Tigers distinguish themselves in dysfunctional SEC season
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The celebratory sound thundering out from behind the closed doors of the visitors locker room at Rupp Arena Saturday told the story of this silly season in the Southeastern Conference.
"LSU! LSU! LSU!"
Yes, LSU, that's who.
The Tigers won the SEC championship outright here, 73-70. Won it with a week to spare. Won it with ease in the standings, taking a three-game lead into Saturday -- but in reality LSU won it with a series of white-knuckle victories that is seemingly without end.
In the process, the Tigers sent dysfunctional Kentucky further into the outskirts of Bracketville, beating the Wildcats at Rupp Arena for the first time in 20 years. But forget about the mediocre, melodramatiCats for now. LSU was the story Saturday, and has been the story of the SEC this season.
That's the same LSU that received zero preseason media votes as the overall SEC titlist -- they all went to Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky. It's the same LSU that went 13-18 last season, 6-10 in league play.
But in reality, it's not the same LSU by a long shot this season. This is Trent Johnson's LSU, and that has made all the difference between winning and losing.
This victory was the Tigers' sixth straight single-digit triumph. The total margin of victory in those games: 29 points. This season, they're 10-1 in single-digit games. They've orchestrated more narrow escapes than James Bond.
"That's one of the things I admire most about their team -- they play constantly," Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said. "They play hard at the beginning, at the middle and at the end."
And it always seems to work out at the end, in a departure from recent history. LSU was 14-21 in single-digit games the previous two seasons, which is one reason why John Brady was bounced as coach in February 2008.
The Tigers have flipped the close-game script under Johnson, a leading candidate for national coach of the year.
A big part of the close-game success is a lineup that includes two guys who started all season when LSU went to the 2006 Final Four -- Garrett Temple and Tasmin Mitchell, who have a combined 225 starts between them. They're the human bridge from Big Baby to big SEC winners.
"Two guys who have been through the wars, so to speak," Johnson said.
But it takes a good coach to create a turnaround this profound, and Johnson clearly qualifies. He turned Nevada into a mid-major power, then went to Stanford and enjoyed four fine seasons there. Now he's made the geographically and philosophically jarring jump from the Bay Area to the bayou look easy, too.
"It's not an adjustment," Johnson insisted. "It's basketball."
And if you're a gym rat, they pretty much all look the same from the inside.
"I could've taken a job in Jamaica," Johnson said. "I'm going to the gym, going to the office and going home. That's it. I don't play golf, I don't do that kind of stuff."
So it is that a move that made little sense from a distance last spring has made perfect sense in the flesh this winter. Johnson left a Stanford program that was losing its 7-foot foundation (the Lopez twins) for a program that had underachieved but retained talent on its roster.
"We knew that we were going to have guys that were experienced get a lot of playing time," Temple said. "We tried to mesh together really well early in the season and it has paid off for us. We have bought into Coach's system and know that he knows how to win."
Johnson knew how to pull one out Saturday in Rupp. After a 12-point first-half lead swiftly dissolved into a 10-point second-half deficit, the Tigers got tough in the final 10 minutes.
Specifically, they got Thornton going. After spending the first 30 minutes appearing to try too hard to outduel Kentucky's Jodie Meeks in a matchup of leading SEC Player of the Year candidates, Thornton finally got it rolling.
He scored 16 of his 23 points in the final 9:35, getting them in a variety of ways -- 3-pointers, putbacks, drives, free throws. Toss in nine rebounds and four assists, and Thornton was everywhere.
"He scored every way you could," Gillispie said.
A large part of that was Johnson's decision to move the shooting guard to point guard for the final five or six minutes. Thornton brought the ball up and worked off high screens to initiate the offense.
Then, with the game on the line, it was Thornton who dribbled right off a Mitchell screen at the top of the key, drew a double team and flipped a pass to the screener. Mitchell coolly cashed just his 10th 3-pointer of the season with 10 seconds left for the winning points.
Johnson was characteristically understated when asked about that move.
"It's not Coaching 101," he said. "It's 'Shut your mouth, coach, and get out of the way.'"
But think where this program might have been if Johnson hadn't gotten in its way last spring.
It's true that the Tigers have failed their only three nonconference tests of any significance -- an 11-point loss to Texas A&M, a 30-point loss to Utah and a 10-point loss to Xavier. So perhaps only the NCAA tournament will truly reveal whether LSU is simply the best of a lousy SEC pack or a true national player.
But nobody in Baton Rouge will dismiss a 10-game winning streak and a 25-4 overall record. And if there were any remaining doubters on the outside about whether LSU or Johnson made the right decision to join forces, they're now all over but the locker room shouting of "LSU! LSU! LSU!"
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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