Wichita St.-Texas A&M Preview
With a coaching background that includes stop at Louisiana Tech and Stephen F. Austin, Texas A&M coach Gary Blair loves to root for the underdogs in the NCAA tournament.
Of course, that support doesn't extend to those teams when they're facing his Aggies, like one is on Saturday when No. 3 seed Texas A&M hosts 14th-seeded Wichita State in the first round of the tournament.
"That will be the first thing we talk about are the upsets," he said. "You better be ready because the other team is playing with nothing to lose."
The ninth-ranked Aggies (24-9), who won a national championship in 2011, are making their eighth consecutive NCAA appearance and the Shockers their tournament debut.
Wichita State (24-9) has had the most successful season in school history, setting records for wins and Missouri Valley Conference victories (15). But the Shockers are facing daunting odds in a tournament where a team from their conference hasn't won a game since 2002.
Wichita State has noted some of the upsets in this year's men's tournament with keen interest.
"It definitely gives us motivation," Wichita State star Jessica Diamond said. "That's why it's called March Madness. Anything can happen ... we're going to show that when we play."
Without any tournament experience to rely on, the Shockers will lean on a staff led by coach Jody Adams, who won a national title as a player at Tennessee in 1991, and assistant coach Bridgette Gordon, a member of the 1987 and 1989 Lady Volunteers national championship squads.
Adams often pulls from her playing experience when trying to motivate her team, and has shared stories of playing for coach Pat Summitt as the Shockers prepare for the Aggies.
She relayed a story she told her point guards this week.
"Pat threw me out of the practice before we went to the SEC tournament," Adams, a former point guard, recalled of her playing days. "It was because of the lack of communication, and at this time, communication with your point guard is huge. You can't hear your head coach from the sidelines and you can't depend on your head coach. You should know at this time how to lead your team and what plays to call."
Many of the Aggies have tournament experience, but Texas A&M's starting lineup has two freshmen in Courtney Walker and Courtney Williams, who will experience it for the first time.
"We have a lot of contributors on our team that have never been here before, so as leaders on this team it's our job to get them ready to go," Texas A&M junior Kelsey Bone said. "It's still going to be a little nerves before that first game. It's the NCAA; it's what we all dream about."
Blair knows the key to A&M's success in the tournament will be Bone's play. The 6-foot-4 center leads the Aggies with 16.9 points and 9.6 rebounds a game. She is playing her second season at A&M after sitting out a year following her transfer from South Carolina.
This season, Blair has seen a marked improvement in Bone, who was the second-rated high school player behind Baylor's Brittney Griner in 2009.
"People expected her to be Brittney Griner, the second coming of Brittney Griner - and she wasn't," Blair said. "She wasn't in the shape that she needed to be. I think she was trying to live up to a ghost, and sometimes that ghost was her.
"Her leadership is so much better this year," Blair continued. "She's matured. She's grown up a lot. This is her time to move the next level up."