When the Big 12 coaches picked Texas A&M as the preseason co-favorites along with Kansas, they likely did so assuming that upperclassmen David Loubeau and Khris Middleton would both take another step forward this season.
It hasn't worked out that way. After a loss to Kansas on Monday -- a game Middleton watched in street clothes -- the Aggies fell to 2-5 in conference play, and they witnessed at close range what "another step forward" is supposed to look like in the form of national player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson. The Jayhawks are on-track for a top seed in the NCAA tournament; the Aggies, meanwhile, will be lucky to make the NIT.
Middleton's knee injury, which has forced him to miss eight games, is one readily available explanation for what's gone wrong in Billy Kennedy's first season in College Station. Middleton is the poster child for what ails the Aggies.
"You look at how limited we are," Kennedy said after Monday's loss. "You lose Khris Middleton, and that puts a lot of pressure on our team. We really struggled offensively."
Even when Middleton has played, he hasn't been as efficient a scorer as he was a season ago. His points per game have dropped two points and his offensive rating has fallen from 107.5 to 94.2. Looking at just road games played in-conference, the Aggies actually had their best offensive performance against KU -- without Middleton. (Although that's a little like saying on Monday Bob Knight was more complimentary than he's ever been.) The Aggies scored 0.87 points per trip against the Jayhawks, bringing their conference road average "up" to 0.83 points per possession. That's offense nobody wants to watch.
With Middleton in and out of the lineup, Loubeau hasn't been able to pick up the slack. His usage rate is nearly identical to last season, and his scoring average has dropped by a point.
To be sure, the Aggies never exactly lit up the scoreboard under Mark Turgeon, but those teams did play great defense and scored just enough to win. A&M's continued the tradition of playing good defense under Kennedy, but now they can't score enough for it to matter.
What's puzzling about this state of affairs is the personnel isn't all that different now than it was then. True, the Aggies are missing the heady play of Nathan Walkup, who provided another scorer inside. B.J. Holmes also graduated, but he was replaced in the lineup by Washington transfer guard Elston Turner, who's leading the team in scoring.
Two things that most definitely have changed are the Aggies' abilities to get to the free throw line and hit the offensive glass. Both are areas where Turgeon's teams excelled. A&M ranked in the top 15 nationally in free throw rate in each of the last three seasons, but that's a style Turgeon took with him to Maryland. (His Terrapins rank second nationally in free throw rate.) Meanwhile back in College Station the Aggies are attacking the rim less and have a 29.5 free throw rate, good for No. 314 nationally.
Though Turner's averaging better than 23 point a game over his last two outings, he may be part of the problem. The junior guard has a quick trigger and takes a lot of jump shots. With not much else going right, the Aggies have settled for trying to get Turner open looks and letting him fire away. He threw up 18 shots against the Jayhawks and has recorded double-digit shot attempts in five of A&M's seven conference games.
On the offensive glass, Kennedy's team is getting back 30 percent of their misses in conference play. That's not awful, but when you're not making many shots it's troubling.
However, the worst part of the Aggies' offense -- yes, we just getting to the worst part -- is their three-point shooting. Kennedy's used to having good perimeter shooting teams, a staple in his final few seasons at Murray State. He inherited a group that wasn't traditionally great from outside, and things have just gotten worse this year.
For the season the Aggies are shooting 31 percent from distance. Middleton's been way off, making just 26 percent of his threes -- he shot 36 percent last year. Dash Harris has also been off target, shooting 29 percent. (Though that's actually an improvement for Harris, who shot 17 percent in 2010-11.) For some reason, Harris insists on firing away from out there anyway, attempting 45 threes so far this season.
Three-point shooting was hardly the problem on Monday in Lawrence, however. The Aggies went 7-of-12 from beyond the arc, and even made 3-of-4 in the second half. Kennedy's men were able to put a little scare in the Jayhawks, rallying from an early 11-0 deficit to take a lead at the half. But after the intermission the Aggies could not get buckets and managed just 24 points.
Was Kennedy simply not given enough to work with? Turgeon's teams were never overly talented on the offensive end. He had one top-50 recruit in four seasons, and that player, DeAndre Jordan, stuck around for just one season. Still, those players progressed every year and they found a way to win a lot of close games.
The good news for Kennedy is he'll probably get Middleton back for a senior season, which did not look all that likely before this year. But if Kennedy wants to bounce back next season when the Aggies move to the SEC, he needs to find an offense that works and put some more scorers around Middleton.
C.J. Moore is a writer in Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter: @cjmoore4.