Gillispie Has Aggies Positioned For Success In Big 12

After finishing 0-17 in the Big 12 three years ago, Texas A&M is a surprise contender

Nov. 6, 2006


Nov. 6, 2006

By Bryan Armen Graham



Bryan is a basketball editor for and contributes on a regular weekly basis.
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To hear Texas A&M's Billy Gillispie talk about the rise of the city game in football-crazy College Station, it's difficult not to be moved by the coach's infectious enthusiasm.


"I think now people have really started to believe," said Gillispie, the third-year coach of the Aggies who last season led the program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1987. "I am talking about on campus, I am talking about in the community and I am talking about all the Aggies everywhere. And I think they are all really excited. I feel a certain buzz everywhere you go. "


With Texas A&M a near-universal pick to finish second in the Big 12 on the eve of college basketball season, it's almost impossible to believe that Gillispie's group is the same Texas A&M program that won only seven games just three seasons ago and finished a woeful 0-17 in conference play.


As it were, the Aggies had never enjoyed a winning record in the Big 12, nor had the program won a single conference tournament game.


That was the history that Gillispie faced upon replacing Melvin Watkins as the school's head coach on Mar. 24, 2004.


Gillispie, who turns 47 Tuesday, first gained national renown at UTEP during the early 2000s. After the Miners finished with a 6-24 mark during the Texas native's first season at the helm, his second team went 24-8 and won the WAC championship despite a ninth-place finish in the league's preseason poll.


The 18-win improvement was one of the best in Division I history -- and enough to command the attention of the woebegone Big 12 program down Interstate-10.


Under Gillispie, Texas A&M's improvement was immediate and dramatic. The Aggies won their first 11 games and finished 21-10, collecting victories over No. 9 Texas and No. 25 Texas Tech along the way. The team would win a pair of games in the National Invitational Tournament -- the school's first postseason appearance in 11 seasons and their first postseason victories in more than twice that span.


The improvement continued last season as the Aggies went 22-9 and posted a 10-6 conference mark good for fourth in the Big 12 standings -- the program's highest finish in the league since winning the Southwest Conference regular-season crown in 1986.


The Aggies earned a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament -- the program's first NCAA appearance in close to two decades -- and scored an impressive first-round upset over a piping-hot Syracuse club that had just torn through the Big East Tournament on its way to the title. Two days later, Texas A&M lost to eventual Final Four entrant LSU on a Darrel Mitchell three-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining.


This season Gillispie returns four starters and 13 lettermen. Returning are the team's top six scorers and 89.3 percent of the total offense from last season. Optimism has never been higher in College Station.


Leading the way is tireless senior point guard Acie Law IV, who averaged 16.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists as a junior.


"It has been so much fun to watch Acie develop into the kind of player I thought he could become, but also into the kind of young man that he is so pleasing to be around and he is so family oriented," Gillispie said. "He is such a good leader to the young players and he is just a great, great, great young man. It has been fun to watch him develop into that kind of guy."


Complementing Law in the post is Joseph Jones, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound power forward who averaged 15.3 points and 6.5 rebounds and added a number of memorable scoring nights. In a 72-70 victory over North Texas, Jones poured in 35 points and grabbed a career-high 13 boards in 39 minutes despite suffering tendonitis in his knee.


Law and Jones comprise Gillispie's star tandem, a twosome that will combine to score a healthy share of the team's points during the season.


"It is fantastic to have them. They are great people, No. 1. I love our team as far as the kind of people they are and the things that they bring," Gillispie said. "When people want to talk about turnarounds and those kinds of things, it is all about character qualities and eliminating distractions. And these guys put their hard hat on every day and they eliminate distractions.


"Now we are going to work to get better because we don't have any distractions. And those two guys provide so much leadership for us, they won't let anybody mess up. It is really, really nice to have that on your team."


With non-conference games scheduled against Pacific, LSU and UCLA -- what Gillispie calls a "very, very dangerous schedule" -- the Aggies should be prepared for the rigors of Big 12 play.


"For the first time we have some experience returning and we have some newcomers that I think will have a major impact on our team," Gillispie said. "A lot of change in the conference. We are really looking forward to a fun and exciting season."

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