By Elizabeth McGarr
As the head coach at Wichita State, from 2000-07, Turgeon took the Shockers to the NIT three times and to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 2006. With three games to play before the Big 12 tournament, the Aggies (20-8, 6-7) are trying to extend a three-game winning streak and make the Big Dance for the fourth year in a row.
This week, SI.com caught up with the Kansas native, in his second year of coaching in College Station, the day after his Aggies overcame an 18-point deficit to beat Nebraska at the buzzer, 57-55. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
SI.com: Could you talk a little about the inbounds play to Josh Carter that set up the winning shot against the Cornhuskers?
Mark Turgeon: We have two options out of it. Josh was option number one and Bryan Davis was option number two. Josh got free; he got some space and so he took the shot. It was good execution on our part. It's something we don't practice a lot; we actually practiced it that morning for the first time in a while, knowing it was going to be a pretty close game, and the guys executed it perfectly.
SI.com: Which Big 12 team has impressed you the most this year?
MT: I was really impressed with Kansas. We went to their place; we didn't play great but they just dominated the game. They score easily, they have a lot of weapons and they're very deep. I've been impressed with Oklahoma. We haven't played Missouri yet, but I was impressed with K-State. They've done a nice job, going 8-1 after starting 0-4. I was really impressed with them and their toughness.
SI.com: What advantages do you think the Aggies will have going into the Big 12 tournament that maybe you didn't have at the beginning of conference play?
MT: I just think we're becoming more of a complete basketball team than we were early in league play. We have a lot of guys who have been on the team before but their roles are completely different. I think they've grown up. Derrick Roland was a substitute for us last year. He was our backup main defender behind Dominique Kirk and now he's become our main defender and takes it on as a challenge and does a tremendous job with it. I think he's one of the best defenders in the league, if not the best perimeter defender. He doesn't get a lot of recognition I think he deserves. Chinemelu Elonu, a guy who probably played seven or eight minutes a game last year, is starting and putting up big numbers for us. Those two juniors have really stepped up their play this year.
SI.com: How do you expect the Big 12 tournament to play out?
MT: I think it's going to be a wide-open tournament. I think the cream will rise to the top, but being in Oklahoma City, it might help the Oklahoma schools a little bit. You never know with tournaments. I thought [the championship] was going to be a little more wide open. I don't think any of us expected Oklahoma to win their first 11 and Kansas to do what they're doing-they're just having a remarkable year. Even the five though 12 [seed] games the first day I think will be great games because there's not a lot of separation there either. It should be an exciting tournament.
SI.com: A lot of people are talking about how this isn't one of the stronger years for the Big 12 across the board. How do you think that will affect conference teams that make the NCAA tournament?
MT: I'll be anxious to see what happens; there's a lot of basketball to be played. We'll hold our own. Early in the year, Texas beat Villanova. We have some quality wins as a league. We've had more non-conference wins than we've ever had. I don't know if we have a national champion this year, but we have a lot of really, really good teams. We're deeper top to bottom than we were last year.
SI.com: You were at Kansas as a player (from 1984-87) and an assistant coach (1987-92) before the Big 12 existed. How much did you know about the traditions at A&M before you took the job?
MT: I really didn't know a lot, to be honest with you. I just kind of started following Texas A&M basketball when Billy Gillispie got here and did a nice job. Obviously they were on TV a lot more and started to get good home crowds. I knew of the traditions but I really wasn't totally aware of them, so I've learned a lot since I've been here. It's a unique place. It's a very special place, a very proud place. I don't know all the words to all the songs, and that upsets a few people. If I know about it in advance, whenever one of our seniors gets their Aggie ring I try to give it out myself and make a big deal out of it -- and we dunk it in Gatorade. (I actually started that part; we've only done it a couple times.)
SI.com: Do you own a pair of cowboy boots yet?
MT: No, I don't. Nor a hat. I think I had a pair when I was in Wichita because we had this big fundraiser where we wore boots, but they didn't make it down to Texas. Maybe by the end of Year Three we'll invest in some boots.
SI.com: You've said before that you don't really read the local coverage of the team you are coaching. For how long have you tried to avoid it?
MT: It started in Wichita. In Wichita, that basketball team is everything. They cover Kansas in that paper and Kansas State, but [Wichita State basketball] meant a lot to a lot of people there. I just felt, being from Kansas, I put a lot of weight on my shoulders there and I didn't need to read any negatives. It just kind of became a habit where I don't pay attention. I just try not to listen to any local chatter as best I can, or state chatter. I don't think it's healthy.
SI.com: What was the difference between playing for Larry Brown (at Kansas) and coaching under him (as an assistant in 1987-88 at Kansas and with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1997-98)?
MT: It was hard playing for him. He was younger when I played for him and he was pretty tough on point guards. Obviously I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for him and his influence on my life and how demanding he was of me. It was a lot easier to work for him. I went back and worked for him when he was the head coach of the 76ers. I've had a lot of great years in my life, but that was a really great year because I got to form a relationship with Coach Brown that was different. It wasn't a player-coach relationship. It was a friend or a coach-coach relationship, and that year really meant a lot to me.
SI.com: What do you think of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun's reaction when someone at a press conference questioned him about earning the biggest paycheck in a state that currently has an enormous deficit?
MT: I'll be honest with you: I don't think he handled it very well. I've got family members who are struggling, people I know who are struggling. I know we get paid well, and I understand that. I do think for the most part coaches earn what they're paid because it's a pretty high-stress job and there's a lot of money that we bring in. I feel very fortunate to have the job I have and to have the contract I have, especially in today's world.