College Station, Texas — Texas A&M assistant basketball coach Kyle Keller, who worked on Kansas University’s staff the past three seasons, has taken great pride in watching the Jayhawks from afar during the 2011-12 campaign.
“Gosh, as well as coach (Bill Self) has them playing, obviously it’s been fun to watch those guys get better. I root for them every game except when we have to play them,” said Keller, former KU video coordinator, now in his first season as an assistant coach on Billy Kennedy’s A&M staff.
“It’s been exciting to watch,” Keller added of the progress of the Jayhawks, who take a 22-5 record (12-2 in the Big 12) into today’s 8 p.m. clash against the (13-13, 4-10) Aggies.
Keller, who had the title of video coordinator at KU, is not surprised the Jayhawks are in the hunt for an eighth consecutive Big 12 regular-season title.
“I think not only Coach (Self), but I think everybody on the staff — Kurtis (Townsend), Joe (Dooley), Danny (Manning), Hudy (trainer Andrea) — everybody that’s involved has done a great job,” Keller said of the squad perhaps exceeding expectations.
“I think Coach needed something like this. He is great when he’s got a chip or he’s got something to prove. He’s been dynamite. He’s unbelievable.”
The Aggies, who were actually picked as co-champs with KU in the preseason Big 12 coaches poll, have faced a lot of adversity in 2011-12.
In the preseason Kennedy was diagnosed with early stages of Parkinson’s disease. Junior forward Khris Middleton, who did not play against KU in the Aggies’ 64-54 loss to the Jayhawks on Jan. 23 in Allen Fieldhouse but will play tonight, had early-season knee surgery. Sophomore forward Kourtney Roberson suffered a broken ankle. Freshman guard Jamal Branch transferred to St. John’s. What’s more, senior guard Dash Harris injured his arch in the KU game and just now is returning to action. Harris was listed as questionable on Tuesday afternoon.
“I love working for coach Kennedy. You couldn’t ask for a better man. He’s a great coach,” Keller said of Kennedy, who came to A&M after five seasons as head coach at Murray State.
“Being reunited with (assistant) Glynn Cyprien, we worked at Oklahoma State when we had a lot of success. The administration has been great. It’s been great here — 81 degrees in mid-January. My family ... we love it. The people have been so receptive and kind to us. The season hasn’t gone the way we’d like it to go, but we’re excited about the opportunities we have (coming up),” Keller added.
A&M has signed a strong recruiting class headed by top 100 prospects J’Mychal Reese and Alex Caruso.
Nobody’s giving up on the remainder of this season. A&M is 11-5 at home (3-4 in the league), including Saturday’s 71-62 loss to Missouri.
“I’m going to tell our guys today it’s an exciting time. You’ve got to enjoy playing two great teams back to back,” Kennedy said on Monday. “We competed well at Kansas. They’ve been great on the road. It’s why they’ve been conference champs for several years. We’ll have to play really well to give us a chance, but we’ve been playing well at home.
“I have great respect for Kansas, the tradition of their program and what Bill has done there. Obviously I hired a guy from their program in Kyle Keller. This is a great opportunity for us to have a special moment, to get a win. Of course we’ll have to play great basketball and them not so well. I thought Missouri played well against us. We have to get some breaks at some point.”
Big game looms: Self realizes it’s possible the Jayhawks could be looking past tonight’s game in anticipation of Saturday’s home rematch against Missouri.
“I guess human nature you could do that,” said Self, who quickly warns that such a mindset could cost the Jayhawks an eighth-straight Big 12 title. “If you work your tail off all year long to put yourself in a good position, how can you look past anybody when you see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially a team that was preseason pick to win the league, that’s playing well at home?
“Middleton (Khris, 6-7 junior, North Charleston, S.C.) is back (from injury) and we don’t know if Dash is going to play or not. He’s one of the best defensive guards in our league. A&M can give anybody problems, including us. We’re going to have to play one of the better games we’ve played all year. Absolutely to date it’s the biggest game we’ve played. A lot of people will talk about the second game of our week. To me, that’s not even worth mentioning because for us to have the aspirations we do to win the league, we need to take care of business in College Station.”
First meeting: Guard Elston Turner scored 24 points (7-18 shooting, 4-8 threes) with six rebounds, four assists in 39 minutes versus KU in the first game. Forward David Loubeau chipped in 15 points with seven boards. Thomas Robinson scored 18 points with 10 boards and five turnovers and four blocks. Jeff Withey had 10 points with eight blocks and Tyshawn Taylor 17 points for KU.
“We had all kinds of problems with them the first time, and Middleton didn’t play and Dash got hurt right before halftime,” Self said. “They are healthier than they have been all year.”
Noted KU senior guard Taylor: “They are a good defensive team (holding KU to 42.6 percent shooting first meeting; 4-20 from three). They always give us trouble when we play them. They muddy it up and sag in the paint. They don’t let you get open shots. We have to work the ball and get it rotated a couple times before we attack.”