Texas A&M chugs toward NCAA tourney behind Sloan (cont.)
Roland underwent surgery that night, as doctors inserted a rod and three screws into his leg. While the rest of the Aggies flew home to start a five-day Christmas break, Roland stayed in the Seattle hospital, accompanied by coach Mark Turgeon and Sloan, who volunteered to keep his friend company, reckoning that all they would have done over vacation was hang out in their hometown anyway. Sloan marvels at the way his friend hasn't let this season-ending injury derail his attitude.
"He was always in high spirits," Sloan says. "I stayed behind and went to visit him in the hospital. By day two or three he was being sarcastic and back to making jokes."
Less than two months later, Roland is off crutches and on track for a full recovery. The prognosis for the Aggies' defense hadn't been so rosy until Monday, when A&M held the Jayhawks to just 59 points. Last week Turgeon called the Aggies "probably one of the worst rebounding teams I've ever had."
"We just try to be a great team defense, guard screens the right way and work on help-side," Turgeon says. "[Losing Roland] has really changed the way we play defensively. We're not nearly as good."
After losing a couple of players who didn't qualify academically and one (Elonu) who left to play professionally, Turgeon knew he'd have to build a team whose sum was greater than its parts. The Aggies don't rank in the national top 50 in any major individual or team stat tracked by the NCAA, except winning percentage.
"We've always felt that we had to be a great team, that our chemistry had to be great," Turgeon says. "We did a lot of team stuff before the year started, things I've never done before as a head coach."
Turgeon invited retired NBA player turned motivational speaker Tim McCormick to share his experiences and he set up an afternoon outing on the university's ropes course. Tethered to a rope held by his teammates on the ground, Sloan was the first to ascend a narrow 40-foot pole, after which he was supposed to stand and leap for a dangling target suspended from a neighboring tree.
"I was so sacred I didn't want to jump," he says. "I just wanted to come back down."
Sloan's solution was to start from a crouch, then stand and jump all in one motion, so he wouldn't have the opportunity to dwell on how high in the air he was.
"I missed the pole, of course, so they had to catch me," he says, before summing up the day's lesson: "Your teammates will always be there to pick you up."
Of course the team does its own informal team bonding, too, which inevitably results in jokes being made at Davis' expense.
"They mess with me a lot," says the 6-9 Davis, who averages 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds. "I've gotten better about it. At first I used to take it so personally."
Some of the gags are simply about how his teammates think Davis shares a resemblance with Joel Anthony of the Miami Heat. And the Aggies love reminding Davis about an incident during his freshman year, when he explained that he'd make up for his lack of effort on a practice play by doing it in a game.
The old coaching staff under Billy Gillispie had a remedy, insisting that Davis was going to practice like it was a game. The next day, as Davis' teammates filled the locker room, one by one they asked, "Why do you have on all your game stuff?" Davis had been told to go through the workout in his full game regalia: jersey, shorts and even his warmup pants and top.
"He had to practice in it for the whole two hours," Sloan recalls with a laugh.
Davis has been putting in lots of extra time recently. The Aggies are among the nation's best teams at getting to the free-throw line -- "When you can't make jump shots, you have to be aggressive," Turgeon says of his team -- and Davis has been using every free hour, between classes and study halls, to take extra foul shots.
Sloan, of course, is logging his extra time too, though he's not the only beneficiary of the evening workouts. Zamarripa has enjoyed the experience so much that he's beginning to think he'd rather work in basketball than business, confessing that he often uses class time to think of new drills to implement. Hudson has aspirations of trying to play basketball overseas before studying to become a doctor but, as a sub-6-foot guard who didn't play in college, he is having trouble finding an agent who will help him get a tryout with a club.
But no one is prospering more this winter than Sloan -- and tournament-bound A&M.
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