- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Kelsey Bone talks about learning the Aggies' system and her comfort level being back in her home state of Texas.
Ah, the slings and arrows of being a defending national champion not named UConn or Tennessee. Going back two decades to 1992, eight schools other than the Big Two -- Stanford, Texas Tech, North Carolina, Purdue, Notre Dame, Baylor, Maryland and Texas A&M -- have won the NCAA title in women's hoops. The first seven haven't repeated since, and right now the Aggies are well aware of why.
"We're getting everyone's best games, and it's to be expected," Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said Tuesday after a 57-53 loss at Oklahoma State. "Hopefully, it will help us in March."
The postseason is where it all came together last season for the Aggies, who lost five games -- three of them to Baylor -- before their triumphant NCAA tournament run. This season, it's only January and the Aggies already have lost five times -- and still haven't yet faced No. 1 Baylor (which, of course, hopes to add another NCAA title to the one it won in 2005).
The Aggies (13-5) are experiencing the weight of the "crown" a bit, and Kelsey Bone, who was on the sidelines as a transfer last season, especially can feel it. The 6-foot-4 center knows the big part she has in filling the scoring void left by Final Four Most Outstanding Player Danielle Adams.
Bone is averaging 11.9 points and 7.0 rebounds in her first season for the Aggies, but those numbers are 6.8 and 5.5 in four of Texas A&M's last five games. The exception was her 18-point, seven-rebound performance in a victory at Kansas on Saturday.
She understands the Aggies need more consistent production from her, that what she did against the Jayhawks is much more like the standard she wants to meet. And frankly, it's what she expects of herself for the caliber of talent she has. Getting there every game, though, continues to be an up-and-down process.
"I'm working on it and trying to get adjusted," Bone said. "The good thing is I still have this year, next year and another year. It's like a puzzle, and each piece is still fitting in."
Looking back on Bone's whole college odyssey thus far, including the recruiting process in which she was considered one of the nation's top prizes, the puzzle has been further complicated because it changed shapes.
Bone left her native Lone Star State to start her career, and it seemed like a great idea at the time.
Go to a school that's hoping to change its culture and identity. Potentially become an iconic figure there as someone who made a major impact on the program. Be mentored by a coach who was a national player of the year in college and a three-time Olympian and knows what it takes to compete in the WNBA.
That was South Carolina coach Dawn Staley's recruiting pitch to Bone, and it took her away from all the programs in Texas that desperately wanted her, including A&M. To the East Coast she went, which surprised many.
"My family understood," Bone said in the fall of 2009, when she was a freshman for the Gamecocks, "once I explained what I think I could learn at South Carolina and what I wanted to help build there."
Bone was the SEC Newcomer of the Year as a rookie in 2010, averaging 14.0 points, but things just never clicked the way she had hoped they would. When she realized that for her there was no place like home, she had to return. She sat out her transfer year last season as the Aggies won the national championship. She is a very different player from Adams, but Blair never figured her to be a replica. He just needs Bone to regularly do her thing at the level she has shown she can.
She is still adjusting to playing Texas A&M defense while also trying to keep any struggles there from affecting her offense.
"I think the hardest part for me has been it's not just about guarding your own man," Bone said. "That's the biggest hurdle. Because you think, 'She's not scoring, I'm doing OK.' But if there's a backdoor here, that's your help. If there's ball pressure, you've got to be able to do this or that.
"Another big thing for the post here is denying the ball. A lot of teams run their offense from the top of the key through their 4 player, so if you deny the ball, they can't run their offense."
Bone practiced with the Aggies last year, but it has still taken time to feel comfortable this season when she's playing for real again. Coach Vic Schaefer, A&M's defensive guru, has a little "mad scientist" about him. Some players love it, others just learn to live with it. Bone is probably somewhere in between at this point.
"We joke and say if you come here, you have to learn basketball all over again," Bone said of comparing defensive demands and schemes to what she was used to. "For a post player, you're so much more involved defensively in every aspect.
"For so much of my career, it was, 'Put the ball in the hole and guard your man.' That was what was expected of me. Now, it is kind of reversing your train of thought. Now it's defend, defend, defend. Some games are better than others for me."
Meanwhile the whole Aggies team has had to adjust to no longer having the graduated Sydney Colson at point guard.
"I had played with Sydney since I was about 7, and she is a different personality," Bone said of her fellow Houstonian. "Anybody who's ever talked to Colson knows that. It's a hard personality to replace.
"The team depended on her for emotion. You could look over at her, and one of her crazy faces would come, and you'd know, boom, you had to have that emotion. A lot of people will talk about us losing Danielle, and that was a big loss in production. But in Colson, we lost a leader."
Senior Sydney Carter returned in the backcourt, but Blair always said that she was at her best when paired with Colson. This season, Carter has had more responsibility trying to run the team, along with the players trying to fill Colson's shoes at point guard: junior Adrienne Pratcher and freshman Alexia Standish.
The other returning starters with Carter (12.1 ppg) are seniors Tyra White (team-high 14.4 ppg) and Adaora Elonu (11.9). Turnovers -- one of the factors that bugged Blair a lot in Texas A&M's loss Tuesday -- are another concern with Colson gone. Last year, the Aggies finished with 619 assists to 532 turnovers. Those numbers this season are 284 assists to 285 turnovers.
There are times the Aggies need someone on court to get everyone's heads on straight and refocus with purpose. Colson was a whiz at that, like a natural-born class president. It can be a harder role for a post to fill, and Bone doesn't expect to ever do it quite like Colson. But she wants to be more of a contributor there.
"I don't want to step on any toes," Bone acknowledged. "But that's something Coach Blair has been trying to break me out of. He knows that I'm capable of doing that."
In many ways, though, even with Colson and Adams gone, this Big 12 season has a feel that isn't actually that much different than the last two for Texas A&M.
In 2009-10, Nebraska was the dominant league team throughout the regular season, going 16-0 in Big 12 play. But Texas A&M ended up winning the Big 12 tournament. Last season, the regular-season spotlight was on Baylor, which went 15-1 and won the conference tournament. But then Texas A&M ended up with the national championship trophy.
This season, the focus is on undefeated Baylor again. So while the Aggies, at 4-3 in league play, might be frustrated right now, they have plenty of time to get where they want to go in their last season in the Big 12. Next year, Bone will be back in the SEC as the Aggies make that move, so her career will come full circle in an unexpected way.
But that's next year. A lot can still happen this year for Bone and the program she initially bypassed but ultimately chose after all.
"We're searching for our identity," Bone said. "I know it's coming, but this team has changed so much and we're all trying to get to that 'fun' place."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
12dBonnie D. Ford