It was five years ago today the LSU basketball program pulled off one the biggest, most significant victories in the program's history. A win that catapulted the Tigers into the national spotlight and proved that hoops could be just as thrilling and invigorating as football. With 27,000 rabid fans cheering inside the Georgia Dome and millions of others watching across the country … LSU toppled a legendary coach and one of the biggest stars in the history of college basketball all in one evening. And obviously what made this triumph oh-so-sweet was that no one saw it coming. Indeed, not many gave John Brady's Tigers much of chance against Duke's iconic sideline stalker Mike Krzyzewski or the ACC's all-time leading scorer in senior Blue Devil JJ Redick. The thought of Brady matching wits with "Coach K" alone seemed to be a disaster, something Brady himself even poked fun at before the opening tip off. "His resume seems to dwarf mine a tad," JB quipped. But on this March 23, 2006, it was former McKinley high school star and LSU freshman Tyrus Thomas breaking away from the Blue Devil pack for an emphatic dunk and an equally passionate scream. The rim-rocker sealed the deal. LSU was moving on to The Elite 8. Redick would weep and go home. Final score – LSU 62, Duke 54.
Former University High star and super sophomore Glen "Big Baby" Davis would then score 26 points, including a rare three-point shot in overtime, as the Tigers punched their first ticket to The Final Four in 20 years with a 70-60 win over Texas. As tremendous as beating the Longhorns was two days later, it was a bit anticlimactic. To this day topping Duke is the GAME Tiger fans talk about the most on that magical run to Indianapolis, while Darrel Mitchell's 25-foot prayer to bounce Texas A&M 58-57 in the second round is the MOMENT most recalled. Indeed, if Mitchell's long-range heave clangs off the rim in Jacksonville … this LSU team goes home yet another big NCAA Tournament disappointment.
Looking back … LSU reached the Final Four with the equivalent of a Baton Rouge AAU team. They were a host of Louisiana kids that played together since they were young and had developed one of the most important ingredients … team chemistry. Davis & Thomas were a pair of local products that became a star tandem hard to match in the history of Tiger hoops. Davis had the game to match his gigantic, infectious personality, scoring and doing serious dirty-work in the paint. The ultra-quickness he displayed was also a true rarity for someone his size. And "Big Baby's" hilarious sound bites at press conferences made the journey worth the while alone. Thomas in the meantime was an airplane. He elevated for mesmerizing dunks and blocked shots that soared into the fifth row of arenas. A lingering ankle injury late in the season was a big scare for the Tigers' postseason hopes, but Thomas worked himself back into the fold during LSU's opening round 80-64 rout of Iona and kept rolling.
As we mentioned, Darrel Mitchell was monumental in the drive to Indy. I'm not sure I've ever witnessed a player of his size … display the explosiveness off the floor "D-Mitch" did. This guy might have been 5'8 or 5'9 … yet sprung from the ground to the rim with impressive ease. The St Martinville native who teamed with former LSU football star Early Doucet for a state basketball championship in high school, will go down as one of the most clutch-shooters in LSU history. He was a joy to watch. There was also another Mitchell who made a big impact. True freshman Tasmin Mitchell of Denham Springs had basketball maturity and intelligence far beyond his years. He made the transition to big time college basketball immediately.
Redshirt freshman Garrett Temple, "Big Baby's" high school teammate, was never an offensive star like his older brother Collis Temple III. But the son of the first prominent African-American player in LSU history (Collis Temple II) was a defensive hawk that was undoubtedly one of the biggest factors in the upset Duke. It was Temple who blanketed JJ Redick all night long, holding the gunner to just 11 points on a pitiful 3-18 shooting from the floor. Temple ended his collegiate career.
And let's not forget about former Woodlawn High School product Darnell Lazare, who saved the most inspired play of his LSU career for the biggest stage. Lazare may have been a role player, but his 10 points on 5-8 shooting were a major boost in the Tigers' upset of Duke. As Davis & Thomas struggled with foul trouble, it was Lazare who gave LSU some badly need scoring in the post.
So now the painful, longing question … what the hell went wrong in Indianapolis?
For once, LSU and their fans were perhaps overconfident. Within a week, the Tigers had made every media stop outside of "Oprah". One of the reasons … the Hurricane Katrina storyline suddenly became huge, when honestly there hadn't been a whisper of that all season. LSU was living it up at crawfish boils and everyone was saying LSU would win. Instead, they would get wiped out. It was like Rocky's first bout with Clubber Lang. I remember reporting UCLA's demolition of LSU was like an anaconda suffocating and squeezing it's prey to death. Five years later, it's still a pretty accurate description. All the magic the Tigers enjoyed in Jacksonville and Atlanta disappeared in the Midwest. There was no last second shot, no clutch defensive stand and no second half rally. Instead it was the Bruins crushing the Tigers 59-45 and trust me the game wasn't nearly that close. Coach Brady and Tyrus Thomas were on different page that day … with Thomas sitting the bench for most of the second half. LSU trailed at one point 48-27 and finished the game 16-50 from the floor for 32%. Heck, the Tigers bricked free-throws all night long too, missing 15 of their 28 attempts from the charity stripe. Thousands of fans wearing purple and gold quietly exited the RCA Dome with their wallets a bit lighter. This was a trip perhaps they regretted splurging on. LSU had never won a Final Four game (men or women) and yes, they still haven't.
Still, LSU's run to the 2006 Final Four ranks as one of the more thrilling rides in the history of Tiger athletics. They were a special group of kids. They were a blast to cover. They made LSU basketball fun again. And as time has passed, we've learned how truly TALENTED that team was. Tyrus Thomas would become the #4 overall pick in the NBA draft. Glen Davis was a second round selection and is probably a bigger personality in the NBA, than he was at LSU. Davis would win a World Championship with the Boston Celtics in his rookie season and is averaging nearly 12 points and 6 rebounds per game this year. Darrel Mitchell has thrived playing basketball overseas and is currently balling for a team in Belgium. Garrett Temple and Tasmin Mitchell would make one more run at Final Four glory under first year head coach Trent Johnson in the spring of 2009. LSU beat a VERY talented Butler team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament that year, before standing toe-to-toe with eventual national champion North Carolina. But the Tigers eventually lost 84-70 before 23,000 Tarheel fans in Greensboro. Temple has been in and out of the NBA…and is currently on his second 10-day contract with the Charlotte Bobcats alongside mainstay Thomas. Tasmin Mitchell is in the NBA Development League, where he was recently the "Player of the Week" for the Erie Bayhawks. Darnell Lazare also continues to play basketball for a living and is also in the NBA-D league averaging 15.7 points per game for the Fort Wayne, wait for it ... Mad Ants. Magnum Rolle, a role player of the bench for LSU in '06, finished his collegiate career at Louisiana Tech and is with the Maine Red Claws (Wacky mascots for $500, Alex) of the NBA-D League also. Bean pole center Chris Johnson saw little action on that Final Four team … but would later star on the talented '08-'09 squad and has recently signed 10-day contracts with the Celtics and Portland Trailblazers. Not a bad group of LSU Tigers, indeed.
Which leads us finally, to Coach John Brady. Love him, hate him, however you feel … he WAS the coach of the 2006 Final Four team. There's no changing that. His name is positively secure on the team photo and all records of that LSU squad. There is no white-out, no photo-shopping, no rewriting of history. Regardless of how you feel … John Brady is a good basketball coach. Even people that don't like him have told me he is a FINE basketball coach. He always coached defense and rebounding with a passion … two areas that unquestionably got the Tigers to Indianapolis in 2006. Brady's abrasive exterior softened that year. He was friendly and thankful that WAFB was the ONLY Louisiana television station that covered LSU's postseason march from start to finish. He even told me this on the air … a moment we still laugh about at 844 Government Street years later. Can you say "Promotion Gold"?
Unfortunately just when it appeared Brady had silenced his critics for good and had LSU basketball set to be a consistent power … the ship sunk. LSU began the 2006-2007 season as the #5 team in the country. But the Tigers wouldn't even reach the NIT that year and the next season was an even bigger disaster. After a 1-6 SEC start "Brady Ball" was over. Skip Bertman pulled the plug on the coach just 1 ½ years after the highlight of Brady's career. He rebounded to become the head coach at Arkansas State, where Brady's done some good things. However in three years the Red Wolves have failed to reach the NCAA or NIT. But coaches usually define themselves in year four, which will be 2011-2012 for JB.
The 2006 LSU Final Four team … one of the biggest rushes during my 10-year career at WAFB-TV. Let's just hope when the 10-year anniversary of THIS occasion rolls around in 2016, we've experienced another magical run.