- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- You should see how these Texas A&M Aggies are strutting around. See how much they love playing for one of the more passionate schools in the country.
They love being basketball players on campus. That's right: basketball players. Here. At Texas A&M.
And why shouldn't they? The Aggies are finally the Big Men on Campus after finishing 8-8 in the Big 12 last season, winning 21 games overall and reaching the third-round of the Postseason NIT.
Huh? We know, on most campuses, this wouldn't be cause for celebration. If this were equated to a 6-5 football record, the attitude here would hardly be similar. But this is men's basketball, where the last NCAA Tournament berth was 1987, the previous NIT berth was in 1994, the overall Big 12 tournament record is a woeful 0-9, and the season before second-year coach Billy Gillispie arrived, the Aggies were 0-16 in conference play.
"Two years ago, we were like normal students walking around here where nobody noticed you," junior guard Acie Law said. "You didn't want anybody saying anything to you. We didn't want to talk about it."
Now, the Aggie hoops gear isn't in hiding. The players don't mind wearing it with pride.
"Students actually recognized who you are and respect you now," senior guard Chris Walker said. "A year ago, they didn't respect you and didn't care about you."
Sophomore Joseph Jones said it was even more disheartening than a lack of respect. There were broken promises.
"When I first got here, there was no buzz," Jones said. "I would have people say, 'What's your number so I can support you?' But they would never come. If they say that now, I believe they will."
They already have, in record numbers.
The Aggies sold out four Big 12 games last season, third most in the league, and students gobbled up 8,000 out of the 12,500 tickets for the Oklahoma game. Texas A&M usually holds open 4,000 tickets for students.
The Aggies held their Midnight Madness in conjunction with yell practice, a football tradition the night before a home game. The crowd at Kyle Field, where they put down a Sport Court, was estimated at a national-record 25,307 fans.
"I don't think you could find a place that is as excited about an 8-8 [conference] season and an NIT berth," Gillispie said. "Those are good things, but that's not what we're shooting for."
You wouldn't know it the way Gillispie is treated around town. He could be mayor here. Walk into Rudy's Barbeque with the magic man and he's immediately beloved. When he first got here, after guiding UTEP from six wins to 24, he spent countless hours just walking around campus meeting students. Associate media relations director Colin Killian often couldn't find Gillispie the first few weeks he was on the job, until someone told Killian he was on campus just meeting and greeting.
Since then, he has changed the attitude and perception of the program -- so much so that the Aggies are committed to building a $2 million basketball office and locker-room facility within Reed Arena.
Killian isn't so sure that would have occurred prior to last year. But who would have thought that A&M could beat Texas last January, let alone be a few possessions away from taking out Kansas in the Big 12 opener in Lawrence?
The Aggies played a soft schedule last season, winning the first 10 at home (with Houston being, by far, the biggest name) and playing the 11th (A&M's only nonconference road game) at Big Ten laggard Penn State, where the Aggies had to rally from 17 down to win by two. Yet the Kansas loss, the first of the season, was only by five and the Texas win, a week later, was by 11.
"That win gave us hope," Gillispie said. "We had played, in most people's mind, a questionable schedule. We had a losing streak (18 straight in the Big 12). To get that win got us over the hump. It gave us confidence in each other."
The Aggies were within striking distance of an NCAA berth at the end of the season, but the nonconference schedule hurt A&M's power rating and losing to Kansas State in their Big 12 tournament opener game rendered the debate moot.
This season, the Aggies return having lost their best player, junior Antoine Wright, who declared for the NBA draft. Still, there is plenty of hope.
Jones is a potential All Big 12 player after averaging 12.7 points and 7.3 rebounds a game. He made 57.7 percent of his shots. During practice Thursday, Jones stood out with his ability to finish and his overall physical presence in the paint. Law averaged 12 points per game while dishing out 4.9 assists. To support those two, the Aggies should get help from junior Anatanas Kavalauskas, a transfer who has shooting touch but still, according to Gillispie, is learning how to play at this level.
Senior JC transfer guard Eddie Smith is trying to hang with the physical nature of Gillispie's frenetic practices, which has roughly 21 players on the court. Gillispie loves walk ons and doesn't mind seeing them run as much as his scholarship players. Walker, who went from a regular student to walk-on to starting 26 games, is out for another month after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. But his spirit is all over practice as he hardly keeps his voice down.
Not practicing yet is Texas A&M tight end (and de facto power forward) Martellus Bennett, who declared for the NBA draft but came back to school. He might be a beast inside once the Big 12 hits. He's from Houston, giving the Aggies three players from the greater Houston area. The Aggies, according to Killian, only had had four Houston players in the past 15 years.
The schedule is similar to a year ago, with the Aggies playing a total of 18 home games, including the first nine in College Station. One of those is technically a road game when they play Tulane, which is staying here for the first semester because of Hurricane Katrina. Proceeds from the game will go to help pay for Tulane's costs at Texas A&M. Rebuilding Auburn and Penn State come calling, but the rest is low-major. The one road game is at Pacific.
Gillispie said he found it was harder to get teams to commit to a straight home-and-home, with high-major teams instead wanting to play a game in Houston or Dallas, where they recruit. He wanted a big-time road game and a neutral site game. He ended up picking a difficult test at Pacific, a school that traditionally causes fits for teams but isn't nationally recognized enough. The conference schedule does have five nationally televised games on the ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 family of networks, a number that is unheard of at Texas A&M, according to Killian.
"We could go into January with people not knowing about our team based on who we've played," Gillispie said. "But we won't get through this schedule unscathed like last year."
No one claims that previous coaches Tony Barone and Melvin Watkins fit here. Aggies staffers who endured the losing say both worked hard but couldn't find the right groove, especially in the state. Gillispie hired former Houston coach Alvin Brooks, who has many ties in Texas and has been a strong addition to the staff.
Gillispie, a Texan who went to Texas State, recruited this state well during his time with Bill Self at Tulsa and Illinois, and prior to that at Baylor, as well as at other stops in the Texas high school and junior college systems.
He was hired at UTEP on Nov. 2, 2002, when Jason Rabideaux quit. He had to coach an exhibition game a week later. His team won only six games, but he recruited Filiberto Rivera and Omar Thomas. A season later, he won 24 games and got the storied program back to the NCAA Tournament. A few days later, he left for College Station to replace Watkins.
"I've been on a magic carpet ride for two years now," Gillispie said. "We got here and we could build around Antoine Wright, Joe Jones and Acie Law. We've been real lucky. It's been fun, fast and furious. It's also been physically exhausting that I took on another project two or three days after we lost in the [NCAA] Tournament. So, I could never enjoy it."
Even though he doesn't show it during practice, he is giddy about the turnaround here in such a short time.
"I'm not bragging, but no coaching staff has done this back-to-back years, because nobody is stupid enough to take on two rebuilding projects," Gillispie said. "I'm not taking on any more projects, man. We're in the midst of trying to get this one done."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.