LEXINGTON, Ky. – For the Texas A&M Aggies, the action begins and often ends with All-American point guard Acie Law IV.
Heading into Saturday's second-round NCAA South Region matchup with Louisville, Law will be tested from start to finish by the Cardinals' version of shock and awe.
Louisville's full-court press made mincemeat of Stanford's shaky backcourt in a 78-58 first-round blowout, forcing an astounding 21 turnovers.
But Law and the third-seeded Aggies present a much tougher challenge for Rick Pitino's frenetic front. Pitino knows Law can change a game. The coach witnessed it first-hand Thursday with third-seeded Texas A&M trailing 39-37 against No. 14 Pennsylvania with about 13 minutes remaining.
"I was sitting right behind their bench watching the game when Penn was making a move," Pitino said. "He immediately went to everyone on the team and said, 'Relax, I'm taking over. It's not gonna happen.' Then he went to his coach and said the same thing. They went on a 7-0 run."
Pitino's recollection was more of a paraphrase than a direct quote, Law said. Regardless, the Aggies ran to a 68-52 win. Law's dribble penetration helped set up big man Joseph Jones for a pair of dunks during the run. Later, Law drove for a layup and knocked down a jumper to seal the deal. He finished with 20 points and three assists.
Law, now a senior, has plenty of experience with pressure. Some of the most intense came right on the A&M campus. Back in March 2004, a new hard-nosed coach named Billy Gillispie came to College Station, running practices that seemed more like basic training. A favorite drill, called "Boot Camp" involved all kinds of conditioning, but didn't include a basketball.
Law called his folks back home in Dallas wondering if he should stick around.
He's glad he did and so is Gillispie.
"Acie has really grown as a leader and that's the thing I'm most proud of," Gillispie said. "He's always been a good player. But he's turned into a fantastic leader. When your best player has that calmness, it really helps guys from getting rattled."
Law and the A&M program have continued to blossom under Gillispie. The team went 21-10, reaching the NIT, in 2004-05. Last season, they improved to 22-9, earning an NCAA berth. This season, the Aggies (26-6) reached the Big Dance in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. Law has had much to do with the rise.
His scoring and assists averages have improved from 12 and 4.9 in 2004-05 to 17.7 and 5.3 this season. His turnovers have decreased. He was named a first-team All-American and Big 12 player of the year as a senior, no easy task playing in the same league as Texas' Kevin Durant.
But most importantly, he's earned the trust and respect of his teammates.
"We have a lot of confidence in him," backcourt mate Dominique Kirk said "He's our leader, he's our captain. He's very clutch and we have his back."
Jones, a junior center, glowed about Law's game.
"He does a great job of getting everyone shots," Jones said. "When it's time to close the game, he does."
It's been a long journey from soft-spoken talent to vocal floor general for Law. But it's a role he now relishes.
"The guys have so much confidence in me to make a play," Law said. "I need to be more aggressive and assert myself and put pressure on the defense, then take whatever they give us."
What does Law expect Louisville to give? Relentless effort with their press.
"The biggest thing I saw on the film last night was they continue with it," Law said. "Usually a team will press you, but when you break the initial front, they tend to back off a little bit. Louisville continues to press you throughout the whole possession. You've got to always be under control and know what's going on."
Louisville sophomore swingman Terrence Williams and Pitino both called Law the best point guard in the country.
But basketball is played five-on-five, and the Cardinals (24-9) like this matchup, their chances and their ability to force the action at both ends of the court.
Gillispie expressed nothing but respect for Pitino and Louisville's personnel. But he believes Law can control the ball and hopefully the tempo Saturday.
"I'm not happy to be going against the press," Gillispie said. "But I'm happy that we have Acie Law."