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September 29, 2006

Texas A&M developing new expectations

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Until this year, the only way to find Texas A&M and Final Four in the same sentence was to add the A&M yourself.

Now that folks in Aggieland have a taste of Billy Gillispie's magic, Final Four dreams aren't even enough to satisfy his players.

"I don't want to sound bold, but my goal is to win a national championship," point guard Acie Law IV told Rivals.com. "I know it sounds weird to hear that, but I'm just being honest."

Saying its weird is like calling Duke a dark horse.

Before last season, the Aggies hadn't won an NCAA Tournament game in more than a quarter of a century. Three seasons ago, the program hit rock bottom during Law's freshman year. The Aggies failed to win a game in Big 12 play.

That's when Gillispie came along. A year after directing the biggest one-year turnaround in the nation at UTEP, the coach matched the same feat in his first year in College Station. The Aggies went 8-8 in the Big 12 and won 21 games, 14 more than the previous season. It was their first winning season in 11 years.

The Aggies took another big step in Year Two of the Gillispie era, going 10-6 in league play and pulling off a 46-43 upset of then-No. 6 Texas one of the biggest wins in school history. That was good enough for an NCAA Tournament bid, and in the first round the Aggies upset Syracuse for their first win in the Big Dance since 1980. A&M nearly upset LSU in the next round, falling 58-57.

Every key player comes back from that squad, sparking the preseason hype surrounding the Aggies. Some big additions, including a five-man recruiting class that may be the best in school history, give Gillispie his deepest and most talented team yet.

It starts with Law (16.1 points per game last season) and junior power forward Joseph Jones (15.3 ppg), one of the nation's top inside-outside duos. Both were counselors at the Nike All-American and Jordan camps this past summer.

Law spent the rest of the summer at home in Dallas working with the same personal trainer that works with NBA star Chris Bosh. Jones and just about all the other players stayed on campus, playing in daily pick-up games.

"There is no limit to what we can do," Jones said. "Our future, our season depends on what we do if we come together and function as a team."

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Law, Jones and the rest of the returnees have already developed a chemistry with freshman center Chinemelu Elonu, who will add a new dimension. The 6-foot-10 Nigerian practiced with the team all of last season while he was redshirting and proved to be a dominating force on defense.

"He's going to be a big key for us," said Jones, whose had several of his shots swatted by his teammate. "He takes a lot of pride in blocking shots and there isn't a shot he can't get to or won't try to get to. He brings the one thing we really need."

The Aggies had a good defense last season without Elonu, allowing 60.3 points per game - tied for lowest in the Big 12. But the Aggies finished ninth in blocks (3.0 per game). Elonu, who goes by "junior," might average three blocks a game himself. His presence will also allow the guards to play more aggressively.

"We can pressure the ball a lot more now," Law said. "We know if we get beat he's got our back."

Law and Jones shouldn't feel as much pressure to carry the scoring load either. The Aggies, who failed to hit the 50-point mark three times last season, have several more scoring weapons.

Freshman shooting guards Donald Sloan and Derrick Roland, who were prep teammates at Seagoville (Texas) High, are both expected play significant minutes and provide an offensive lift. Sloan, who was ranked the No. 55 prospect in the class of 2006, has the strength to get into the lane and the explosiveness to finish once there. Roland, who was ranked No. 125, is more of a pure shooter with range well beyond the 3-point line.

"All coach (Gillispie) talked about last year was how (Sloan and Roland) were the two main people he wanted," Jones said. "They play really well together. They get out on the break and run a lot. They'll be offensive threats."

So will freshman power forward Bryan Davis from Grand Prairie, Texas. Law believes the energetic 6-foot-8, 225-pounder and former four-star recruit will make the biggest impact of all the newcomers.

"I think Bryan is going to shock a lot of people,' Law said. "He's very talented and always playing hard."

If the Aggies reach Law's lofty goals, they'll shock everyone in college basketball - from the fans to the media to their peers. Everyone expect themselves.

Andrew Skwara is the national college basketball writer for Rivals.com, and he files his national notebook every Thursday. Click here to send him a question or comment for his weekly mailbag.

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