But while SI.com has the Aggies ranked in the Top 25 in the nation heading into the 2008-09 season, second-year A&M head coach Mark Turgeon knows that he'll have to earn his paycheck with the departure of senior leaders Dominique Kirk and Joseph Jones, along with freshman big man DeAndre Jordan.
The Aggies were picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 by the coaches—a spot that should earn A&M a fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament—behind Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Baylor after finishing strong down the stretch last season.
"We were pleased with the way last year went in general, but to lose the players we lost (Acie Law, Antanas Kavaliauskas & Marlon Pompey), to have a new coaching staff and still win 25 games, we were proud of that," Turgeon said. "But a different year brings new challenges. Our guys have worked hard. We had guys work hard in the weight room to get stronger, we had guys who needed to lose weight and they did that."
The Aggies return three starters and 12 lettermen from last year's team that finished 25-11 and came within two points of making their second consecutive trip to the Sweet 16.
Although they fell short of reaching the second weekend of NCAA Tournament action, A&M is one of just nine schools in the country to advance to the second round of the tournament in each of the last three seasons, and when they have been eliminated, it's been close. Each of the Aggies' last three seasons have ended in the final 10 seconds of the game.
The biggest hurdle for the Aggies this season may be replacing the leadership left behind by Jones and Kirk. But Turgeon said that in addition to guys like Bryan Davis and Donald Sloan, a couple of seniors—and even one freshman—are stepping up.
"Josh (Carter) is trying hard to do that. He had a great spring and summer and early fall," said Turgeon, who also likes what he sees out of a lesser known senior. "A guy like Bryson Graham doesn't get enough respect for what he does with that. He's a great young man who is going to graduate and he does everything right off the floor. When he practices he does everything really hard, he gives it his all every day. He's got a calmness and maturity that allows him to lead some of these guys."
Turgeon is also impressed with the leadership he's seen from Dashan Harris over the summer as well.
"I know he's just a freshman but if he's on the court and running the team he'll do that," Turgeon said. "It's natural for him. He's done it his whole life."
Harris also has Turgeon feeling more comfortable about the point guard position than he did a year ago.
The Aggies entered the 2007-08 campaign after losing All-American point guard Acie Law and struggled early on to find a rhythm on offense because of that. By the end of the season, Donald Sloan continued to improve and actually showed what he was capable of in the post season.
But Turgeon believes he's got a much deeper group of point guards this go around.
"I feel better about it this year than last year," he said. "I think Sloan proved that he was going to be a good point guard as the season went on, and I think he'll be even better this season. I think BJ (Holmes) has made himself a much faster player. Last year I thought he was too slow to play the point guard position but he's worked hard to get faster and quicker during offseason workouts. And then we recruited a pretty good one in Dash. He's got great leadership ability and he's got speed."
But having more depth at point guard isn't the only reason Turgeon's getting more sleep at night. His 25 wins tied the record for a first-year head coach at a Big 12 school, but he struggled to find a comfort zone for much of his first year after replacing Billy Gillispie.
But that's no longer the case.
"It's night and day, I can't even tell you—in all aspects of life," Turgeon said. "I was just up here just trying to get through last season. We got through and had a good year and learned a lot. Now we're in a house, a school system, the kids are happy, my wife is happy. I have relationships with my players now. I was so busy I couldn't really get the type of relationships that we wanted. Now I feel like we developed relationships over time.
The Aggies will kick off the 2008-09 season on Friday night at Midnight Yell Practice in what the A&M athletic department bills as the biggest midnight madness event in the country.
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