Aggies bring balance on offense
After winning the Big 12 tournament, Texas A&M coach Gary Blair got a joking request from one of his assistants, Kelly Bond, wondering if he would buy her an iPad if the Aggies win an NCAA title.
"I said 'sure,' but, what's an iPad?" Blair said. "I just learned what an iPod was a couple of days ago. Now they've got iPads?"
Blair -- whose Aggies are the No. 2 seed behind Stanford in the Sacramento region -- often paints himself in shades of bumpkinism. But you should always take that with a grain or two of salt. At age 64, Blair is hip enough to still relate to players young enough to be his grandchildren.
And if an iPad would truly be of any use to him in winning basketball games, he'd learn to use one. This isn't a guy who hasn't changed with the times. A Dallas native born in August 1945 as World War II ended, Blair finished high school the same year JFK was assassinated.
Blair has worked in the restaurant business, done a tour of duty with the Marines, got a master's degree from Texas Tech, started coaching girls' basketball in the early 1970s when high schools across the country were starting programs, and then got in on the ground floor of modern-day women's college hoops as an assistant at Louisiana Tech.
Texas A&M is his third head-coaching job, following success at Stephen F. Austin and then Arkansas, where he went to a Final Four in 1998.
Texas A&M's stats on offense this season are the best of coach Gary Blair's career with the Aggies.
On Sunday, he won his second Big 12 tournament title in his seven seasons at Texas A&M, a program he's taken from seeming perpetuity in the league's cellar to residence with its top contenders on a national scale.
You don't do all that without having the ability to grow, change and be flexible. Those qualities are evident in Blair's time in College Station, and as his program's talent level has changed, so have his strategic options.
Some coaches stick with what's always worked -- even when it actually isn't working or a better way to work presents itself. That's not the case with Blair.
Sure, he's often teased about his press-conference soliloquies. And, no doubt, Blair has filibustered enough on his pet topics in coaches' meetings to have prompted comic threats of strangulation from his peers. (Although maybe some of them weren't joking.)
But Blair also throws compliments to his fellow coaches and to opposing players just as easily as he tosses candy to the A&M crowds. His mind is a great repository for women's basketball history. And you could never accuse him of stubborn myopia.
Which brings us to how this A&M team (25-7) is different than Aggies teams you've seen previously, including when they made the 2008 Elite Eight.
Blair never apologized for "winning ugly" when that was the realistic option for squads that didn't possess great scoring talent. The Aggies needed to bump and grind on defense. They needed to keep the game's score low and their foes' turnover total high. Blair would say, "We may not play that 'pretty ball,' but we win games."
This season, though, you could say the Aggies are doing both. That's right, Texas A&M's offense can be downright nice to watch.
Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale, whose Sooners fell to A&M in the Big 12 title game, smiled when it was suggested that this Aggies' offense was, for lack of a better way to put it, more aesthetically pleasing than usual. When asked if that was an indicator that the Aggies were also more difficult to guard than in past seasons, she nodded emphatically.
"They just have so many weapons," Coale said. "And I think their offensive confidence is a big part of that, too. They all want to shoot it. Everybody wants the ball. And that can be a difficult thing to defend."
When the Aggies fell in the 2008 Elite Eight to Tennessee, it was because of the strong will of Candace Parker and the evaporation of A&M's offense in the last six minutes.
While the Aggies may again encounter a gutty superstar performance from one or more foes -- although it would be hard to top what Parker did despite her shoulder popping out twice in that game -- the odds of an A&M scoring drought during this NCAA tournament seem considerably lessened.
Because it's not just a matter of aesthetics; A&M's offense really is statistically the best that it's been in Blair's seven seasons. The Aggies are averaging 75.4 points while shooting 45.8 percent from the field overall, 35.9 from 3-point range and 69.4 from the line. They have 513 assists.
Now, yes, they are allowing more points -- an average of 60.2 -- than they have the previous four seasons, which were all in the 50s. However, the Aggies have more than compensated for that difference with their own scoring.
Further, their opponents' average shooting percentage from the field this season -- 37.0 -- is the worst it's been in Blair's time at A&M. So the Aggies are clearly still doing plenty right defensively, too.
"People have always talked about how hard we play, or what great defense we have," Blair said. "We're never given credit for being a very good overall basketball team. People will say, 'They grab, they hold, they do this and that.'
"Well, we're not playing full-court pressure, man-to-man defense this year because I don't have the personnel to do that. So we've adjusted by playing 'pressure' offense. I'm like a mad scientist at night, writing on a legal pad, watching men's and women's games and finding out what we could take and make work for us."
Now that's an image, isn't it? But Blair isn't Dr. Frankenstein in a laboratory waiting for a lightning bolt to animate his creation. Instead, several of his players are offensive lightning, and he and his staff are continually figuring out the best ways to let them strike.
The Aggies' "Kansas City trio" of Danielle Adams, Tanisha Smith and Tyra White are leading the way, averaging 16.0, 15.0 and 10.7 points, respectively. Adams, the juco national player of the year in 2009 and now in her first season at A&M, was the Big 12 tournament's most outstanding player. White joined her on the all-tournament team.
But Blair would not want the contributions of the senior Smith to ever be minimized. She has combined with "Sydney Squared" to direct the offense.
"It's the first time in my coaching career I've got three kids all over 100 assists in a season," Blair said of Sydney Colson (122), Smith (112) and Sydney Carter (110). "That's a tremendous thing, and why I feel like I really have three point guards out there. I run sets; I don't run a lot of motion. Tanisha can make the needle-in-the-haystack pass when she penetrates into the lane. Colson is better in transition at creating. Carter runs my set plays very well. So all three are a little different."
Carter averages 7.8 points and Colson 7.0; Aggies forward Adaora Elonu contributes 8.8 points a game. The Aggies' other senior starter besides Smith, forward Damitria Buchanan, averages just 3.0 points per game, but that's all A&M needs from her.
Colson has dealt with a stress-reaction leg injury that has limited her minutes on the court. But the Aggies adjusted to that.
"It's important that we have such good depth this year," Colson said. "Go into the game giving it all you've got. If you get tired, raise your hand -- we're not going to lose anything when we sub people in."
The Aggies have won nine of their last 10 games. And in their Big 12 semifinal performance, they handed Nebraska its first loss this season, 80-70, by shooting 53.1 percent from the field and never giving the Huskers an opening to rally.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm an offensive coordinator in football who's sitting high above, watching the defense and seeing tendencies," Blair said. "Kelly Bond really helps me on that. Then Vic Schaefer is doing his thing on defense, and generally I don't get in his way unless it's at an end-of-game situation and I have to make a decision about something. I trust my assistants totally. That's how we share the spotlight, just like my players share it."
A&M's path to be the "home" team at the Final Four in San Antonio starts in Seattle and will be treacherous. The Aggies open with Portland State, and would have to face Gonzaga or North Carolina in the second round.
If seeds hold, then it would be Xavier and Stanford -- teams with strong interior attacks -- in the Sacramento regional. And even if the Aggies got through all that, they'd still be two victories from Blair having to go put that iPad on his credit card.
But if it happens, he'll joyously take that charge.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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