Q&A: Texas A&M Men’s Basketball Coach Mark Turgeon

First-year Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon has a tough act to follow. Before fleeing the Lone Star State to take over at Kentucky, Billy Gillispie took Aggie basketball to new heights, leading the team to two straight NCAA Tournament berths. A&M, long the bottom-dwellers of the Big 12, won 27 games last year, reached the Sweet 16, and finished the season ranked ninth nationally in both major polls. Turgeon will be tasked with maintaining that pace, albeit without All-American point guard Acie Law IV. Before coming to College Station, Turgeon spent seven years at Wichita State, where he led the Shockers to three consecutive 20-win seasons, four straight post-season appearances, and a Missouri Valley Conference title and Sweet 16 appearance in 2006.

How well are you adjusting to Texas A&M?

Well, adjustment’s hard. I was at one place for a long time, but I think each day the adjustment gets better. I’ve inherited a great group of guys. That’s making it easier. And they want to be good. So, that makes it easier too. Sometimes you can inherit a program where the guys really don’t care, and that makes it tough. I think each day we get to know each other a little bit better, what we expect out of each other. It’s a process that we’re going through, but I think both sides are pleased right now, players and coaches.

Was there a little bit of a culture shock at first?

There were some things that freaked me out early, but I love it now. You either get into it or you don’t, and I’m going to get into it. I want to make sure that people look at me as an Aggie, a guy that’s doing everything he can to be a part of what’s going on in our environment down here. I really enjoy it. I’ve really enjoyed the football games. I think that’s where I first got it. I was like, “Okay, now I see what everybody says about this place.” I think it’s a special place, and I’m really pleased with the administration and the school and just the whole environment of Texas A&M.

Where did you first meet Athletic Director Bill Byrne?

University of Oregon. I was an assistant coach out there. I met him in ’91 [or] ’92.

He’s done some great things for A&M athletics in his four plus years there. What’s your impression of him?

I just think he wants every program to win. It would be real easy for an AD just to come in here and put everything into football. But, he’s doing that plus raising money so the rest of us can be successful. I think Billy Gillispie should get a lot of the credit for what he did. I think Bill Byrne should get some credit too for putting money into basketball, investing in it, and giving it a chance to be successful. He’s continuing to do that. With the help of alumni and the 12th Man Foundation, we’re building a $23 million practice facility. They’re making a commitment for basketball to be good.

What are the positives and negatives of taking over a program on the rise?

All I see is positives. I had taken over programs that weren’t in great shape, and I didn’t want to do it again. The key, when we got the job, was to keep all the players here and keep all the recruits here. I see a great group of young men who know how to win, expect to win. They’re very coachable, very driven. And then you’ve got an environment with basketball here at A&M now…where fans expect to win, expect us to be good, and I like that. The only concern I have about this year is I think we’re a very young basketball team. We have three guys that have played a lot of minutes, and everybody else hasn’t played. We’re pretty highly ranked, and our schedule’s tough out of the chute. That’d be the only thing that I’d be concerned about with this program right now, because I do think as the year goes on we’ll get better, but we are a very inexperienced team.

On that point, how important is veteran leadership from seniors Joseph Jones and Dominique Kirk?

Well, they’ve got to become better leaders. I think they’re very good leaders. I think Joe at times does what he has to do. Dominique leads by example. They’ve got to become more vocal leaders on and off the court. They’re good people, and they do things the right way, so I think they’re good role models for the young kids. Then hopefully the young kids will turn into Dominique Kirks and Joseph Joneses for us someday. I’ve been pleased with those two, but they’ve got a big task on their hands because we do have a young team, and quite frankly, off the floor, a pretty immature team, because they’re young, but they’re a fun group. And so, they’ve got their hands full. We all do. Those guys definitely need to lead for us.

How important is that going to be, especially with a tough non-conference schedule?

That’s the thing. If we had nine games that we’re supposed to win out of the chute and a couple tough ones, I probably wouldn’t be as concerned because our team could grow with that schedule. But we’re not going to be able to do that. So there is a little concern. These guys have been busting their tails. A new system is being put in on the offensive end. Defensively it’s basically the same. There are concerns with our schedule being so difficult so early in the year, staying confident, and getting through it. But the guys expect to play that schedule, they want to play that schedule, and I know they’re looking forward to playing that schedule. With that said, we just got to get them ready as coaches and do the best we can.

What’s different about your offensive system? What kinds of things do you emphasize?

We try to run a little more. They had some games last year where they really pushed the ball and did some really nice things, but I think we’ll try to run a little bit more. We’ll run our sets, we’ll have our secondary break, but we’ll also go into some motion—very simple motion, very easy motion, but motion that is going to be hard to guard for other teams. We’re always trying to get the best shot we can, and my philosophy is to share the basketball. So, I’ve got us working together at all times.

Replacing Acie Law is obviously a key. Do you expect Donald Sloan, Dominique Kirk, and B.J. Holmes to share time at point guard?

Yeah, they’re all going to do it. Today, my starting point guard is Dominique Kirk. That doesn’t mean he’s going to be my starting point guard a month from now, but today he is. He’s doing the best job. B.J.’s doing a great job, and Sloan just gets better every day. They all bring me something a little bit different. I think, right now, Kirk brings me the most. Sloan’s really good on the break, really good with the ball in his hands, has great vision, [but he] doesn’t always make the best decisions. He’s not as good at getting us into our offense as he will be three weeks from now, but he can do a lot of great things for us. B.J. understands how to be a point guard, understands how to lead, how to get us into our stuff. He’s just got to get better on the defensive end, and he’s doing that, he’s working hard. I’ve been pleased with all three of them. Are they ready? Not yet, but they will be.

In addition to leading the offense, do you expect Kirk to be a better scorer this year?

I think he’s ready to do that. He did it in the tournament. I think he’s looking for his shot in practice. I don’t know what he was like to coach in the past. I just know that when he’s open he’s shooting it right now, and he’s making it. He has really worked hard on his shot, become a very good shooter, and his mentality’s changed. He’s thinking about leading the team. I think we’re going to be able to help Dominique this year with a Derrick Roland and a Donald Sloan and a much improved defensive Josh Carter. We’re not always going to have to put Dominique on the best player, and that’s going to make us a better defensive team.

Carter’s obviously a premier three-point shooter. Do you see him becoming a more dynamic offensive presence?

I think he’s had tremendous growth since we’ve been here, and I’ve seen tremendous growth since he was a high school player. The kid’s come a long way, but we’re trying to make sure that he’s a complete basketball player on the offensive end. I think offensively our system’s great for him. I do think he’ll become more of a dynamic scorer. I thought last year he got all the way to the basket on the break and he could shoot threes. Hopefully we’ll add a mid-range game coming off screens, mid-range shots, and things like that.

DeAndre Jordan is one of the highest-rated recruits in program history. What are your impressions of him so far?

Well, he’s got a long ways to go. He’s a great kid and wants to be a player, but when you’re seven-foot in high school, you just stand in the lane, and you don’t have to do much but block shots. And you run on the break and you can score over people. So it’s a process, and we’re asking him to do things he’s never done before. The game’s moving a little bit too quick for him, but he’s got all the tools. The more coachable he is, and the better he can take constructive criticism, the faster he’s going to come as a player. He’s one of those guys that as the season goes on, you’re just going to say, “Wow, he just keeps getting better and better and better.” I do think defensively, when he sets his mind to it, he can really help us this year.

How well do you think he’ll handle the pressure of being such a highly touted recruit?

I think people are expecting a lot out of DeAndre. He’s a great kid. He’s hard on himself. One of the biggest things is he’s too hard on himself, and he gets too emotional. We’re trying to get rid of that, but I think that’ll all take care of itself. He’s got some limitations right now offensively that’s improving daily. Once we can get him to be more complete offensively, then I think you’ll see the DeAndre Jordan that everybody thought they were getting. He’s got a big upside, and it’s up to us to get the most out of him. But right now he’s got a lot of bad habits that we’re just trying to work on to get corrected.

How are Joseph Jones’s knees?

I think his knees are fine. We had him checked out again. He might have a little tendonitis every now and then, but his knees are fine. Joe’s doing well. He’s in pretty good shape for this time of year, and he’s been a good leader. I’m hoping that in our system he’d show an inside-out game, which he did last year. He made some big threes for our team. Hopefully he can do that. We’re just trying to make him a more complete defensive player and a better all-around offensive player.

People are expecting a lot from you guys this year. How do you deal with the expectations?

[The players] might talk about it off the court. They don’t do it around me. I think being a new coach, you’re just trying to get your system in, and you’re trying to just coach them as well as you can each and every day. You don’t think about anything else. Right now, it’s the dog days, so these guys are just trying to get through them. Long practices and very intense practices and really no light at the end of the tunnel. After this week’s over, we have a game next week, it’ll become easier for them. I don’t think they’re caught up in that number. I do think our guys expect to win and expect to play at a high level, but I don’t think they’re looking at 11 or 20 or 23, whatever it is. They’re just trying to be the best team they can be.

What’s your vision for A&M basketball?

I’d like to continue on what we’ve done the last three years, and understand that not every year is going to be 27-7 and the Sweet 16, but have consistently good years, try to have 20-win seasons every year and then have special years in between. I want to make it a national program, and I think we are right now. People around the country know of A&M basketball. We want to continue that, and just like if Billy would have stayed here, he would have tried to get this program to a Final Four and win a Big 12 Championship, and that’s what we hope to do.

Q&A: Texas Basketball Coach Rick Barnes

Photograph courtesy of University of Texas Athletics Photography

Texas has been a model of consistency under head coach Rick Barnes. Barnes has led the Longhorns to NCAA Tournament appearances in all nine of his seasons in Austin, and Texas is one of only five teams to have reached the Sweet 16 in four of the last six years. To maintain that string of success, the Longhorns will have to replace Naismith Award-winner Kevin Durant, who averaged 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game last season before heading to the NBA, where the Seattle Supersonics took him second overall in the June draft. The challenges don’t stop there. Highly-touted freshman Gary Johnson’s status remains uncertain after he was diagnosed with a heart condition, leaving the Longhorns with questions in the frontcourt. Still, the backcourt remains strong with D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams leading the way.

What has been the key to your consistency?

Well, I think consistency is what people look at. Our goal is one day we want to win the whole thing. You’re always in position to try to do it. So every year, we just want to be the best we can be. I’ve always used this saying: “Proud peacock today, feather duster tomorrow,” and when you break that down, that’s what that means. You better never get so full of yourself that you think, “Well, I’ve arrived,” because once you start thinking you’ve arrived, that’s when you start thinking that you’re entitled to something, and I tell my players there’s nothing more that I hate than people thinking they have a sense of entitlement, because we don’t. We’ve got to earn everything we get and you’ve got to earn it every day. I’ve told coaches forever and ever, every day we get up, we’ve got to think of ways we can get better. Even if we’re fortunate enough to win the whole thing one day, we’ve got to say, “How can we do it again and do it better?”

So it’s about starting over every year.

Every day. It starts a long time before right now. The work that went into this season probably started about a week or so after we finished last year.

Gary Johnson’s status is still obviously up in the air. If he’s able to play, what does he bring to the table?

He’s high-level intensity, he plays really hard. He’s versatile, competitive. He’s just getting started in terms of his basketball skills, what he can do. He’s got a lot of things going for him, and the fact is, he loves it. He loves to play, it means a lot to him, and he has had an effect on our team because they know, I think if you asked his teammates, I think they know that every time he walks out there, he’s going to bring it. Against anybody, it doesn’t matter who he plays. He’s not backing down from anybody.

Talk about D.J. Augustin a little bit. He wore down at the end of the year last year. How was his off-season?

Well, he did get tired. I think the reason he got tired was because when he got here in the summer, he had to drop 20 pounds, and I think his season, from [October] 15th, or whenever you want to say practice starts, that’s not what got him tired. What got him tired was it was a much longer season because of him having to get himself in the kind of shape he needed to get in. Right now, I think D.J. Augustin could play 40 minutes every night, and I can promise you he won’t wear down in March because he’s older, mature, his conditioning is so much better; his body’s obviously changed, but it’s his conditioning that’s really changed.

Has he become more of a leader this year?

He has. That’s the one thing that we’ve talked about—that he needed to talk more, he needed to coach more, he needed to have a presence, he needed to control things for us, and he’s done that.

He was named the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year. How do you think he’s going to handle the attention?

I don’t think it bothers him. First of all, he’s the most unassuming guy. He could care less about individual accolades coming his way. There’s nobody that’s more real with themselves than he is. I don’t worry about that with him at all.

You’ve talked about turning him into a more aggressive scorer. Is that still a work in progress?

Well, he’s good at it. He scored last year. I think he averaged 14 or so points a game. But he will [score]. I just want him to know that. Again, he’s got such good feel for the game; he knows what he’s got to do.

A.J. Abrams was kind of overshadowed by D.J. last year, but he’s still a junior on the rise. What do you expect out of him this year?

A.J. did have a great year last year, maybe our most consistent year. I know that from start to finish, I’m not sure anyone was any more consistent. He improved. We asked him to give up and do more on the defensive end, and he did that. He can get better there; he knows he can get better there. Offensively, in the off-season, we asked him to add more to his game. He’s great moving without the ball. He’s one of the smartest kids we’ve coached, and because of that intellect, we expect him to be able to evaluate himself and know what he needs to get better.

You mentioned defense. You’ve said throughout the preseason that you expect this team to play better defense than last year’s team. What makes you optimistic?

Well, we’re a year older. These guys last year were learning a lot of things, and—there’s no one to blame but me—we probably didn’t put as much emphasis on it as we should have. We did, but we were concerned with so many things last year with four freshmen and a sophomore that we probably weren’t as physical. But we’re a more physical team [this year]. You look at the size on this team compared to last year, so that has something to do with it. We have a chance just with a year of experience, and D.J. and Justin [Mason] were good defensively last year, A.J. got better. Now I think with some other guys improving we’ve got a chance to be better.

What does Dexter Pittman have to do to become a premier big man in the conference?

Well, he’s got to practice right now. He’s been out the whole pre-season. He’s practiced three days with us, and it’s tough missing this time of year. It’s hard to overcome. As we sit here and talk, I don’t know. We know what he can do. It’s how quickly he can catch up with us and play the pace that we want to play.

You mentioned Justin Mason. Is he going to be a big key on defense this year?

I think he’s going to be a big key, period. His role from a year ago has changed. Justin came in here and made us play the way we played last year. We thought we would be a little bit bigger team in some ways, but Justin, we couldn’t keep him off the floor. We’re not going to be able to keep him off the floor this year. He’s probably our most improved player, and he’ll do a little bit of everything. I think Justin’s another one that we’re going to look to score for us, and he will.

Damion James has become more athletic. Do you expect him to be more of a dynamic player this year?

What we need Damien to do, we needed him to be a guy that’s going to do all the dirty work for us, a guy that’s going to be a master of easy baskets, getting out running, getting his hands on offensive rebounds, screening, playing off these guys. He should want to be one of the best defensive players in the college game and play hard and consistently every night. If we get that from him, we’ll be okay.

You have experience, but you’re still a relatively young team. Is the tough early season schedule (games against UCLA, Michigan State, and Wisconsin) a concern, or do you view it as a way to gain experience?

You talked about consistency. I think programs that are consistently good are willing to go play people. We could stay at home, win more games, but it’s not what we want to be about. We’re not afraid to travel and play. I think it helps us. It’s going to put us in tough situations. Sometimes when you’re in them, you think, “Well, maybe we should have done it differently,” but I don’t know that it’s ever hurt us. I think it makes us better. Even in some of the losses last year. We lost three or four or five pre-season games, but I think we got something out of all the losses, whereas if we’d have stayed at home and played 18, 19, 20 home games, we probably wouldn’t have gotten as much out of it.

Expectations are obviously a lot different this year without Kevin Durant. Do you like being a little bit under the radar?

I don’t care about it. Our expectations never change. I told you when we first started talking what our expectations are. They won’t change with this team. In terms of flying underneath the radar, I don’t care about that either. Where we want to go, it’s the day-to-day work, and you do that and let the results take care of themselves.

Is the identity of this team up in the air right now?

I don’t know about that. We’ve got some loose ends that we haven’t been able to tie up, but I’m sure there are other programs around the country this time of year where people do get nicked up. We’ve just got to take what we’ve got. We’ll find a way to get some things done.