Billy Gillispie notices the difference every time he strolls
across campus or walks around town.
Texas A&M isn't just a football school anymore.
"People have really started to believe," the Aggies basketball coach
"I'm talking about on campus. I am talking about in the community, and
I am talking about all the Aggies everywhere. I think they are all
really excited. I feel a real certain buzz everywhere you go. People
are excited about our basketball program and our team in particular."
They have good reason to feel excited.
Texas A&M made its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1987
last year and advanced to the second round before losing a 58-57
squeaker to Final Four participant Louisiana State.
Rivals.com preseason second-team All-America guard Acie Law
and junior forward Joseph Jones head a group of five returning
starters from that team. That explains why Texas A&M is ranked 13th
in the ESPN/USA Today poll, which represents the Aggies' first
preseason ranking since 1980.
"We just have to handle it the right way and just maintain focus,"
Law said. "We can't let it get to our heads and get big heads. We have
to continue to work hard every day and do what got us to this point."
Texas A&M's unfamiliar position in the top 25 reflects a season
of change in the Big 12.
Texas forward Kevin Durant and Kansas forward Darrell
Arthur headline an outstanding freshman class that should make an
Rivals.com rated Durant as the nation's No. 2 player in the 2006
recruiting class. Arthur collected 21 points, six rebounds, six steals
and two blocks in 22 minutes of action during an exhibition victory
over Division II school Washburn.
"(Durant) is the most talented player we've coached in terms of his
ability to do so many different things," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "That's not putting pressure on him. It's just a
The freshmen won't be the only newcomers this year. Half the Big 12
schools made coaching changes in the offseason.
But the most high-profile newcomer isn't really a fresh face at all.
Kansas State's Bob Huggins returns to coaching this season
after a one-year absence. Huggins owns a 469-173 record in 21 seasons,
and led Cincinnati to 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances before
resigning under pressure.
Although Huggins' off-court problems bring plenty of adversity, the
Wildcats are gambling he can turn around a program that hasn't reached
the NCAA Tournament since 1996.
"We want to be able to compete successfully in this league," Huggins
said. "And I think if you get to the point (that) you can compete
successfully in this league, then you are going to be an NCAA
The new Big 12 coaches would love to match Gillispie's early
Gillispie inherited a Texas A&M program that failed to win a
conference game two years ago. He took the Aggies to the NIT in his
first season and followed that up with an NCAA bid last year.
Now the Aggies suddenly find themselves mentioned alongside Kansas
and Texas as favorites to win the conference title.
"It has been fun for me as a coach to see how our players react to
the buzz," Gillispie said. "And it has also been fun for me to see a
lot of old Aggies out there all over the place that are really excited
about basketball, maybe for the first time in a long, long time."
2006-07 Big 12 Preview
Team on the rise:
Texas A&M. It's hard to believe this team failed to win a
conference game just three seasons ago. The Aggies return most of their
nucleus from a team that reached the NCAA Tournament last year for the
first time in two decades. Acie Law is arguably the conference's best
point guard. Joseph Jones provides plenty of punch in the
paint. Last year's trip to the Big Dance was a major surprise. This
year, it would be a shock if the Aggies don't get invited.
Team on the
decline: Colorado. The Buffaloes should savor that 20-10 record
from last year, even if it didn't result in an NCAA Tournament
appearance. It could mark the last 20-win season in Boulder. The
Buffaloes have lame-duck coach Ricardo Patton working with one
of the conference's least experienced teams. A return to the NIT this
season would represent a major accomplishment.
on the rise: Texas A&M's Billy Gillispie. This
third-year coach has made basketball relevant at this football-crazy
campus. The Aggies own a 43-19 record in Gillispie's two seasons, and
advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year. If the
Aggies can keep Gillispie in College Station, they soon could emerge as
one of the Big 12's top programs on a consistent basis.
on the hot seat: Kansas' Bill Self. Ricardo
Patton actually had this honor until recently, but the Colorado
coach found his seat so hot that he already has decided to get off it
at the end of the season. That leaves few other candidates in a
conference that has six first-year coaches. Self isn't in any danger of
losing his job, but those murmurs of disapproval could get much louder
if the Jayhawks lose in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament for a
third consecutive year.
offensive player: Colorado G/F Richard Roby. His ability
to drive into the lane and shoot from the perimeter helped Roby average
17 points per game last season. He now returns as the primary option
for a team that doesn't have many other experienced players. That
formula might not produce many wins for Colorado, but it could help
Roby win the Big 12 scoring title.
3-point shooter: Oklahoma G Michael Neal. This 6-foot-3
senior ranked second in the Big 12 last year in 3-point shooting
percentage (.424) and 3-point baskets (3.22 per game). He shot
87-of-205 from beyond the arc and was particularly hot during a
four-game stretch in which he went 26-of-45. He also set a Big 12
record last season with his 3-point shooting percentage of .495 in
conference games. ?
defensive player: Kansas G Mario Chalmers. He set a Big 12
freshman record with 89 steals last year and became the first freshman
in conference history to lead the league in steals. Chalmers also
ranked 14th in the nation with 2.7 steals per game. He collected at
least three steals in 19 of his 33 games a year ago.
player you don't know yet: Texas Tech G Charles Burgess.
Although he hasn't played a game in a Texas Tech uniform yet, Burgess
could go a long way toward determining the Red Raiders' postseason
fate. The 6-foot-1 guard was named the National Junior College Athletic
Association player of the year last season after averaging 15.8 points,
5.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game for Howard College. Burgess will
have to make an immediate impact because senior guard Jarrius Jackson ? the Big 12's leading scorer last year ? has been
suspended for academic reasons.
Kansas. This would have been an easy choice before junior center
Sasha Kaun suffered a preseason knee injury that will knock
him out for three to six weeks. Kaun's injury leaves Kansas slightly
thin in the frontcourt, but the Jayhawks still boast more talent than
anyone else in the conference. The arrival of freshman point guard
Sherron Collins boosts a backcourt that already featured
Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers and swingman
Brandon Rush. Freshman forward Darrell Arthur could
immediately become one of the Big 12's most exciting players. And the
frontcourt will get an additional boost at midseason when Kaun returns
from his injury and C.J. Giles comes back from discipline
problems. Giles returned to practice last week, but he won't play in
games until after the first semester.
newcomer:? Texas F Kevin Durant. Until Ohio State's
Greg Oden returns from a wrist injury at midseason, Durant
might have the greatest impact of any freshman in the nation.
Rivals.com rated Durant behind only Oden in the 2006 recruiting class.
The 6-9 swingman possesses a 7-5 wingspan that makes him dangerous on
both ends of the floor. He combines shot-blocking ability on defense
with legitimate 3-point range on offense. Durant averaged 23.6 points,
10.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 3.0 steals and 2.6 blocks per game his
senior year at Montrose Christian in Rockville, Md.
sleeper:?Texas A&M G Derrick Roland. This 6-4
shooting guard should join former Seagoville (Texas) High teammate
Donald Sloan in providing immediate help. We're giving the
honor to Roland because he fits the definition of a "sleeper" as a
three-star prospect, while Sloan was rated as a four-star
News and notes:
Having six new coaches in a conference doesn't happen very often, but
it's not a record. The biggest coaching turnover at a conference in
recent memory came in 2001, when the Atlantic 10 had seven coaching
changes. ? Texas Tech coach Bob Knight is 10 wins away from
tying former North Carolina coach Dean Smith's all-time NCAA
record. Knight owns an 869-350 record in 40 seasons of coaching at
Army, Indiana and Texas Tech. ? The Big 12 lost last year's leading
scorer when Texas Tech's Jarrius Jackson was suspended for
academic reasons. The Big 12 still returns last year's conference
leaders in blocks (Baylor C Mamadou Diene), steals (Kansas G
Mario Chalmers), field-goal percentage (Oklahoma State F
Mario Boggan), free-throw percentage (Kansas State F/G
Cartier Martin) and assist/turnover ratio (Colorado G
Marcus Hall). ? Oklahoma G Kellen Sampson spent two
weeks in May and June working at an orphanage in Liberia. He joined a
construction group that helped put together a school building. ? The
Big 12 has produced five Final Four teams ? more than any other
conference - in the last five years. ? This year's Big 12 tournament is
scheduled for March 8-11 in Oklahoma City. This marks the first time in
conference history that the tournament hasn't taken place in Kansas
City or Dallas.