Texas A&M is winning games and new fans in SEC basketball neighborhood
COLLEGE STATION -- It is game day in Aggieland, with signs posted and announcements on radio stations about changes to traffic patterns put in to enhance the experience for a sellout crowd.
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But no car in this Saturday traffic snarl is headed to Kyle Field. Instead, drivers are bound for Reed Arena, a venue that has received no significant upgrades during A&M's four years of SEC membership, to watch the men's basketball team meet Missouri.
The Aggies, who climbed to a program-best No. 5 in Monday's Associated Press poll, eventually rewarded their second sellout crowd of the season with a 66-53 spanking of Mizzou to collect their 10th consecutive victory during a breakthrough season under fifth-year coach Billy Kennedy. A&M (17-3, 7-1 in SEC), following Wednesday's 74-71 loss at Arkansas, returns to Reed Arena for a bigger test Saturday against No. 14 Iowa State (16-4) as part of the Big 12/SEC challenge (1 p.m., ESPN).
Another sellout is assured, with tickets for remaining home games in the 12,989-seat arena becoming hot commodities as these Aggies roll toward a goal their football counterparts have been unable to approach in their new neighborhood: an SEC championship.
Win or lose against Iowa State, A&M will remain in first place in the SEC. The Aggies are ahead of No. 20 Kentucky (16-4, 6-2), the league's gold standard for basketball success, and well on their way to fulfilling Kennedy's preseason promise of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
Asked if this team has turned football-loving Texas A&M into a basketball school, freshman forward D.J. Hogg smiled.
"I wouldn't say that," Hogg said. "But I think we're moving toward it. It'll always be football-first around here. We're just trying to make it both. We're trying to make it a dual-threat school."
Let the record show that fans who have watched A&M's football team post a 6-9 record against SEC peers in Kyle Field over the past four seasons are giddily embracing a basketball team that is undefeated at home and off to the fastest start since the Aggies finished 18-3 in 1921-22.
For veteran players, the energy surrounding the program marks a welcome change from the quieter ambiance of recent seasons. Alex Caruso, a senior guard and College Station native who served as an Aggies' ball boy during his youth, was overcome by emotion before a 71-57 victory over LSU when he was greeted by an arena-record crowd of 13,888 on a Tuesday night.
"When we ran out of the tunnel two minutes before tip, that was the first time I've ever had goosebumps running out," said Caruso, who took the floor for several high-energy games coached by Billy Gillispie (2004-07) as part of his ball boy duties. "Usually, I've got on my game face, staring straight ahead. But I had to look up at the crowd and see how many people were here. There was an overflow. You looked in the second deck and every walkway had bunches of people standing up, fighting for position.
"That's something you haven't seen the last few years. It was great to feel. I think that speaks volumes to how far we've come as a program."
How far the Aggies advance in pursuit of an SEC title and national championship figures to come down to the contributions of a senior-laden lineup that features Caruso and three fellow seniors who began their careers at other schools: guard Danuel House (Houston), forward Jalen Jones (SMU) and point guard Anthony Collins (South Florida), the only player on the roster who has played in an NCAA Tournament.
The fact that A&M is doing this under Kennedy, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease shortly after being introduced as A&M's coach on May 17, 2011, underscores the patience and persistence shown by the Aggies' coach and school administrators. Kennedy missed most of the team's preseason practices in his initial season after being placed on bed rest, then returned to oversee a 14-18 campaign marred by injuries to key players.
By altering his diet (heavy on vegetable smoothies instead of fast food), Kennedy lost weight, regained energy and stitched together records of 18-15, 18-16 and 21-12 the past three seasons while learning to live with an incurable disease. A degenerative disorder of the nervous system that impacts movement, Parkinson's impacts more than a million Americans. Kennedy, 51, controls his symptoms through medication and inspires players with his can-do attitude.
"He's one of the most caring guys I know," Hogg said. "He's also a defensive-minded coach who is real smart and knows what he's talking about. He's easy to listen to. You just respect him."
That respect extends to A&M administrators and boosters. Alan Roberts, president of the school's 12th Man Foundation, lauded the patience shown by former A&M athletic director Eric Hyman -- who resigned Jan. 5 -- for sticking with Kennedy despite zero NCAA Tournament appearances, thus far, in the coach's tenure at the school.
"He's a good man who has good values and he's hired some really good assistant coaches," Roberts said. "Thank God our AD ... had the patience to give him time to get things turned around. It's a win-win situation for us. Everybody in the world loves a winner. Nobody deserves it more than Billy."
Roberts acknowledged that such leniency might not be extended to an A&M football coach who went four seasons without reaching a bowl game.
"You're exactly right," Roberts said. "We love basketball. But in Texas, football is still king. It fills the stadium and it fills the coffers."
The place to be
These days, Aggie basketball fills Reed Arena at a pace unseen since the 2009-10 season, when A&M registered four consecutive sellouts for late-season games. Saturday's game against Iowa State will mark the school's third consecutive sellout, with additional sellouts announced for games against South Carolina (Feb. 6) and Kentucky (Feb. 20).
Derek Patoskie, an A&M student from Allen, stood in a line that stretched for more than 500 yards to claim one of 5,000 student tickets for the Missouri game. Students were allowed to enter the arena 75 minutes before tipoff, which has forced Patoskie and others to adjust their arrival times as the season has progressed.
"Until now, you could just show up at game time," Patoskie said. "And the line for the LSU game was a lot longer than this. It was obnoxious."
Asked about the impact of the larger, louder crowds on A&M's 12-0 home record, freshman guard Admon Gilder said: "It's been a great atmosphere. The Reed Rowdies are coming out. The next game is going to be a sold-out house. So we need to bring our A-game and make sure we give them a show."
The increased buzz surrounding his program is a welcome sight to Kennedy, who described himself as "thankful" to have the opportunity to lead the Aggies back to prominence after spending the 1990-91 season on the staff of former A&M coach Tony Barone. At his introductory news conference in College Station, Kennedy described the A&M post as his "dream job." He has seen this team thrive because of solid defense, strong rebounding and the timely scoring of House (15.8 points per gam), Jones (17.1) and center Tyler Davis (11.3), a 6-foot-10 freshman who leads the team in blocked shots (21).
"We just find a way to win. We've got a stretch going and we've won in different ways, and that's what is good about this team," Kennedy said. "We've got depth. We're sharing the ball. We're getting some tough rebounds.
"It's rewarding. I'm just ... thankful. That's all I can say. So many people have been supportive of me and I'm just thankful."
This article was written by Jimmy Burch from Fort Worth Star-Telegram and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.