped.
First-year head coach Billy Kennedy was diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson's Disease, which has him away from the team at this time. That's resulted in associate head coach Glynn Cyprien, who was at Memphis last season, taking over as acting head coach. To say the least, the situation becomes tougher to deal with when you're learning the system at essentially the same time as the players you have to teach it to. The good news for Texas A&M is that this is an experienced group, with three returning starters and four other returnees, led by wing Khris Middleton.
Middleton led the Aggies in scoring (14.4 ppg) and was second on the team in rebounding (5.2 rpg) in 2010-11, and the unanimous Preseason All-Big 12 selection is a big reason why the Aggies were co-favorites in the Big 12's preseason poll. The 6'7" junior is a versatile player who can provide offense in a variety of ways, and with forwards such as David Lobeau, Kourtney Roberson and Ray Turner also back the Aggies should be in good shape on the boards against Liberty tonight (8PM EST, Fox Sports Southwest).
The question for A&M with regards for their hopes this season rest in the backcourt. B.J. Holmes has graduated, and it's reasonable to expect key reserve Naji Hibbert or Washington transfer Elston Turner to start alongside senior Dash Harris. But Hibbert and Harris combined to average just 9.4 points per game last season, and neither shot at least 40% from the field (Hibbert shot 37.5% while Harris made just 26.8% of his shots). Turner has the ability to knock down shots, something the Aggies will need to call on as the stakes get bigger.
Texas A&M was most successful as a committee in 2010-11, as the whole proved more valuable than the sum of their parts. Could that change with Middleton's improvement? That's more than possible but in terms of the little things, such as rebounding (rebounding margin of plus-6.3 last year), it's once again going to have to be "all hands on deck". As for the Flames, they're beginning a season that they hope provides a better finish than last season, as they dropped their final five games and fell in the Big South quarters despite being the two-seed.
Losing Evan Gordon (transferred to Arizona State) hurts but in Jesse Sanders the Flames have a Big South Player of the Year candidate, and seniors David Minaya and John Brown were both double-digit scorers in 2010-11. Forward Antwan Burrus will be key in the paint, but the number of bodies that Texas A&M can throw at Liberty could be a concern.
7 PM Lehigh at St. John's (ESPN2)
The Red Storm were almost two different teams on Monday night against William & Mary, struggling offensively in the first half but then turning up the defense to pull away 74-59. Nurideen Lindsey was the sparkplug for the Red Storm while forwards Maurice Harkless and God'sgift Achiuwa scored combined to score 34 points and grab 17 rebounds. Tonight the Johnnies could have their hands full with Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum, who averaged 21.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game last season. Gabe Knutson also returns for the Mountain Hawks, who lost to Bucknell in the Patriot League title game in March.
7 PM Akron at Mississippi State (ESPNU)
Mississippi State also played better in the second half than the first in their season opener, with Dee Bost scoring 17 of his 23 points in the Bulldogs' win over Eastern Kentucky. There's also the addition of UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie, who posted a double-double in the opener and could very well be Rick Stansbury's most reliable big man. His most talented? Renardo Sidney, but while he's got All-SEC talent is the requisite motor there? That will be a big question for Mississippi State, and they could have their hands full with the defending MAC champs. Akron was one of the many teams that took an overseas trip this summer, and in Nikola Cvetinovic the Zips have one of the best players in the MAC. They did suffer a couple personnel losses, but Keith Dambrot's team could make some noise beginning with tonight.
9 PM Duquesne at Arizona (ESPN2)
Sean Miller's Wildcats opened the season with a victory on Monday night, rebounding from an uneven first half to beat Valparaiso 73-64. But questions remain, especially in the frontcourt in spite of the double-double posted by senior forward Jesse Perry. Freshman Angelo Chol was active on both ends of the floor and may be the best of their options at center for the time being, but Kyryl Natyazhko needs to improve. Solomon Hill will be looking to bounce back from Monday as well, and Arizona could have the edge inside with the Dukes losing Bill Clark and Damian Saunders from last season's team. But the Dukes are in good shape on the perimeter thanks to the return of B.J. Monteiro and T.J. McConnell, and head coach Ron Everhart will look to play fast and force some turnovers. This may be a game that turns out to be more interesting that some people think.