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In support of Texas A&M University’s men’s basketball and ‘March Madness’

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After reading Robert Cessna’s blog, “Two too many men’s basketball tournaments,” published on March 17, 2014, at Aggiesports.com, it’s time to break silence. As a newbie sports journalist, and forever Texas Aggie fan, reading the words of a veteran sports writer, it was disheartening to see someone simply chunking tomorrow night’s CBI game as trash to be put at the curb for morning pickup.

Frankly, the Texas A&M men’s basketball program deserves better, much better, than the dirt heaped towards their faces and the veritable dismissal of their season’s efforts tossed into a cubbyhole of ridicule.

Cessna’s column held A&M up as a school to be pitied for being in a competition to be “the nation’s best 101st men’s basketball team,” noting that announcement of team selection was made by Twitter, contrasted to the ESPN watch show for the NIT, and the big league anticipation of the NCAA team play, to be broadcast on CBS sports. He challenged readers, or anyone, to pick the winner of the CBI bracket or name the teams’ mascots and what leagues they play in and then dismissed everything with “I want to limit rewarding mediocrity, not promote it,” and had to work football into the mix. Really? That’s the best you have to offer after watching the same team all of the rest of us have watched having to endure what it has? And you want to pour cold water on the CBI game?

Here’s why Texas A&M men’s basketball team deserves better:

It’s not about standing up to adversities that would have completely crushed any other school’s program to smithereens. The Texas A&M men’s team doesn’t need to have a recounting of all that has happened this year as an “excuse.” But facts are facts.
The Aggies returned exactly three starters this season: Alex Caruso, Fabyon Harris, and Kourtney Roberson.

Three other lettermen returned: Jordan Green, Blake McDonald, and J-Mychal Reese. Six newcomers suited up to practice: including Tavario Miller, Davonte Fitzgerald, Jamal Jones, Dylan Johns, and Don Thomas. Juan Aparicio was listed in the media guide, but for “some” reason, (and correct me if I’m wrong) he meets NCAA standards for eligibility. But the 6’4” guard who graduated from Second Baptist High School in Houston, who hails from Bogota, Colombia, has yet to be cleared by TAMU to play ball. Three redshirts were eligible: Shawn Smith, Antwan Space and Kyle Dobbins.

Texas A&M lost two of last year’s starters, Elston Turner and Ray Turner—to graduation. Three other lettermen were lost: Jarod Jahns and Grant Jolly—to graduation. Of those potentially eligible to have contributed to this season’s effort, you might recall 6’8” forward Daniel Alexander transferred in November 2012. It was announced in June, 2013 that junior 6’8” forward Andrew Young tweeted he was transferring to San Jose State. Two people who’d learned the plays and run in practice were gone.

And now, that brings us back to three starters returning to begin the season. The Aggie men’s team had plenty of potential. Initially the audience (true fans and spectators alike) crowded into Reed Arena, ready to watch some great basketball. Early in the season, the Aggies showed a lot of promise and electricity, particularly with the dynamic joy with which the young team was playing.

There was pressure on the team to perform, and the usual crowd of naysayers was ready to throw cold water on the team with every missed rebound, every muffed shot, airball, missed dunk, and all the rest. No casting of aspersions at the naysayers because they have come from years of conditioning not to expect much. After all Texas A&M is a football school, and some other sports. Or that’s the way things used to be.

But then the wheels started coming off the bus, and it got really bad so many times early on, and got worse during the season. The Aggies were without 6’1” J-Mychal Reece early. He missed the first four games at the beginning of the season during his suspension, for unspoken violation of team rules or athletic policy. Whatever it was, A&M was without a point guard who’d not started last year but who’d played in enough games to be considered a potentially starting point guard.

On October 24, NBC reported that Aggie power forward Kourtney Roberson “underwent a successful out-patient procedure, three days after experiencing a rapid heart rate during practice,” so he missed some key games and the team missed a key rebounder. National media attention focused on Texas A&M basketball rarely had any good news to report. But wait, there’s more.

Sadly, when the Aggie basketball team made the ESPN blog on October 30, 2013, it wasn’t for a good reason. J-Mychal Reece was “suspended indefinitely” from playing in games for violating athletic department rules. It was noted that Reece could practice with the team and hopefully rejoin it in the future at some point. Such news doesn’t really help your team recruit four-star prospects to your “basketball school,” and the Aggies were hit hard in more ways than one. That left Alex Caruso, Fabyon Harris and Blake McDonald to share time as point guard, with most of that duty going to Caruso.

On December 22, 2013, a brief press release was issued prior to the Aggies taking on the Oklahoma Sooners at home, noting that J-Mychal Reece was dismissed from the Aggie men’s basketball team and that neither he nor his father, Aggie’s Assistant Coach John Reece, would be present for the game, as they were dealing with “an issue within their family.”

Not only did the Aggies lose the game to the Sooners, they lost a teammate permanently, plus a coach that they looked up to, resonated with, and who’d been a positive influence on so many of these young men. You cannot, for a moment, forget the impact of Coach John Reece to this team. The Aggie men are first and foremost, young men who play with heart and soul, even if they’re not at the top of the game everyone expects them to play. They still showed up and performed as a team as best they could. They showed character and class. You didn’t hear a lot of gossip or buzz about things, either, another sign of class inherent in this program.

In January, 2014, Fabyon Harris was benched for the entire Kentucky game as Head Coach Billy Kennedy made a statement, one applauded by many media and bloggers alike, for Kennedy’s steadfast determination to run this team his way. The Aggies lost the game at Rupp, and the team heard the message. You don’t let everyone slide past rules (whatever they are) and get to play. To wear that uniform you have to be the same as everyone else on the team. No superstar exceptions or do-overs.

On the morning of March 1, 2014, when the Aggies were to host Ole Miss at home, during morning practice, Fabyon Harris passed out for several minutes and had to be taken to the hospital. It came down to his not having eaten anything for breakfast, save for (reportedly) one of those “energy drinks.” No more Red Bull, Fabyon.

That same game, the Aggies were without Shawn Smith, as Brent Zwerneman reported, “with what Kennedy dubbed ‘personal issues,’ and quoted Kennedy postgame saying ‘We thought it would be best if he got away for a couple of days.’” That the Aggies beat Ole Miss that game was a real achievement, when you worry about one of your own who’s not there and one who was EMS’d off to the hospital. How much is it, again, that they’re supposed to forget about the noise and focus on the game?

The Texas Aggies had so much bad news and yet, they kept on playing. This team played with heart. No, they didn’t always win, but they stood tall and wore that Aggie uniform with pride.

Another blow was dealt to the team all season long in the poor attendance at the Wings N’ More radio program. Week after week Coach Kennedy and Dave South took to the airwaves on the Aggie Radio Network and try to project all things positive when all around the team, trouble was looming. Those Aggie players who were guests of the show each week looked around the emptying room and similarly saw the crowds slightly fading at Reed Arena. Still they held their heads high, stepped up to practice, prayed together as a team, bonded as a family who sustained loss after loss after loss; and still the blows kept coming at them.

Everytime someone was doing well on the team, as the season went along and the Aggies were showing sparks of SEC-caliber play, an injury sidelined them.

  • Davonte Fitzgerald—On Feb. 13, 2014, Fitzgerald, who’d had an amazing series of games and a terrific propensity for making 3-pointers, injured his knee and was lost for the remainder of the season.
  • Jamal Jones, the talented shooter who could make 3-pointer after 3-pointer and sure-shot jumpers with ease, had been in the hospital with a bacterial virus, and crawled out of sick bay to fly in the day before the SEC tournament. He played a tremendous game while being sick as a dog. Jones finished the game with 20 points, including 4 of his trademark 3-pointers, 1 assist and 2 rebounds.
  • Alex Caruso played in the same SEC tournament with an injured finger (that had required six stitches) and shot his career-high 28 points (with 5 3-pointers of his own), 8 rebounds and 7 assists.

Blake McDonald had no points on the scoreboard but he came in to make the play of the game, by stealing the inbounds pass from Missouri. McDonald got the ball to Alex Caruso, who scored the bucket that sent the Aggies, who’d been behind most of the entire game, with 11 lead changes, into overtime against Mizzou. The SEC tourney game was truly the game of the year for the Texas Aggies, who had everyone on their feet through the first overtime and forced the game into a second overtime. Ultimately Mizzou had a little more gas in the tank and the Tigers eventually won, 91-83.

That the Aggies could score 83 points without Reece, without Fitzgerald, without Shawn Smith, on and on, is a testament to the true Aggie spirit. This Aggie team is a team deserving of another chance. Any tournament at all is a good postseason tournament, in which to don those uniforms and represent our school and embody what it is that everyone keeps singing the school song about—we are the Aggies, rough, tough, real stuff.

In a true showing of school spirit and class, last night, Aggie women’s head coach Gary Blair made his first guest of the night Aggie men’s head coach Billy Kennedy, who brought Alex Caruso with him, to address the group as the women’s team was preparing to celebrate their ultimate placement in the NCAA tournament. Coach Kennedy congratulated the women on their outstanding season, their coaching staff, and the excitement they were about to experience.

Alex Caruso offered a heartfelt “Howdy,” and got a deafening one back in response from the crowd, who had stood and given a standing ovation to Coach Kennedy. That standing “O” is what was not reported, was not blogged, and was so subtle that most of the media missed it. Texas A&M athletic leaders Eric Hyman, Marcy Girton and Jason Cook saw it. The 400+-person crowd in the practice gym saw it. Steve Fullhart saw it. Eagle photographer Dave McDermand saw it. Too bad Cessna didn’t see it.

The women’s team didn’t fare much better on the Cessna scale. In his March 18, 2014, blog, Cessna published, “The good, bad about A&M’s chances to reach the Final Four.” Someone needs to pull up a clip from “Funny Girl” and make Cessna watch “Don’t Rain on My Parade” 14 times in a row until he “gets it.” Incidentally, it was the late College Station resident, Ralph Hall, who looped Barbra Steisand’s singing that sustained end note that went into the stratosphere. You’re welcome.

Texas A&M is in the SEC now, for the second year. This is still a “brand new day” in Aggie sports. It’s not about the Big 12; it’s not about constantly obsessing over hating Texas or beating Baylor. This is a new playing field up against teams, particularly basketball, which have a full contingent of fans following and supporting their teams whenever possible. There is every reason to be optimistic about Aggie men’s basketball.

Texas A&M has signed Alex Robinson, a four-star ESPN prospect, considered the 10th best point guard nationally” to join the Aggies next season. Likely by then, Juan Aparicio will be able to recite the Shakespearean soliloquy by heart, which is likely the big holdup for Texas A&M not being able to clear him to play basketball, for whatever reason. It’s hard not to be pugilistic about that university hold-back and not utter the words “If he just played football....” Truth hurts.

Texas A&M simply must become a basketball school, even if it hasn’t been so in the past. Traveling to other SEC campuses and ACC campuses, and Big 12 campuses, you see what “real” basketball schools look like. The arena hallways are filled with bigger than life graphics that get you excited about the season before you even find your seat in the arena.

You should see the graphics that “speak basketball” at other SEC schools. Texas A&M athletics is a national brand, thanks to Jason Cook, and all that is lacking for basketball to benefit is the crowd of people who need to suspend all disbelief and simply attend tomorrow’s CBI opening round at Reed Arena, to see what Aggie spirit is all about on that court.

Brent Zwerneman reported on March 18, 2014, that Coach Kennedy “has been reassured he’ll lead the program into a fourth season,” so that’s really the best news of the day. Kennedy is the absolute best, right coach for the job. Thanks to the Athletic Department for getting that right.

Texas Aggies deserve no less than the best, and it begins with everyone who will buy a $5.00 (or more) general admission ticket to tomorrow’s CBI tournament first round as the Texas Aggies take on the Wyoming Cowboys.

Great reasons to attend abound Wednesday’s College Basketball Invitational:
1. Last year’s CBI teams are major NCAA teams this season
2. Aggie students get in free
3. Thanks to TAMU Transportation Services, parking at Reed Arena is FREE.
4. Fans can sign up at the 12th Man Rewards tables to win a ton of prizes, including Adidas sunglasses, Beats headphones, and gift cards galore
5. Free t-shirts will be thrown into the stands—each time the Aggies score
6. Kid’s Court will be open in the practice gym from 6:00-6:40 p.m.
7. The Aggie Wranglers will perform at half-time.
8. Hullabaloo Band, Aggie Yell Leaders and Aggie Dance Team will be there

The best reason to attend the Aggie vs. Wyoming CBI game: The heart, soul, spirit, mind, class, character, faith, and courage that the Texas Aggie men have shown—all season long—and the class, character and leadership that Head Coach Billy Kennedy has shown this entire year, exemplifying how to be an Aggie. Gig ‘em Aggies and BTHO Wyoming.

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