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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

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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.

Big 12 Predictions
1. Kansas (NCAA)
2. Texas A&M (NCAA)
3. Texas (NCAA)
4. Oklahoma State (NCAA)
5. Kansas State (NCAA)
6. Texas Tech (NIT)
7. Baylor (NIT)
8. Oklahoma (NIT)
9. Colorado
10. Missouri
11. Nebraska
12. Iowa State
• All-Big 12 Team

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.

New coaches include Oklahoma State's Sean Sutton, Oklahoma's Jeff Capel, Iowa State's Greg McDermott, Nebraska's Doc Sadler and Missouri's Mike Anderson.

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."

Rivals.com 2006-07 Big 12 Preview
Team on the rise: Texas A&M. It's hard to believe this team failed to win a conference game just three seasons ago. The Aggies return most of their nucleus from a team that reached the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time in two decades. Acie Law is arguably the conference's best point guard. Joseph Jones provides plenty of punch in the paint. Last year's trip to the Big Dance was a major surprise. This year, it would be a shock if the Aggies don't get invited.
Team on the decline: Colorado. The Buffaloes should savor that 20-10 record from last year, even if it didn't result in an NCAA Tournament appearance. It could mark the last 20-win season in Boulder. The Buffaloes have lame-duck coach Ricardo Patton working with one of the conference's least experienced teams. A return to the NIT this season would represent a major accomplishment.
Coach on the rise: Texas A&M's Billy Gillispie. This third-year coach has made basketball relevant at this football-crazy campus. The Aggies own a 43-19 record in Gillispie's two seasons, and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year. If the Aggies can keep Gillispie in College Station, they soon could emerge as one of the Big 12's top programs on a consistent basis.
Coach on the hot seat: Kansas' Bill Self. Ricardo Patton actually had this honor until recently, but the Colorado coach found his seat so hot that he already has decided to get off it at the end of the season. That leaves few other candidates in a conference that has six first-year coaches. Self isn't in any danger of losing his job, but those murmurs of disapproval could get much louder if the Jayhawks lose in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive year.
Best offensive player: Colorado G/F Richard Roby. His ability to drive into the lane and shoot from the perimeter helped Roby average 17 points per game last season. He now returns as the primary option for a team that doesn't have many other experienced players. That formula might not produce many wins for Colorado, but it could help Roby win the Big 12 scoring title.
Best 3-point shooter: Oklahoma G Michael Neal. This 6-foot-3 senior ranked second in the Big 12 last year in 3-point shooting percentage (.424) and 3-point baskets (3.22 per game). He shot 87-of-205 from beyond the arc and was particularly hot during a four-game stretch in which he went 26-of-45. He also set a Big 12 record last season with his 3-point shooting percentage of .495 in conference games.  
Best defensive player: Kansas G Mario Chalmers. He set a Big 12 freshman record with 89 steals last year and became the first freshman in conference history to lead the league in steals. Chalmers also ranked 14th in the nation with 2.7 steals per game. He collected at least three steals in 19 of his 33 games a year ago.
Best player you don't know yet: Texas Tech G Charles Burgess. Although he hasn't played a game in a Texas Tech uniform yet, Burgess could go a long way toward determining the Red Raiders' postseason fate. The 6-foot-1 guard was named the National Junior College Athletic Association player of the year last season after averaging 15.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game for Howard College. Burgess will have to make an immediate impact because senior guard Jarrius Jackson – the Big 12's leading scorer last year – has been suspended for academic reasons.
Deepest bench: Kansas. This would have been an easy choice before junior center Sasha Kaun suffered a preseason knee injury that will knock him out for three to six weeks. Kaun's injury leaves Kansas slightly thin in the frontcourt, but the Jayhawks still boast more talent than anyone else in the conference. The arrival of freshman point guard Sherron Collins boosts a backcourt that already featured Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers and swingman Brandon Rush. Freshman forward Darrell Arthur could immediately become one of the Big 12's most exciting players. And the frontcourt will get an additional boost at midseason when Kaun returns from his injury and C.J. Giles comes back from discipline problems. Giles returned to practice last week, but he won't play in games until after the first semester.
Impact newcomer:  Texas F Kevin Durant. Until Ohio State's Greg Oden returns from a wrist injury at midseason, Durant might have the greatest impact of any freshman in the nation. Rivals.com rated Durant behind only Oden in the 2006 recruiting class. The 6-9 swingman possesses a 7-5 wingspan that makes him dangerous on both ends of the floor. He combines shot-blocking ability on defense with legitimate 3-point range on offense. Durant averaged 23.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 3.0 steals and 2.6 blocks per game his senior year at Montrose Christian in Rockville, Md.
Freshman sleeper: Texas A&M G Derrick Roland. This 6-4 shooting guard should join former Seagoville (Texas) High teammate Donald Sloan in providing immediate help. We're giving the honor to Roland because he fits the definition of a "sleeper" as a three-star prospect, while Sloan was rated as a four-star prospect. 
News and notes: Having six new coaches in a conference doesn't happen very often, but it's not a record. The biggest coaching turnover at a conference in recent memory came in 2001, when the Atlantic 10 had seven coaching changes. … Texas Tech coach Bob Knight is 10 wins away from tying former North Carolina coach Dean Smith's all-time NCAA record. Knight owns an 869-350 record in 40 seasons of coaching at Army, Indiana and Texas Tech. … The Big 12 lost last year's leading scorer when Texas Tech's Jarrius Jackson was suspended for academic reasons. The Big 12 still returns last year's conference leaders in blocks (Baylor C Mamadou Diene), steals (Kansas G Mario Chalmers), field-goal percentage (Oklahoma State F Mario Boggan), free-throw percentage (Kansas State F/G Cartier Martin) and assist/turnover ratio (Colorado G Marcus Hall). … Oklahoma G Kellen Sampson spent two weeks in May and June working at an orphanage in Liberia. He joined a construction group that helped put together a school building. … The Big 12 has produced five Final Four teams – more than any other conference - in the last five years. … This year's Big 12 tournament is scheduled for March 8-11 in Oklahoma City. This marks the first time in conference history that the tournament hasn't taken place in Kansas City or Dallas.

• Rivals.com Preseason All-Big 12 Team



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