Resilient Texas A&M chugs toward NCAA tourney behind Donald Sloan
Sloan's taken his game to the next level since best bud Derrick Roland's injury
The senior endures structured, two-hour workouts in addition to daily practice
Texas A&M is a near-lock for the NCAA tournament thanks to its No. 13 RPI rank
When Texas A&M senior guard Donald Sloan returns to his native Seagoville, Texas, on the outskirts of suburban Dallas each summer, his workout partners have been a pair of former high school teammates, his A&M pal Derrick Roland and current Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
During this school year, however, when Sloan is looking to put in extra work on his game, he seeks the counsel of Johnathan Hudson, a 5-foot-11 aspiring medical student, and Steven Zamarripa, a 5-6 management information systems major.
And these extra sessions have helped catapult Sloan into Big 12 stardom and the Aggies back into the AP Top 25 despite losing Roland to a gruesome right leg fracture just before Christmas. Sloan is the conference's fourth-leading scorer (18.2 points per game) despite assuming defense of the opposition's best perimeter player, a chore that previously fell to Roland. With an 18-7 record (7-4 in the Big 12), Texas A&M is tied for third in the league, nearly upset national No. 1 Kansas Monday night and, barring a collapse, is a near-lock for the NCAA tournament thanks to an RPI of 13.
No player has been more important to A&M's success than Sloan. He first met Zamarripa two years ago, when the latter served as one of the Aggies' team managers for two months (he stopped when his grades started to slip). The two reconnected last year when they enrolled in the same section of a Texas history course, and Zamarripa, who has no college playing credentials, offered to help work out with the Aggies star.
Zamarripa had been instructed well. When he played at United High in Laredo, Texas, one of his coaches was Kaleb Canales, who has since become an assistant for the Portland Trail Blazers (where, coincidentally, he now works with Aldridge). Zamarripa has relayed the lessons and drills he learned in high school and in subsequent camps Canales has run in Laredo to supplement the instruction Sloan receives from the A&M staff, in effect becoming Sloan's unofficial player development coach, a neophyte volunteer version of Idan Ravin, who provides similar services for dozens of NBA players.
Sloan and Hudson have been roommates for three years, having been introduced by mutual friend Chinemelu Elonu, a Lakers draft pick currently playing in Spain. As freshmen, Hudson invited Sloan to use the free laundry machines in his apartment building, and the two quickly became friends who would make nightly sojourns to the basketball court. But as Hudson, a former starter at Stephen F. Austin High in Sugarland, Texas, says, "We didn't have structure."
That's where Zamarripa has helped, introducing a routine into the nearly two-hour shootarounds on the new practice court at Reed Arena, which start nightly at 10. Among Sloan's shooting stations -- at each, Zamarripa or, usually, Hudson, plays tight defense and often deliberately hacks Sloan, to simulate tough pressure -- are eight-foot bank shots from each side, 15-footers from all over, three-pointers around the arc, pull-up jumpers off three or five dribbles and shots when rolling off a screen. In between each station Sloan shoots free throws.
"Get better." That's the simple mantra that Zamarripa utters repeatedly to motivate Sloan at his evening sessions. And Sloan has indeed gotten better across the board. Last year he shot 38.8 percent from the field, 35.3 percent from the three-point line and 74.3 percent on free throws; this season he's shooting 45.6 from the field (No. 7 in the Big 12), 37.1 percent beyond the arc and 78.0 percent at the foul line, good for 12th in the league.
"We've been going through the shooting regimen for quite a while," Sloan says, "and it's paying dividends."
Zamarripa reckons that they haven't missed a night (other than on game days) since returning to College Station after Christmas break and have rarely skipped a workout since starting them in early August.
"He won't take a day off," Zamarripa says of Sloan. "He never wants to stop."
There's a reason for the renewed intensity after the holiday. The Aggies' season was nearly derailed on Dec. 22 in Seattle. Early in the second half of Texas A&M's game at Washington, Roland took a short jumper near the basket. He missed the shot and landed with an awful crack. Senior forward Bryan Davis, standing two feet away, likened the sound to lightning splitting a tree branch.
Roland crumbled to the ground with what was later diagnosed as a compound fracture of his lower right leg. He broke his tibia and fibula in such a way that they punctured the skin and his lower leg bent at a nearly 90-degree angle.
Sloan, Roland's close friend since playing together in middle school, rushed to his teammate's side. He initially saw the trainer touch Roland's shoulder and thought it was dislocated. Then he saw his leg.
Sloan immediately pulled his jersey over his face, then came to a crouch and deposited his sobs into his hands, weeping right in front of a baseline television camera.
"I couldn't keep it in," he says.
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