Two years after going winless in the Big 12 and finishing the season with a 17-game losing streak, Texas A&M (22-8) is in the second round of the NCAA Tournament after knocking off red-hot Syracuse Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.
Next up for the 12th-seeded Aggies in the Atlanta Regional is LSU (24-8) and Tigers star Glen ''Big Baby" Davis.
A tough assignment, but hardly anything coach Billy Gillispie and his players feel they're incapable of completing after posting the program's first tourney win since 1980. ''We have confidence we can beat anybody," said junior Acie Law, who has been in the program long enough to truly appreciate how far the Aggies have come.
Texas A&M got off to a 7-4 start in Law's freshman season, then went 0-16 in the Big 12. The guard considered transferring after former coach Melvin Watkins left, particularly when Gillispie arrived with a grueling practice routine and relentlessly pushed his players to try to reach their potential. ''It was tough on all of us. Nobody on the team had experienced anything like it before in our lives," Law said. ''All he talked about was defense and how it was going to win games. You heard it before, but nobody really believed it. As time went on, we bought into it."
LSU, and Davis in particular, figures to test the Aggies' ability to dictate the tempo with their defense.
Davis shrugged off a slow start to score 22 points and finished with 13 rebounds and six blocks in the fourth-seeded Tigers' first-round victory over Iona. But Gillispie cautioned that LSU is more than the 6-foot-9-inch, 310-pound SEC player of the year. ''You can't stop a big guy like that. You just have to hope he doesn't totally destroy you," Gillispie said. ''If you do too much, and send too many guys his way, he is a great passer. He just knows how to put the ball in the basket and make everyone better."
Davis has drawn comparisons to another big man who once played for LSU, Shaquille O'Neal. While he's flattered by the attention, he doesn't like the analogies. ''It's always good to be compared to the big guy. But, you know, I want my own foot in immortality. I want to be Big Baby for the rest of my life, not Baby Shaq or Shaquille or whatever," Davis said. ''I want little kids to say: 'Hey, that's Big Baby.' . . . I got my own twist, my own flavor, kind of like a little gumbo. Yeah, I got all kind of crabs and shrimp and turkey meat and spices. I got a good twist."
Mark Blaudschun of the Globe staff contributed to this report.