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Resilient Texas A&M chugs toward NCAA tourney behind Donald Sloan

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.

Roland underwent surgery that night, as doctors inserted a rod and three screws into his leg. While the rest of the Aggies flew home to start a five-day Christmas break, Roland stayed in the Seattle hospital, accompanied by coach Mark Turgeon and Sloan, who volunteered to keep his friend company, reckoning that all they would have done over vacation was hang out in their hometown anyway. Sloan marvels at the way his friend hasn't let this season-ending injury derail his attitude.

"He was always in high spirits," Sloan says. "I stayed behind and went to visit him in the hospital. By day two or three he was being sarcastic and back to making jokes."

Less than two months later, Roland is off crutches and on track for a full recovery. The prognosis for the Aggies' defense hadn't been so rosy until Monday, when A&M held the Jayhawks to just 59 points. Last week Turgeon called the Aggies "probably one of the worst rebounding teams I've ever had."

"We just try to be a great team defense, guard screens the right way and work on help-side," Turgeon says. "[Losing Roland] has really changed the way we play defensively. We're not nearly as good."

After losing a couple of players who didn't qualify academically and one (Elonu) who left to play professionally, Turgeon knew he'd have to build a team whose sum was greater than its parts. The Aggies don't rank in the national top 50 in any major individual or team stat tracked by the NCAA, except winning percentage.

"We've always felt that we had to be a great team, that our chemistry had to be great," Turgeon says. "We did a lot of team stuff before the year started, things I've never done before as a head coach."

Turgeon invited retired NBA player turned motivational speaker Tim McCormick to share his experiences and he set up an afternoon outing on the university's ropes course. Tethered to a rope held by his teammates on the ground, Sloan was the first to ascend a narrow 40-foot pole, after which he was supposed to stand and leap for a dangling target suspended from a neighboring tree.

"I was so sacred I didn't want to jump," he says. "I just wanted to come back down."

Sloan's solution was to start from a crouch, then stand and jump all in one motion, so he wouldn't have the opportunity to dwell on how high in the air he was.

"I missed the pole, of course, so they had to catch me," he says, before summing up the day's lesson: "Your teammates will always be there to pick you up."

Of course the team does its own informal team bonding, too, which inevitably results in jokes being made at Davis' expense.

"They mess with me a lot," says the 6-9 Davis, who averages 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds. "I've gotten better about it. At first I used to take it so personally."

Some of the gags are simply about how his teammates think Davis shares a resemblance with Joel Anthony of the Miami Heat. And the Aggies love reminding Davis about an incident during his freshman year, when he explained that he'd make up for his lack of effort on a practice play by doing it in a game.

The old coaching staff under Billy Gillispie had a remedy, insisting that Davis was going to practice like it was a game. The next day, as Davis' teammates filled the locker room, one by one they asked, "Why do you have on all your game stuff?" Davis had been told to go through the workout in his full game regalia: jersey, shorts and even his warmup pants and top.

"He had to practice in it for the whole two hours," Sloan recalls with a laugh.

Davis has been putting in lots of extra time recently. The Aggies are among the nation's best teams at getting to the free-throw line -- "When you can't make jump shots, you have to be aggressive," Turgeon says of his team -- and Davis has been using every free hour, between classes and study halls, to take extra foul shots.

Sloan, of course, is logging his extra time too, though he's not the only beneficiary of the evening workouts. Zamarippa has enjoyed the experience so much that he's beginning to think he'd rather work in basketball than business, confessing that he often uses class time to think of new drills to implement. Hudson has aspirations of trying to play basketball overseas before studying to become a doctor but, as a sub-6-foot guard who didn't play in college, he is having trouble finding an agent who will help him get a tryout with a club.

But no one is prospering more this winter than Sloan -- and tournament-bound A&M.

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