Team preview: Alabama A&M

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

People -- media people in particular -- have a thing for round numbers, the more zeroes the better. And Alabama A&M head coach Vann Pettaway is closing in an a major circular milestone. After two decades of coaching, he's just three wins away from 400.

But any or all those on-court victories, taken individually or as a group, pale in comparison to the win Pettaway scored last December. After a routine screening in July 2004, doctors diagnosed him with an aggressive case of prostate cancer. But 18 months of surgery, radiation and therapy were successful -- as follow-up tests showed no sign of the disease, the 47-year-old head coach had officially dealt cancer a blowout loss.

"Sometimes, there are some things that are just meant for us," said Pettaway, who has used his celebrity to urge men to seek cancer screenings and has traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak to legislators about research. "I think God put this on me for a reason, because I have this platform to get the word out there."

Pettaway, the American Cancer Society's 2005 Coaches vs. Cancer Man Of The Year, will undergo two more checkups over the next year to make sure the cancer hasn't returned. For now, his full attention is on coaching his basketball team and dealing with that looming round number, one he admits he wouldn't have been alive to see if he hadn't gone for that 2004 checkup.

"I want to get it out of the way as soon as possible," Pettaway said of the 400-win plateau. "I know it's out there, and I'm not focused on it. But to be honest with you, I thought we had the team to reach that milestone last year."

Despite an 11-7 SWAC record and No. 2-seeding in the league tournament last season, a 13-victory title defense was a major step down. The Bulldogs enjoyed an 18-win showing a year previous, a campaign that brought A&M its first Division I hoops championship. But A&M, which was stopped by Mid-Con upstart Oakland in 2005's NCAA Tournament play-in game, dropped its 2005-06 home opener to NAIA Paul Quinn by eight. That embarrassing loss set the tone for the season, which ended in an upset of another sort -- a shocking 10-point loss to Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the SWAC No. 2-vs.-No. 7 quarterfinals.

"I really thought we had enough talent coming back that we could compete for the championship again," Pettaway said. "Finishing in second place and getting knocked out in the first round was a major bummer. But it inspired us to get out on the recruiting trail and bring in some players who are going to get the job done for us."

The coaching staff would have had to do that anyway, as two of the most talented players in the school's seven-year Division I history graduated simultaneously. The twin-turbine engine that powered the program to the 2005 title has been removed -- leading scorer and assist man Obie Trotter (19.3 ppg, 3.3 apg) ran out of eligibility, as did leading rebounder Joe Martin (13.9 ppg, 9.7 rpg). Despite all that production, Pettaway blames last year's descent on a set of incorrectly meshing gears.

"We had the talent," Pettaway said. "But we just never got the chemistry we were looking for, one through 12. That's really what you need to win. This team didn't come together right, and they were not as dedicated as I would have liked."