It hasn’t taken Billy Gillispie long to make Texas A&M a top contender in the Big 12. Bob Huggins is hoping to do the same at Kansas State.
Gillispie and the 11th-ranked Aggies begin conference play Saturday when they host the Wildcats in Huggins’ first Big 12 game.
Texas A&M (12-2) reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1987 last season in Gillispie’s second season. The Aggies knocked off Syracuse before losing to LSU in the second round.
With most of the talent returning from that team, expectations are high in College Station. The Aggies were picked to finish second in the Big 12 behind No. 9 Kansas just three seasons after losing all 16 conference games.
“I think we have more options,” Gillispie said. “I think we have better players, a more complete roster, not totally complete, but more complete than we’ve had. Time will tell in the Big 12 because nobody lets you have anything.”
It’s the kind of turnaround that Huggins is hoping for at Kansas State (10-4). The former Cincinnati coach made the Bearcats a regular participant in the NCAA tournament, but the Wildcats haven’t been there since 1996.
Huggins chose to test his new team by playing eight of its first 14 games away from home. The Wildcats split those contests, including a 76-66 loss to Xavier on Wednesday in the coach’s return to Cincinnati.
“I asked Al McGuire one time when did he know that he had a great program at Marquette,” Huggins said. “He said when he could walk into any venue, when they could walk into any venue with no fear. We’re certainly not there yet.”
The Wildcats have been helped by the addition of forward Bill Walker, who’s averaged 13.2 points in five games. Walker, one of the most highly sought freshmen in school history, became eligible on Dec. 17.
“You’re adding one of the most imposing athletic guys in the whole country,” Gillispie said. “No matter how good you were before, you’re much better when you have a 6-foot-8 guy, a powerful explosive athlete that can finish plays and make baskets out on the floor.”
Walker turned in his worst effort of his brief college career Wednesday, scoring a season-low eight points on 4-of-14 shooting as Kansas State shot just over 40 percent.
“We have to play so hard and do things so well because we’re limited,” Huggins said. “The reality is we’re limited. We added Bill, which helps us. But we’re still very limited.”
Texas A&M enters with a 16-game home winning streak and has won 11 games this season at Reed Arena by double digits.
Sophomore guard Josh Carter has shot well during the Aggies’ current five-game winning streak. Carter is averaging 18.2 points in that span while making 24-of-38 3-pointers (63.2 percent).
The Wildcats have won seven of the last nine meetings with the Aggies, including a 58-54 home victory last season.