The Associated Press
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Talk about a dramatic turnaround.
Two years after going winless in the Big 12 and finishing the season with a 17-game losing streak, Texas A&M (22-8) is in the second round of the NCAA tournament after knocking off perennial national contender Syracuse.
Next up for the 12th-seeded Aggies in the Atlanta Regional is LSU (24-8) and Tigers star Glen “Big Baby” Davis.
A tough assignment, but hardly anything coach Billy Gillispie and his players feel they’re incapable of completing after posting the program’s first win in the NCAA’s since 1980.
“We have confidence we can beat anybody,” said junior guard Acie Law, who been’s in the program long enough to truly appreciate how far the Aggies have come in just two seasons under coach Billy Gillispie.
Texas A&M got off to a 7-4 start against a fairly easy nonconference schedule in Law’s freshman season, then went 0-16 in the Big 12 before capping their fifth season with single-digit victories in eight years with yet another loss in the conference tournament.
Law considered transferring after former coach Melvin Watkins left, particularly when Gillispie arrived with a grueling practice routine and relentlessly pushed his players to try to reach their potential.
“It was tough on all of us. Nobody on the team had experienced anything like it before in our lives,” Law said. “All he talked about was defense and how it was going to win games. You heard it before, but nobody really believed it. As time went on, we bought into it.”
An assistant under Bill Self for five seasons at Tulsa and Illinois before taking his first college head coaching job at Texas-El Paso in 2002, Gillispie had a good idea of what it would take to turn the Aggies around.
UTEP won six games in his first season there, then went 24-8 and made the NCAA tournament the following year.
Gillispie challenged the Aggies on and off the floor.
“You had to change the way they did everything just a little bit,” he said. “It wasn’t a great change, but a little bit different in every direction.”
It helped that the adjustments produced immediate results on the floor. The Aggies went from seven victories in their last season under Watkins to 8-8 in the Big 12 and 21-10 overall a year ago.
Senior Chris Walker feels what the team has accomplished this season, finishing fourth in the Big 12 and knocking off No. 5 seed Syracuse in the program’s first NCAA appearance since 1987, is a natural progression.
The Aggies indeed win with defense, allowing 60.4 points per game, second best in school history
“This is the second year this group has been together. We’re really confident playing together, we believe in ourselves, we believe in the coaches and what they put before us,” Walker said. “We don’t play a very pretty game. It’s ugly. But that’s what we like.”
LSU (24-8), and Davis in particular, figures to test the Aggies’ ability to dictate the tempo with their defense.
Davis shrugged off a slow start to score 22 points and finished with 13 rebounds and six blocks in the fourth-seeded Tigers’ first-round victory over Iona. But Gillispie cautioned that LSU is more than the 6-foot-9, 310-pound Southeastern Conference player of the year.
“They probably have more guys that you have to guard than any team we’ve played,” the coach said.
Still, the Aggies know how well 6-foot-9, 250-pound Joseph Jones is able to defend Davis will go a long way toward determining the outcome Saturday against the regular season SEC champions.
“You can’t stop a big guy like that. You just have to hope he doesn’t totally destroy you,” Gillispie said. “If you do too much, and send too many guys his way, he is a great passer. He just knows how to put the ball in the basket and make everyone better.”
Davis has drawn comparisons to another big man who once played for LSU, Shaquille O’Neal.
While he’s flattered by the attention, he doesn’t like the analogies.
“It’s always good to be compared to the big guy. But you know, I want my own foot in immortality. I want to be Big Baby for the rest of my life, not Baby Shaq or Shaquille or whatever,” Davis said.
“I just want to have my own stamp. I want little kids to say: Hey, that’s Big Baby.’ … I’m my own guy. I got my own twist, my own flavor, kinda a like a little gumbo. You know something about that? Yeah, I got all kind of crabs and shrimp and turkey meat and spices. I got a good twist.”