NEW YORK — When Texas A&M junior forward Khris Middleton went down with a torn right meniscus during his team’s season-opening 81-59 victory over Liberty, the Aggies’ early-season Big 12 title hopes took a hit, as well.
And on Thursday night, Mississippi State showed them just how difficult it would be to keep those title hopes afloat in Middleton’s absence, jumping out to a 31-9 lead, including five-of-five shooting from 3-point range, and sinking the Aggies, 69-60, at Madison Square Garden.
Texas A&M brought the game to within single digits at the half, but Mississippi State never really relinquished control, ballooning the lead back to 14 a few minutes into the second half. The Bulldogs fended off a second-half run that cut the lead to eight, 60-52, but senior guard Dee Bost’s three-pointer put the game out of reach for good.
Bost led the way for the Bulldogs, with 20 points and three assists.
The loss highlights where the Aggies could struggle in the upcoming three-to-four weeks that Middleton recovers, in pursuit of their seventh-straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Middleton’s 14 points and five rebounds helped to pace Texas A&M last season.
In a decade dominated by Kansas, who has won at least a share of nine of the last 10 regular season Big 12 crowns, shifting tides in Lawrence and lingering questions about Baylor put Billy Kennedy’s Aggies squarely in the discussion.
Bill Self and the Jayhawks has already lost Josh Selby, Markieff and Marcus Morris to the NBA Draft, before news came down in October that highly-touted recruits Jamari Traylor and Ben McLemore were ruled ineligible by the NCAA.
That leaves the majority of duties falling to oft-criticized point guard Tyshawn Taylor and big man Thomas Robinson to anchor a team that is used to reloading every season.
Kansas had a difficult time matching up against the athleticism of Kentucky on Tuesday night, allowing the Wildcats to storm out of the gate in the second half, ultimately falling, 75-65.
A&M’s in-state rival, Baylor, is still awaiting forward Perry Jones III’s return, as he continues to serve his suspension for taking impermissible benefits.
Without Jones III in the lineup, Baylor looks more like a collection of superb athletes than a well-rounded basketball team. Twenty points and six rebounds from star freshman Quincy Miller helped the Bears to a 77-67 win over San Diego State on Tuesday.
Teams like Missouri and Iowa State, with all of their variables, could shake things up, and this is where opportunity comes for the Aggies.
With the lack of a standout and the potential for equity than we have not seen in the past, the Aggies just may emerge from the dust cloud with a Big 12 title.
While Middleton continues to recover, it will be important for forward Elston Turner, who had 13 points and two rebounds against Mississippi State, and company to bat down the hatches as the non-conference storm blows by.
This was the only real test before SEC play begins, with Alcorn State, Sam Houston State, and Louisiana-Monroe among those on their schedule, before a Dec. 17showdown with No. 8 Florida.
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter: @DanielJMartin_