Texas A&M took a huge step in its remarkable turnaround last season, advancing to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 19 years.
Saddled with increased expectations, the 13th-ranked Aggies begin trying to meet them when they host Prairie View A&M in their season opener Friday night.
Three years ago, the Aggies finished winless in Big 12 play. Billy Gillispie took over as coach after that and in the next two seasons, Texas A&M won 43 combined games and earned NIT and NCAA bids in back-to-back years.
Last season, the Aggies (22-9) went to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1987, upset fifth-seeded Syracuse 66-58 in the first round—the school’s first NCAA win since 1980—and nearly beat fourth-seeded LSU, losing 58-57 on a last-second 3-pointer to a team that advanced to the Final Four.
Picked to finished second in the conference this season—and ranked for the first time in nearly 26 years—it’s safe to say that no one’s taking the Aggies lightly anymore.
“People are excited about our basketball program and our team in particular,” said Gillispie, named Big 12 coach of the year the last two seasons. “It has been fun to watch that. It has been fun for me as a coach to see how our players react to the buzz. 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.”
Texas A&M is ranked in the preseason poll for only the third time in school history, and is ranked for the first time since it was 11th on Dec. 30, 1980.
Among four starters Texas A&M returns are guard Acie Law IV and center Joseph Jones, who combine to form an inside-outside combination that averaged 31.0 points per game last season.
Bigger things are expected from the duo, just like the rest of the team. Both were chosen for the preseason All-Big 12 team.
“We just have to handle it the right way and just maintain focus,” said Law, who averaged 16.1 points and 4.0 assists. “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. If we’re able to maintain our work ethic everything will be fine for us.”
Law and forward Marlon Pompey are seniors while Jones and Dominique Kirk, the fourth returning starter, are juniors, giving Texas A&M a core of players who have experience and can teach the Aggies’ highly regarded recruiting class.
“This is the first year we have really had any older leadership—I mean, experienced leadership,” Gillispie said. “These guys were young and they were forced to do it at an early age. But now we have some guys that have been around for two or three years, and that experienced leadership is even better than any other kind.”
The Aggies were 12-3 against nonconference teams in 2005-06 and are 33-5 at home in Gillispie’s two seasons. They’ve won all seven meetings with Prairie View.
New coach Byron Rimm II will attempt to turn around a program that was picked to finish last in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Rimm was an assistant for the Panthers (5-24) last season. Prairie View won the SWAC regular season title in 2002-03, but has only 18 wins over the last three seasons.
The Panthers ranked last among 334 Division I teams in the RPI last season.