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Postcard from Texas A&M

Defense not a question for Aggies, but point guard is

Posted: Friday October 26, 2007 12:39PM; Updated: Monday October 29, 2007 4:58PM
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The return of Joseph Jones, who pulled his name out of the NBA draft, is a main reason why Texas A&M is still a contender despite losing its coach and best player.
The return of Joseph Jones, who pulled his name out of the NBA draft, is a main reason why Texas A&M is still a contender despite losing its coach and best player.
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- On the wall of Mark Turgeon's new office at Texas A&M is a photo from the Aggies' famous win over Texas on March 1, 2006. Taken from a vantage point high up in Reed Arena, at a juncture in the contest well before point-guard Acie Law's game-winning three-pointer, the image is mounted behind frameless glass and split into three panels. The shot Law hit that night helped A&M reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1987, and is still regarded as the trademark moment of Billy Gillispie's basketball revival in College Station.

"Days like that can do so much for a program," says Turgeon, who took over at A&M three days after Gillispie was lured away by Kentucky in April. "If that shot doesn't go in, who knows? They could have gone to the NIT, Billy might still be here, and I might still be at Wichita State."

That's a strange, Sliding Doors-like scenario to ponder, what with Gillispie now being hailed as the Big Blue's Savior, and Turgeon settling in at a place that seems to be an extremely good fit: the former Kansas guard spent his formative coaching years in the Big 12 as an assistant under Larry Brown and Roy Williams, and annually mined the state of Texas for sleeper recruits -- including current Aggies Josh Carter and Dominique Kirk -- while at Wichita State.

And as Turgeon led the team through a defense-heavy practice on Wednesday, he reached back into his playing days for an anecdote. Upset over sophomore Derrick Roland's failure to box out during a play, Turgeon halted the drill and said to a court-full of captivated players, "I played in the Final Four with Kansas in 1986, and you know how we lost the game? Because we didn't box out. One of my best friends stood there, and I've still never forgiven him for it. Duke's Danny Ferry got the rebound and put it back in, and they won. That's why my teams box out. Derrick, you didn't box out and you know it."

Longtime A&M sports information director Colin Killian, who was sitting in the stands with me at the time, said, "That's a heck of a way to get a point across."

Turgeon will no doubt benefit from the militaristic zeal with which Gillispie spent time drilling most of the current Aggies roster on defense; on Wednesday, players attacked Turgeon's defensive workout with a fervor I haven't seen on my other preseason stops. There was sophomore forward Bryan Davis, diving into -- and bouncing off the side of -- the padded base of the hoop, then wrestling a loose ball away from a teammate; there was sophomore guard Donald Sloan, up in senior point guard Kirk's grill before he even crossed halfcourt, and vice versa; there was senior forward Joseph Jones, gleefully giving 7-foot freshman DeAndre Jordan, a five-star center and A&M's prize recruit, a painful lesson in the physicality of the college post game.

"We don't want anyone thinking A&M is soft," Jones says after the workout. "We're trying not to lose that tough identity, and I like to come out and set the tone, and be physical. [Jordan] was pouting a little bit, so I took it upon myself to rough him up a little bit. That's the only way he's going to learn."

This was just one practice, but I have strong feeling that the Aggies, who finished '06-07 ranked 10th in the nation in defensive efficiency, are going to remain in that echelon of defenders. The real question surrounds their offense: namely, how well they can cope without Law, an All-America point guard whose nickname, "Captain Clutch," was well-earned. Turgeon, a former floor general who was nicknamed "The Surgeon" at KU, inherited a wealth of talent at A&M, but it's ironic that the one thing he didn't get is a seasoned point guard.

"The point is a daily thing for me," said Turgeon, who's planning on opening up the Aggies' offense more than Gillispie did last season. "I've got three options -- Dominique Kirk, Donald Sloan and B.J. Holmes. Every day I'm just trying to get it right. Dominique is the best all-around point guard that I have, in terms of running the team, playing defense, and not turning the ball over. Today's October 24th, he's the best. Will he be the best come December, or January? I don't know yet."

Kirk, a senior who started alongside Law in the backcourt and served the role of the Aggies' top defensive stopper, took most of the first-team reps at point on Wednesday. He had a stellar 2.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio as a junior, but that was with Law playing 34 minutes per game as the primary ballhandler. The final few minutes of Law's 34 -- when he turned from a good point guard into the college game's most cold-blooded go-to-guy -- are where A&M is bound to be the shakiest this season. Kirk can be a serviceable point, but he can't control crunch time like Law did. Carter, a 50 percent three-point shooter last year who averaged 11.8 points per game, will undoubtedly do some of that late-game scoring. So will Jones, the veteran who took his name out of the NBA Draft in June.

But how well will clutch-by-committee work for A&M? That, even more than the outcome of the point-guard battle, is what we're waiting to discover.

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