The LSU basketball team did its best to lift the spirits of a hurricane-ravaged state
A landscape of devastation surrounded the Louisiana State basketball team’s season-opening practice in October of 2005. Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,800 people and destroyed millions of dollars of infrastructure two months earlier, and the majority of losses were in Louisiana.
If ever a state needed a feel-good story, this was it. And in their small way, the LSU players provided it, eventually winning the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and reaching the 2006 Final Four in Indianapolis.
How unexpected was all of this?
Well, the program had made it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament just once in the past 14 years, and coach John Brady had taken the program to just three NCAA appearances in his eight prior seasons since being hired in 1997. One of those three, in 2000, had led to a Sweet 16 appearance behind do-it-all Stromile Swift.
But prior to 2000, the LSU program hadn’t advanced past the NCAA first round since 1992, when Dale Brown was coach and Shaquille O’Neal controlled the paint.
After the legendary Brown retired as coach in 1997, then-LSU athletics director Joe Dean reportedly offered the job to Iowa State’s Tim Floyd, who wound up taking the NBA Chicago Bulls’ position instead. Dean also talked to Texas Tech’s James Dickey, Ole Miss’ Rob Evans and Oregon’s Jerry Green. Nothing was a fit.
Then his son, then-SEC color analyst Joe Dean Jr., called from Birmingham, Alabama, to recommend Samford University’s John Brady. He had all the qualifications, including having beaten Brown’s LSU squad in Baton Rouge the season before. Dean already had Brady’s resume, and later said he immediately felt comfortable with Brady, a McComb, Mississippi, native who had also won coach-of-the-year honors at Crowley (Louisiana) High School early in his career.
It would take some in the LSU fan base a while longer to feel that comfort, wondering aloud why a bigger name wasn’t lured to Baton Rouge. And it wasn’t easy for Brady, who shortly after arriving saw LSU put on probation for the previous staff’s recruitment of high school star Lester Earl.
The early struggles would eventually prove worth it for Brady, now the LSU radio network’s color commentator.
Brady tells a hilarious story about his first meeting with the eight players he inherited from Brown’s final team, which had finished 10-20 overall and 3-13 in the SEC in 1997-98. He really wanted to lay down the law, show them a new sheriff was in town. So he told them that going to class and attending study hall, among other things, would be mandatory. It was Brady’s way or the highway. He went around the room asking each player if he thought he belonged at LSU. If a player hesitated, said he didn’t know or even looked at Brady funny, Brady told the kid he was done.
After telling one player he didn’t deserve to wear the LSU shorts he had on, the player dropped them and left the room in his boxer briefs.
Only four players remained, according to Chris Dortch’s String Music: Inside the Rise of SEC Basketball. “Coach, now what do we do?” Brady said to his top assistant Kermit Davis, now the Ole Miss coach. Davis replied, “John, maybe we shouldn’t have any more meetings.”
So, this was the challenge. But with the recruitment of players like Swift and Ronald Dupree, Brady built a team good enough to reach the NCAA Tournament and advance.
But only one winning SEC season in the past five preceded the 2005-06 season and some weren’t happy with the program’s stagnation. And despite the presence of good players like Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Darrel Mitchell and Tyrus Thomas, there was absolutely no clue 2006 would be a breakout season. In fact, LSU entered conference play in January with an 8-5 out-of-conference record, having lost to Houston, Northern Iowa, Cincinnati, Ohio State and Connecticut.
But then it turned. LSU won its first seven league games. By the time the regular season ended, the Tigers stood atop the league standings at 14-2. And despite an SEC Tournament semifinal loss to Florida, the Tigers received a No. 4 seed to the NCAA Tournament.
Ironically, Brady’s squad nearly didn’t make it out of the opening two rounds in Jacksonville, Florida. It trailed 13th-seed Iona by five points at halftime before getting on the fast track for an 80-64 win. And then came the real scare — a heart-stopping second-round finish against 12th-seed Texas A&M.
The Aggies had already upset Syracuse two days earlier and were playing their best ball of the season. So when LSU blew a 7-point lead with 3 1/2 minutes remaining, Tiger fans were sweating profusely with their team behind by two and less than 10 seconds remaining. That’s when the 5-foot-11 Mitchell, LSU’s lone senior, drilled a long 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining to give the Tigers a 58-57 victory.
“When he let it go, I felt confident it was going in,” Brady said afterward in the press conference. “I call him the silent assassin, because he doesn’t say much, but when it’s time to deliver he can do that.”
It was on to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and the Sweet 16, where one of the sweetest victories Tiger fans will ever remember took place. Brady and his Tigers beat Mike Krzyzewski and No. 1 seed Duke 62-54. A stifling LSU defense held the blue-blood Blue Devils to 33 percent shooting and blocked nine of their shots. Five of those blocks were by Thomas, a local product who grew up in the shadows of the LSU campus. Thomas would be drafted fourth overall a few months later by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, but first he added 13 rebounds and scored 9 points this night as he held his own battling Duke’s future NBA player, Shelden Williams.
LSU freshman Garrett Temple held Duke hotshot guard J.J. Redick to 3-of-18 shooting and a red-eyed Redick faced the media after perhaps the worst game of his college career. Duke’s 32-win season was finished.
“It feels good, but it’s over,” the Tigers’ Davis said. “There’s another task at hand.”
Indeed. One game remained between LSU and the program’s second-ever trip to the Final Four (the first being 1986). The Tigers still had to get past No. 2 seed Texas in the Atlanta Regional championship. And they did, winning 70-60 in overtime.
Again LSU’s defense dominated, holding the Longhorns to 30 percent shooting. If it wasn’t for Texas’ 10 made 3-pointers, it wouldn’t have been so close. The big Tigers had a great day—Davis had 26 points and 9 rebounds while Thomas added 21 points and 13 rebounds. The SportsCenter moment came during overtime when the 6’9”, 310-pound Davis, not usually a long-range shooter, nailed a 3-pointer from the top of the arc. “I called it without thinking,” Davis said.
But no one called this. Indianapolis and the Final Four was next for the regular-season SEC champions. Waiting on the Tigers were SEC foe Florida, which had handed them their last loss. Florida was matched against Cinderella story George Mason in one semifinal, while UCLA was LSU’s opponent.
And this is where the journey ended. UCLA had its own dominant defense, forcing LSU into one of its uglier offensive performances. The team made only 16 field goals and no 3-pointers. It made only 13-of-28 free throws. And Davis fouled out as the Bruins easily won the game 59-45, capitalizing on a 15-point halftime advantage and never looking back.
“They came out and punched us and we didn’t recover from it,” Davis said.
In the end, it was a season to remember for LSU fans and their recovering state. But the disappointment still stings, as it does for 60-plus teams per year in the NCAA Tournament.
“You know, the way the college basketball game is set up, unless you win it all, you always lose your last game,” Brady said. “It makes it difficult.” H&A
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