The Aggies haven't made the NCAA tournament since Billy Kennedy took over for Mark Turgeon, but they're a lock this season
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Danuel House was not serious about basketball until he was in 10th grade, and as a result, he does not have many meaningful NCAA tournament memories. He says he devoted more attention to Yug-I-Oh trading cards and shoe collecting in his preadolescent and early teen years than he did to watching the event. And now, as the end of his college career nears, Texas A&M's standout senior guard still has not personally participated in it. What House knows is limited to what his friends on other teams tell him about the travel, the venues, the fun, the meal money—"They were like, 'The per diem is lovely,'" he says—and the Aggies' second-leading scorer is convinced there is nothing like it, even if he has enjoyed zero NCAA tournament moments, shining or otherwise.
Which brings us to the present, and the start of the SEC tournament, where the Aggies are the No. 1 seed and will face Florida on Friday. House is averaging 15.3 points for a 24–7 team that is assured to appear in the field of 68 revealed Sunday. The Fresno, Texas, native had transferred from Houston following the 2013–14 season in part because of a coaching change and in part for the chance to perform on a larger stage. And he has come close. On March 3, 2015, he and his team seemed to be within one game of securing a spot in the field.
"And bam," House says. "That happens."
That was the bone bulging from his left foot after a medical staffer pried House's sneaker off during a game at Florida. It was a Jones fracture—a break in the fifth metatarsal bone, near his little toe—and it ended House's season. That in turn effectively ended the Aggies too: Without their then-top scorer, they lost that game and the two that followed and spiraled into the NIT, where they beat Montana and then fell in the second round to Louisiana Tech. House's distress over the results was compounded by being completely unable to do anything about them. He had a busted wheel and abundant frustration, the sort of madness no one is after in March.
Within the Texas A&M program, there was a belief that a stirring tournament run from House might vault him into the NBA draft. After the injury, his best option was to return to school and chase that elusive tournament bid all over again. And on two good feet, House has just about run it down. "It ended up being the best thing for him and us," Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy says. "It's easy for me to say that, not being him. We looked at it like, if we got to the NCAA [tournament] and win a couple games, and he had been playing well at the end of the year, [going to the NBA] would've been great also. But it didn't happen. Well, let's make it happen this year."
House and Texas A&M may get all they wanted out of this year. But it is clearly not the best thing for a bone to wind up in a place it shouldn't at the worst possible time.
What happened a year ago was agonizing and unforgettable: House remembers going up for a shot against then Florida center Chris Walker, coming down and playing until the next media timeout, when it felt like someone had lit several matches between his toes. "I said, whoo, my left foot is on fire," House recalls. He took off his shoe, thinking he just needed to air out the foot. Then tied the shoe up and returned to the floor.
But the pain kept building, and when the Aggies ran a play for House to shoot a three, he barely had any lift. Kennedy and his staff couldn't get a timeout to remove their best player. House labored to the other end where Florida's Eli Carter drove baseline against him; by then the foot pain was so excruciating, it was as if House was bolted to the floor. Officials stopped play and House inched to the bench. Medical staffers removed the shoe. That's when House saw the normal contour of his foot had a detour of sorts, a sight he likens to the spikes you see in a heart-rate monitor. "It was like a peak sticking out," he says.
House cried when he spoke to his mother, Lisa, about the injury and the fallout, but she reminded him that everything happens for a reason. "I channeled my energy," Danuel says. He became a passer or rebounder for teammates in drills, and one more motivating voice—"Coach House," as he puts it.
Losing three of four after the foot injury suggested Texas A&M needed its top scorer on the floor more than it needed an addition to the bench staff, even if the Aggies refused to use that as an excuse. "We put it on ourselves a lot," senior guard Alex Caruso says, "that we didn't take care of business." The 2015–16 season became about rectifying that on all fronts, and when Kennedy notes the benefits of House returning, he is not wrong. The Aggies welcomed a freshman class featuring four of the nation's top-100 consensus recruits, a vital talent infusion that helped the program rise as high as No. 5 in the national polls during a 17–2 start to this season. With fellow seniors Caruso and forward Jalen Jones, House provided a veteran, uh, foothold. "All our guys look to him when a play needs to be made," Kennedy says of House. "He's got big shoulders and he's willing to make the play."
House, in turn, has compiled one of his most complete seasons. His 15.3 points per game are a career-best. So are his assist rate (15.4), his defensive rating (99.9) and his Win Shares total (3.5). His raw shooting percentage is a career-low 39.9%, but his offensive rating is 109.6, the best figure since his freshman year output of 111.2 at Houston. "I'm showing the world I'm able to play with other good guys, that I'm a team guy, that I'm not all about myself," House says. "My team last year, they were talented, but not as talented as this team is. [Coming back] helped me become a better passer, guard the ball better, show that I'm able to rebound. Other aspects of the game that people probably haven't seen from me. This year gave me a chance to show them that."
Historically, when Danuel House covets something, he usually gets it, even if this requires near-obsessive pursuit. Take, for example, his collection of shoes.
House estimates that he owns 350 pairs, total. During an interview in February, he is wearing some adidas Camos but noted that he selected a recent favorite, his Puma Blaze of Glory high-tops, on the walk over to the building. The bulk of his collection is stashed in his mom's house. About 75 or 80 pairs are in his College Station apartment, some resting on a shelf and some just stacked up on the floor. He is partial to Jordan Brand kicks, though he had recently ordered some T-Mac All-Star 3s that glow in the dark.
"Me and my cousins—you know how some boys have phases at 12, 13, 14, 15 years old, they're going to talk about girls?" House says. "We talked about shoes."
There always is something to go after. A pair of shoes catches his eye, House orders it. A regime change at Houston occurs, with Kelvin Sampson replacing the fired James Dickey, and a craving for a bigger spotlight gnaws at him. So he bounces Texas A&M. A bone breaks in his foot, he returns to lead a reinforced roster toward that NCAA tournament experience he has only heard stories about. Whenever something is missing, House tries to fill the void in some way. And, bam, it happens.