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
March 11, 2007

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.

ONLY AT SI.COM

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

TWO PHOTOSGreg Nelson NO ONE'SABOVE THE LAW
The Aggies' lefty playmaker has a flair for finishing, especially when itmatters most.
PHOTOGreg Nelson INSIDEJOB
A&M's second-leading scorer, with 13.4 points per game, Jones lends muscleat 6'9" and 250 pounds.
PHOTOPETER AIKEN/WIREIMAGE.COM FAMILYTHREES
Like her cousin, the former Knick, Starks is a deadly deepthreat.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)