LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Rick Pitino thinks having thousands of Louisville fans at Rupp Arena to watch the Cardinals play in the NCAA tournament is great.
Too bad none of them can guard Texas A&M star Acie Law.
Then again, it seems nobody else can, either.
The all-everything senior has become the Aggies’ unquestioned leader, equal parts psychologist and playmaker for a team three years removed from a 20-loss season.
Law’s shotmaking earned him the nickname “Captain Clutch” and his serene confidence is a constant source of comfort for his teammates—and even his coaches—when times get tough.
“I just like to tell my guys to keep a cool head and things will be fine,” Law said.
Things never have been better for Texas A&M (26-6) heading into Saturday’s second-round South Region game against Louisville (24-9). The Aggies have reached the tournament for the second straight year for the first time in school history, and finally are making basketball matter at a school long addicted to football.
It’s a transformation that wouldn’t have been possible without Law, who can be just as valuable with his voice as he is with his hands.
After the Aggies allowed Penn briefly to take the lead midway through the second half of their first-round matchup on Thursday, Law walked into the huddle during a timeout and told anyone who would listen not to worry, including coach Billy Gillispie.
Pitino, who was sitting behind the Texas A&M bench during the timeout, was impressed with the way Law took command.
“He immediately went to everybody on the team and said, ‘Relax, I’m taking over, it’s not going to happen,”’ Pitino said. “He just said, ‘I’m taking over the game.”’
Sure enough, with Law getting into the lane and creating good shots for his teammates, the Aggies pulled away down the stretch for a 68-52 win.
“When we get in a situation where we need to make a play, I need to assert myself,” Law said.
It’s a scene that has played out time and again for the Aggies this season— Law has made saving the day nearly routine. Law averaged 6.9 points in the final four minutes of Texas A&M’s Big 12 games, shooting 73 percent from 3-point range and 84 percent from the line when called on to close things out.
“Great players like him that have the ability to finish games like he has, they’re not afraid to miss,” Gillispie said. “His last shot does not affect his next shot.”
Law’s next shot will come against Louisville and freshman guards Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith.
Pitino has said all season—sometimes jokingly, sometimes not—that his freshmen still have no idea how to play defense, even as the Cardinals started to perfect the frenetic, full-court press that’s become the trademark of Pitino’s teams.
Louisville forced 21 turnovers in its opening round win over Stanford by trapping and pressing the Cardinal into poor decisions on its way to a surprisingly easy victory.
But the Cardinals know things will be different against Law and the Aggies, who start four upperclassmen.
“They don’t make mistakes, they try to get you to make mistakes,” Sosa said. “We are going to try and keep the ball out of Acie’s hands. We just want to keep the ball away from him and let someone else run the show.”
Yet the Cardinals know there’s more to the Aggies than Law. Guard Dominique Kirk scored 16 points in the win over Penn, and forward Joseph Jones added 14, including a pair of game-changing dunks midway through the second half.
“The game is not against Law,” said forward Terrence Williams. “We can’t just game plan for one person. … It’s going to be like a Frazier/Ali fight, going back and forth. It’s going to be like a ping-pong match.”
One that likely will be determined by which point guards are able to dictate the tempo and handle the other team’s pressure.
Pitino has worked all season to reign in the sometimes freewheeling Sosa, whose maturity has coincided with Louisville’s resurgence, though some of the swagger Sosa adopted while growing up in New York City remains.
While respectful of Law’s talent, he’s also eager to see how he stacks up against the player Pitino calls the top point guard in the nation.
“You want to go against the best, and he’s the best,” Sosa said. “That’s how you measure yourself.”