Commentary

Turgeon keeps the program going at Texas A&M

Originally Published: November 23, 2007
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Billy Gillispie left a program at Texas A&M. He didn't leave a team or a one- or two-year wonder when he answered the call from Kentucky last April.

That's the reason why Mark Turgeon bolted Wichita State when Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne made the call within days of Gillispie's departure.

Turgeon had been in rebuilding situations as an assistant at Oregon, with the 76ers under his former college coach Larry Brown, as the Jacksonville State head coach (in what he termed an "awful" situation) and as the head coach at Wichita State, where "we weren't very good," he said.

So after all that, after years of building up programs, the 42-year-old Turgeon was thrilled to be taking over a Texas A&M program that Gillispie had already established as a power.

"I was done [rebuilding]," he said Friday night. "Don't you see the gray hair and all these lines on my face? I wasn't going to take a job rebuilding. I told myself that if I was going to move, I was going to a place where you could win your first year, which Texas A&M is."

And that's why the Aggies' impressive 70-47 win over Ohio State for the NIT Season Tip-Off title on Friday, following a 14-point dismantling of Washington on Wednesday, is an indicator that the Aggies are going to stay a Big 12 contender and on the national stage under Turgeon.

"This is further than my expectations for this team," Turgeon said after the Aggies' 6-0 start. "This is good for Mark Turgeon, no question. Everyone says I can't fill Billy's shoes. I don't worry about filling Billy's shoes. I've been taught pretty well. I coached the game. I have had great assistants, and I'm at a great place for college basketball. I wouldn't have taken this job if I was worried about filling his shoes. I believe in what I do, and wherever I've been, I've won, and will continue to do that. We're off to a good start early, and we're trying to keep it rolling and take it to another level."

Turgeon's most important coaching actually occurred last spring when he re-recruited 6-foot-9 big man Joseph Jones and DeAndre Jordan. Jones declared for the NBA draft but wasn't going to be a first-round pick. He wisely returned to College Station. His return gave Turgeon a reliable senior anchor inside who could serve as a tutor for Jordan in his freshman season.

That only happened, of course, once Turgeon secured Jordan's commitment again. Gillispie signed Jordan and had locked in on Jordan's AAU coach, Byron Smith, as an assistant. Turgeon had to think long and hard about whether to retain Smith since he didn't know the AAU coach. But after doing plenty of background checking on Smith and seeing that Smith had worked as a college assistant before (at McLennan Community College and Texas Southern), Turgeon decided to include Smith on his staff.

And with Smith on staff, Jordan, the 7-foot recruit who hails from Houston and wanted to stay near home, decided to keep his commitment to the Aggies.

It has worked out well for Texas A&M so far. The combination of Jones and Jordan crushed the Ohio State big men. Heralded freshman Kosta Koufos was just 4-of-16 from the field for just 10 points (he had been averaging 20.3 points) with three turnovers in an ineffective 23 minutes. Othello Hunter was even worse, going 1-of-9 for four points and two turnovers.

[+] EnlargeJoseph Jones
Chris McGrath/Getty ImagesTexas A&M's burly frontline, including senior Joseph Jones, helped limit OSU freshman Kosta Koufos to 10 points on 4 of 16 shooting.

Jones' freshman year at A&M, 2004-05, directly followed the season in which the Aggies went 0-16 in the Big 12 in Melvin Watkins' last season as head coach. Now, Jones said, there is an expectation that the Aggies "will" win every game, instead of "might" be able to win.

"Coach G brought the toughness and the players to the program, and now we're used to winning," Carter said.

Jones said the Aggies put goals on their locker-room board prior to the first game this season, and winning the NIT Season Tip-Off was one of them. He didn't want to disclose the others, saying that the team will check them off as they occur.

Jordan, who is easily one of the most talented rebounding and defensive big men in the freshman class, has already shattered last season's dunk high for the Aggies (Josh Carter's 12 dunks). Jordan already has 15, and he has made 29 field goals so far. That's why it makes sense that Jordan is shooting an insane 87.9 percent from the field (29-of-33).

But the biggest beneficiaries of the change from Gillispie to Turgeon are the guards. Carter said the Aggies used to be much more high-low in their offense with the perimeter players staying to the wings, waiting for Acie Law IV to get them the ball.

Now, there is much more motion, and with that, there is more balance. That means Carter and rotating playmakers Dominique Kirk, Donald Sloan and Derrick Roland get the ball on the move.

Also, Turgeon is using his roster well. He played Nathan Walkup only two minutes against Washington, but before the title game Turgeon said he had found an answer for Ohio State's zone. His name was Walkup, as the seldom-used freshman wing buried 3 of 5 3s to help break open the game.

Turgeon said Gillispie built this program on defense. Now, early this season, the offense is starting to become an identity, too.

"Yes, we are a program now," Turgeon said.

That's why he chose the Aggies.

"I've been preparing for this," Turgeon said. "My career has gone differently than I thought, but here's my chance, and let's see what I can do with it. I don't live or die anymore on how many wins I have as a coach.

"While I have my opportunity, I'm going to make the best of it. My family has become pretty darn important to me, and where I raise my family has become more important than how many wins I have as a basketball coach. I chose this program because it was in good shape and felt I could keep it going and make it better."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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