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November 5, 2006
Big 12 preview: Aggies begin to believe
Preseason Top 25
Preseason All-Big 12 team
The College Basketball Wire
Get the inside scoop on your favorite team:
Billy Gillispie notices the difference every time he strolls across campus or walks around town.
Texas A&M isn't just a football school anymore.
"People have really started to believe," the Aggies basketball coach said. "I'm talking about on campus. I am talking about in the community, and I am talking about all the Aggies everywhere. I think they are all really excited. I feel a real certain buzz everywhere you go. People are excited about our basketball program and our team in particular."
They have good reason to feel excited.
Texas A&M made its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1987 last year and advanced to the second round before losing a 58-57 squeaker to Final Four participant Louisiana State.
Rivals.com preseason second-team All-America guard Acie Law and junior forward Joseph Jones head a group of five returning starters from that team. That explains why Texas A&M is ranked 13th in the ESPN/USA Today poll, which represents the Aggies' first preseason ranking since 1980.
"We just have to handle it the right way and just maintain focus," Law said. "We can't let it get to our heads and get big heads. We have to continue to work hard every day and do what got us to this point."
Texas A&M's unfamiliar position in the top 25 reflects a season of change in the Big 12.
Texas forward Kevin Durant and Kansas forward Darrell Arthur headline an outstanding freshman class that should make an immediate impact.
Rivals.com rated Durant as the nation's No. 2 player in the 2006 recruiting class. Arthur collected 21 points, six rebounds, six steals and two blocks in 22 minutes of action during an exhibition victory over Division II school Washburn.
"(Durant) is the most talented player we've coached in terms of his ability to do so many different things," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "That's not putting pressure on him. It's just a fact."
The freshmen won't be the only newcomers this year. Half the Big 12 schools made coaching changes in the offseason.
But the most high-profile newcomer isn't really a fresh face at all.
Kansas State's Bob Huggins returns to coaching this season after a one-year absence. Huggins owns a 469-173 record in 21 seasons, and led Cincinnati to 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances before resigning under pressure.
Although Huggins' off-court problems bring plenty of adversity, the Wildcats are gambling he can turn around a program that hasn't reached the NCAA Tournament since 1996.
"We want to be able to compete successfully in this league," Huggins said. "And I think if you get to the point (that) you can compete successfully in this league, then you are going to be an NCAA Tournament team."
The new Big 12 coaches would love to match Gillispie's early success.
Gillispie inherited a Texas A&M program that failed to win a conference game two years ago. He took the Aggies to the NIT in his first season and followed that up with an NCAA bid last year.
Now the Aggies suddenly find themselves mentioned alongside Kansas and Texas as favorites to win the conference title.
"It has been fun for me as a coach to see how our players react to the buzz," Gillispie said. "And it has also been fun for me to see a lot of old Aggies out there all over the place that are really excited about basketball, maybe for the first time in a long, long time."