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Remade in Texas

Coach Billy Gillispie and point guard Acie Law IV--Lone Star State natives both--have transformed former hoops doormat Texas A&M into a rugged, clutch-shooting outfit that's never out of any game

Texas A&Mcoach Billy Gillispie doesn't know if the proper term is imbalanced, unbalancedor out-of-balance, but he is sure he is one of them, if not all three. He is47, divorced, with no kids, no dog and no food in the fridge--meaning there'snothing to distract him from his primary passion: Aggies basketball. A TVcamera crew visited his house for a Selection Sunday show three Marches ago andfound a Christmas tree still standing in his living room. Yes, Gillispie knowshe needs to get a life. But right now he really needs to watch 15 game tapes ofhis next opponent. "It's overkill," he admits from behind his desk,which is lined with videos. "Three or four tapes would probably accomplishthe same thing. But I really enjoy watching basketball."

There's nodisputing the results of his single-mindedness. Three years after orchestratingone of the most dramatic turnarounds in NCAA history at UTEP--the Minersimproved from 6--24 to 24--8 in his second season--Gillispie has done asimilarly drastic makeover in College Station, transforming a Big 12 doormatthat went 0--16 in conference play three years ago into the seventh-ranked teamin the country. Despite a few heartbreaking defeats, including a 98--96 loss indouble overtime at No. 15 Texas on Feb. 28, the Aggies (25--5, 13--3) haveemerged from the regular season perfectly sculpted to throw their weight aroundin March. "They have big, strong post players, they surround them withshooters, and they have a point guard who knows what to do when the game's onthe line," says Texas coach Rick Barnes. "You know what they're goingto do, but they still get it done."

That go-to pointguard is senior Acie Law IV, a player of the year candidate who believes thesecret to the Aggies' success is simple. "We're not the most talentedteam," he says, "but we're capable of beating anybody because we playso hard."

The onceindifferent fans of football-centric Aggieland have taken notice, flocking to12,500-seat Reed Arena in unprecedented numbers this year. Six of A&M'shome dates sold out, and so many students wanted to attend games that theschool had to implement a lottery system. "Three years ago nobody noticedus," says Law. "Now people want our autographs; they want pictures ofus with their babies. We're suddenly like rock stars here."

What makesA&M's offensive attack so efficient is its balance and execution. SaysKansas coach Bill Self, "It's not that their screens are so hard to guard;it's the way they go knock your block off to set them." The post scoring ofjunior forward Joseph Jones and senior center Antanas Kavaliauskas makes theAggies "the best team in our league at going inside," according toTexas Tech coach Bob Knight. Those two can also kick the ball out to Law,junior Dominique Kirk or sophomore sharpshooter Josh Carter, whose 51.9%accuracy from beyond the arc led the country at week's end.

Playing man-to-manalmost exclusively, A&M ranked second in the nation in defensive field goalpercentage (36.9) through Sunday, and its 58.6 points allowed was 14th. Still,fourth-year athletic director Bill Byrne, who hired Gillispie in March 2004because of his Texas recruiting base and his D-first philosophy, is somewhatsurprised that Gillispie has succeeded so quickly in a place with so littlebasketball tradition. "He has done the hardest thing there is to do insports," says Byrne. "He has changed the culture from one of losing toone where we expect to win. He has brought us swagger."

That's largely dueto Gillispie's all-consuming dedication to hoops. "He hardly missesanything that's happening on the court," says Aggies assistant AlvinBrooks. "One of our guys calls him Rainman. He can see it all soclearly." In addition to those 15 tapes of each opponent, Gillispie watchesfootage of every A&M game and practice, looking for any opportunity to gethis players better shots. "Everything we do here is Coach's idea,"Gillispie says, referring to his mentor, Self. That includes a preseason"boot camp"--two weeks of twice-daily, high-intensity conditioningsessions--which is so extreme that a reporter who watched one session afterGillispie had barred him from participating began his story, "BillyGillispie saved my life."

Practices are onlyslightly less draining. Gillispie demands a lot even from his sevennonscholarship players, who expand his roster to an unheard-of 20 guys, 18 ofwhom are from Texas. (Gillispie just signed the top-rated player in stateaccording to Rivals.com, 7-foot center DeAndre Jordan out of Houston.)"Between the lines Coach never lets up," says Josh Johnston, a walk-onwho followed Gillispie from El Paso. "But off the court he would doanything for you. When I was at UTEP, my sister got sick in the middle of theseason. He told me, 'We'll put you on a plane right now.' We're hisfamily."

Gillispie oftenchokes up when discussing how hard his players work. "He's veryemotional," says Law, "and he loves us so much. That's one thing thatmotivates us to get through his workouts."

Law, an honorablemention All-America at Kimball High in Dallas, didn't feel a lot of love fromor for Gillispie when he replaced Melvin Watkins at College Station. The newcoach rode the quiet sophomore so hard--badgering him in particular about hisneed to be more vocal--that Law would have quit the team had his parents lethim. Now he sees Gillispie's demands as a blessing. "Coach G has taught meso much, especially about being a leader," says Law, who led the team with18.2 points and 5.4 assists a game at week's end. "No way I'd be the kindof player I am without him."

A lefty who canshoot with either hand from within 12 feet, Law has blossomed into a topplaymaker with a knack for nailing huge shots during critical moments. In thelast four minutes of conference games he has averaged 6.9 points while hitting65.9% from the field, 72.7% from outside the arc and 84.2% from the free throwline. Against Texas, Law sent the game into overtime twice by hitting latethrees. "When you have an elite player who is the biggest overachiever onyour team, you have something special," says Gillispie. "And we have alot of competition on this team for biggest overachiever."

Count Gillispieamong the candidates. He grew up in Graford (pop. 578), a tiny hoops oasis 65miles northwest of Fort Worth. "We were like an Indiana town," saysGillispie, who played point guard at Graford High. "Nobody in that statecould possibly love basketball more than we did." Every kid had a key tothe local gym, and a disproportionate number of them grew up to be basketballcoaches. Among them are Gillispie's youngest sister, Jerry Hoffman, who tookAustin's Crockett High to the 3A state title game last week, and his childhoodpal Samantha Morrow, who has won four 5A titles at Mansfield High. "If itweren't for Bill Self, I'd be a happy high school coach too," saysGillispie.

It was Self--now aBig 12 rival--who gave Gillispie his big break in 1997. After taking over atTulsa, Self asked people he respected to name the best recruiter in Texas."They all said, 'Billy Clyde Gillispie at Baylor,'" he recalls.Gillispie was a third-year assistant who had served on staffs at Sam HoustonState and Texas State and coached for nine years in the Texas high school andjunior college ranks. "He got wind that I was asking about him, and calledme," Self says. "I hired him over the phone. I said, 'Do you need tocome visit?' He said, 'No, we have work to do.'"

In his five yearson Self's staffs at Tulsa and then Illinois, Gillispie distinguished himself asan irrepressible prankster--he had a friend pose as an official threatening tobust fellow assistant Norm Roberts for illegal trash dumping--as well as anextremely thorough scout. "He'd get up in front of the team and say, 'JimmyJones: His uncle was a track star in Arlington, his grandmother was a greatshooter on the 1943 team,'" recalls Roberts, who is now the coach at St.John's. "And the kids would be wondering, Why are you talking about hisgrandma? But it would all be related to the point that this guy canplay."

Moreover,Gillispie absorbed Self's emphasis on playing hard, playing smart and playingtogether so well that when Gillispie's team went into Allen Fieldhouse on Feb.3, it overcame an 11-point second-half deficit to beat Self's then sixth-rankedJayhawks for the first time, 69--66. Law scored 15 points in the second half,including--of course--the last five points of the game on a three-pointer andtwo free throws.

That night therest of the country learned what Self already knew: Don't ever count outGillispie and the Aggies. Between the lines they never let up.

EXTRA

Dance Cards

Everything you need leading up to Selection Sunday,including Seth Davis's Hoop Thoughts and Stewart Mandel's Road to theTournament.

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Texas A&M's Two-step

Thanks to another top-notch recruiter with in-stateroots, the Aggies women have made a dramatic turnaround of their own

WHEN BILL BYRNE took over as the Texas A&M athleticdirector in January 2003, he found not one but two basketball programs in direneed of an overhaul. The women hadn't won more than five Big 12 games in aseason in seven years and hadn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1996. Crowdsat Reed Arena numbered in the hundreds. "Somehow," says Byrne,"they had managed to be just as bad as the men."

Enter Gary Blair, a folksy 57-year-old who had rebuiltwomen's programs at Stephen F. Austin and Arkansas, taking the latter to theFinal Four in 1998. Hired in 2003, he had many of the same qualities that Byrnewould find in men's coach Billy Gillispie a year later. Blair was a tirelessrecruiter with Texas roots--at Dallas's South Oak Cliff High, from 1973 to '80,he led the girls' team to three 4A titles--a steadfast believer in defense and,says Byrne, "He could flat-out coach."

Those attributes have resulted in success thatparallels the men's. After going 2--14 in the Big 12 in Blair's first year,Texas A&M earned a share of its first conference title, finishing theregular season 13--3 (23--5 overall), including sweeps of No. 12 Oklahoma andNo. 16 Baylor. Attendance has increased to more than 4,200 a game thanks toBlair's promotional efforts: In his first season he talked to every civic groupin College Station and went door-to-door giving away tickets; this year he hashosted Grey's Anatomy watch parties at the local Outback Steakhouse.

"The other teams winning the major conferences havea lot of Parade All-Americas, and we don't," says Blair, who was named theBig 12 coach of the year. "I think that's the fun part of coaching, whenyou can take a good kid and turn her into a very good kid, and turn a bunch ofvery good kids into perhaps a great team."

By selling the opportunity to play right away, Blairhas drawn a flock of good players. Among them are 5'10" junior wingMorenike Atunrase, the 2004--05 conference freshman of the year, who wasaveraging 11.1 points at week's end despite nagging ankle and foot injuries; LaToya Micheaux, a 6'3" sophomore center whose dad, Larry, was a member ofHouston's Phi Slamma Jamma teams of the 1980s; and 5'8" sophomore guardTakia Starks, a cousin of former Knicks guard John Starks, who leads the teamwith 14.2 points a game and who, along with 5'3" junior A'QuonesiaFranklin, makes up the Big 12's best backcourt.

All have bought into Blair's philosophy that goodthings come from withering defensive pressure. "Basically, we try not tolet [the person we're guarding] catch the ball," says Micheaux, one of nineTexans on the team. "If she doesn't touch it, she can't score."

Thus the Aggies hold opponents to 53.7 points a game,the best in the conference and ninth in the nation--better, even, than No. 3North Carolina, another quick and athletic team with which they are oftencompared. "Their defensive intensity is at a different level than mostteams you face," says Nebraska coach Connie Yori.

Starks believes the Aggies aren't finished achievingfirsts. "We can go to the Sweet 16, even the Final Four," she says."We came up faster than people expected because our coaches kept tellingus, 'You can win a championship; you can do anything.' Now we believe them.

"Three years ago nobody noticed us," says Law."We're suddenly like ROCK STARS."

TWO PHOTOS

Greg Nelson

 NO ONE'SABOVE THE LAW

The Aggies' lefty playmaker has a flair for finishing, especially when itmatters most.

PHOTO

Greg Nelson

 INSIDEJOB

A&M's second-leading scorer, with 13.4 points per game, Jones lends muscleat 6'9" and 250 pounds.

PHOTO

PETER AIKEN/WIREIMAGE.COM

 FAMILYTHREES

Like her cousin, the former Knick, Starks is a deadly deepthreat.