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Archive for Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Gillispie building at A&M

Former Self aide has Aggies on right track as up-and-comers in Big 12

January 25, 2006

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— He hasn't made folks forget about football in this gridiron-crazed state.

Heck, even Bob Knight has failed to accomplish that improbable task - an achievement some might call impossible.

Still, personable second-year Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie has made great strides building a basketball following with the Aggies.

A&M (12-4 overall, 2-3 Big 12 Conference) has averaged 6,449 fans in 12 home dates - a highly respectable 9,964 spectators in two Big 12 contests - in 12,500-seat Reed Arena, site of tonight's clash with Kansas University (11-6, 2-2).

Tipoff is 7 p.m., with a live telecast on channels 13 and 38 (Sunflower Broadband Channels 13, 15).

"We were a few steps below ground level," Gillispie said of A&M's program, which he took over after replacing Melvin Watkins, who resigned following the 2003-04 season.

"I think now we're on ground level," Gillispie said. "There's guys in our conference who are way above ground level, and they are like three or four stories up."

A&M's foundation appears to be rock-solid under the 46-year-old Gillispie, an assistant on KU head coach Bill Self's staffs at both Tulsa and Illinois.

To show how far the program has risen, A&M coaches, fans and, most importantly, the players, were downtrodden following a recent three-game losing streak that included a two-point setback at Oklahoma State, a one point home loss to Oklahoma and a four-point decision at Kansas State.

Those games preceded Saturday's 86-81 overtime victory at Iowa State.

"I love this team. I'm so proud of what they are doing. I think it's great that everybody can be so disappointed after we went to Oklahoma State and lost and had a chance to win and lost to Oklahoma, a preseason top five or 10 team," Gillispie said.

"I think that's a sign of growth and sign of where our program is headed. I think we are looking at playing a different game than what's been played here in awhile as far as approach and dealing with things. We're headed in the right direction."

The Aggies proved as such at Iowa State.

Junior guard Acie Law, who has taken over as go-to guy following the early NBA departure of Antoine Wright, and sophomore power forward Joseph Jones each scored 17 versus the Cyclones.

Law has averaged 17.0 points and a whopping 23.0 tallies in Big 12 play.

"At the beginning of the year, I never thought I'd have to score as much," Law said. "I thought we'd have enough scorers on the inside and on the perimeter. But things haven't gone according to plan."

Jones averages 15.5 points and 7.1 boards overall (13.4 ppg and 6.1 rpg in Big 12 games), while third-leading scorer Josh Carter checks in at 7.9 points a game.

"They could be 5-0 in the league right now, 4-1 at the worst, that's how well they've played," KU's Self said. "One thing about Billy's teams, they will always be tough.

"People who haven't seen tough teams, hopefully they will see two on Wednesday. I guarantee they'll see one in the Aggies. They will be tough. They are always tough. I hope we are as well."

A victory against KU would help the Aggies achieve their goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament a year after an impressive three-game run in the postseason NIT.

Yet Gillispie, named Big 12 Coach of the Year last season, realizes there are no guarantees and uses the ol' one-game-at-a-time mantra to lead his troops.

"I'm excited how our team is doing. We've really improved, and I love their effort," said Gillispie, whose team had impressive home victories over Tulane, Auburn and Penn State in an otherwise weak preseason slate.

"I love their practices. They've been good all year. They've become great in the last two to three weeks. They are excited about playing, and we are excited about the challenge. We know it's difficult.

"If you are going to start predicting and that kind of stuff, it could be doomsday for some people," Gillispie said. "We're going to play for 16 games. Our schedule at the start of league play is brutal. If we had any give up in us, we would have given it up at the half against Texas Tech (trailing 34-25 in a 63-55 Aggie win).

"We aren't giving up. We're going to play 16 games and see where we are at after 16. There may be one or two teams emerge as elite, and Texas is probably at that level right now already, but it's going to be interesting to see how it goes."

Win or lose tonight, Gillispie thinks his team is in it for the long haul - like last year, when A&M positioned itself well for the postseason at 8-8 in league competition.

"The guys are great. They enjoy practice," he said. "I know they enjoy competing. You couldn't compete like they do if you didn't enjoy it. They don't get too high. They don't get too low. I love their maturity in that respect."

Self is not surprised Gillispie, a native of Graford, Texas, had put together a winner.

"Billy has done a great job of generating a lot of interest and enthusiasm at A&M," Self said. "It's going to be a different Reed Arena than KU has seen. I'm sure it'll be full, a lot of Aggies pumped up. He has a very tough team, evidenced last year when they came to Allen Fieldhouse and the game came down to the last possession (in 65-60 KU victory). He's put together a good, well-coached team."

Gillispie sees the same in KU.

"In general, Coach's teams will always guard, be good in transition and not ever give easy baskets," Gillispie said. "They will be prepared in a position to win almost every single game.

"They have ability, depth, experience in certain positions. They are guarding well and are starting to make shots because of familiarity. They play all aspects of the game well."

After tonight, KU will return home to prepare for another road game - Saturday's 11 a.m. contest at Iowa State. The Aggies will remain home to meet Baylor on Saturday.

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