LSU’s Powerful Frontline Carries Them To A Final Four

Louisiana State has had mostly a rough go of it on the basketball court since the end of Dale Brown’s tenure in the late 1990s. But they’ve had one memorable March run since then—the 2006 LSU basketball team is obscured historically by the magic of George Mason that same year and by conference rival Florida who ultimately won it all. But LSU’s own Final Four trip in 2006 was fraught with some magic, beating the top two seeds in their region to get to Indianapolis.

John Brady had taken over the program as head coach after Brown finished his career in 1997 on a dour note, with four straight losing seasons. Brady mostly struggled himself and 2006 was only his fourth NCAA Tournament trip in nearly a decade at the helm. But he had an incredibly talented front line and a quality veteran point guard, a combination that makes a team very difficult to match up with in March.

Glen “Big Baby” Davis was the focal point of the team. The bulky 6’9” sophomore averaged 19 points/10 rebounds per game and won SEC Player of the Year. Tasmin Mitchell, a 6’7” sophomore averaged 12/6. And 6’9” freshman Tyrus Thomas had a long wingspan that enabled him to block three shots per game, and averaged 12/9. It was a perfect balance of physicality, athleticism and depth that gave the Tigers a terrific inside presence in an age when most college basketball teams can’t match up down low.

Darrell Mitchell was the quarterback. The 5’11” senior not only ably ran the floor, but he knocked down 17ppg and was a respectable three-point shooter. Because of his size, he had no NBA future ahead of him, but Mitchell is the kind of player any good college team needs—especially in March.

LSU went 23-8 and earned a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament. They beat Iona and then barely survived future conference rival Texas A&M, the 12-seed. A defense-oriented game was saved first by Big Baby going for 21/8 to keep his team in the game. Trailing 57-55, Mitchell came through and drilled a trey with four seconds left. The Tigers were going to the regionals.

Much of America was now on LSU’s side, because the opponent was Duke. The Blue Devils had National Player of the Year J.J. Redick, who was as hated as any Duke player this side of Christian Laettner. Redick was the National Player of the Year and looking to close his career with a national championship.

The LSU defense shut him down. Redick struggled to 3-for-18. While Davis had a rough night himself, the other two members of the frontline came through. Thomas had 13 rebounds while Mitchell had 10. And the team defense forced Duke as a whole into a 27 percent shooting performance. The Tigers kept the game in control and won 62-54.

Having beaten the 1-seed, LSU now had to deal with the 2-seed in Texas. The Longhorns were extremely talented, with All-American guard P.J. Tucker and a future NBA star in sophomore LaMarcus Aldridge. Another guard, Daniel Gibson, would hang around the NBA for seven years as a rotation player in Cleveland with the contending teams of LeBron James’ first go-round with the Cavs.

Big Baby got back on track with 26 points. The LSU defense was tough, holding Texas to 30 percent shooting. But Thomas was the story of the game. He scored 21 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked three shots. The game went to overtime, but LSU took it over in the extra session with a 70-60 win. Thomas was named Outstanding Player of the regional and the Tigers were making their first Final Four trip since 1986.

2006 was a year the NCAA Tournament was gutted, with no 1-seeds making the Final Four for the first time in history. I remember being so impressed with the quality of LSU’s frontline that I believed they would win the national championship. Didn’t happen. They played poorly in a 59-45 loss to UCLA in the prime-time Saturday semifinal. It denied the SEC a chance to get an LSU-Florida title game right on the Big Ten’s home turf of Indianapolis.

Davis chose to go pro that spring and was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics (today’s Oklahoma City Thunder) and was immediately traded to Boston in a deal that included Ray Allen. Davis averaged 14 minutes per game and got a ring with the 2008 Celtics. He continued to be a valuable and popular rotation player in Boston on another NBA Finals team in 2010. He remains in the league today, obviously well-liked by Doc Rivers, who brought Big Baby to the Clippers.

Thomas has also continued to hang around the NBA and has had his moments as a respectable scorer and rebounder off the bench, with Chicago for a few years and later with Charlotte.

Brady wasn’t able to build on the magic of 2006. LSU slipped to 17-15 the following year and after an 8-13 start in 2008, he was fired. The program as a whole has only made two NCAA Tournaments since. There is hope that this Selection Sunday might be different as the team is still alive in the semis of the SEC Tournament at this writing, but most projections say there is still work to do.

No matter the struggles before or after. No matter the problems the program has had replicating Brown’s success of the 1980s, LSU basketball experienced a special time in March of 2006.