Unique frontcourt led Tigers to Indy
ATLANTA -- This just doesn't happen too often. Teams don't get to the Final Four relying on forwards.
Guards rule college basketball, at least they have since most of the legit big men began to check out early to the NBA in the '90s.
But this LSU team hardly can be considered a trail blazer for a return to big-man basketball. These Tigers are freaks. There is nothing here that can be duplicated.
How many teams have a player with bionic calves like Tyrus Thomas, someone who can leap over 7-footers in one move, snatch balls off the high side of the backboard for putback dunks and block shots in the lane and out on the 3-point line?
How many have a player like Glen Davis, an agile 6-foot-9, 310-pound center with the force to push LaMarcus Aldridge of Texas out of the lane, throw down a spin move for a deuce, drain a silky 3-pointer, handle the ball from the top of the key and rumble down the lane for layups?
How many teams sport a small forward like Tasmin Mitchell, who can make 3s, board, guard and play the perfect complement to the other two?
"They're going to be a tough matchup," Texas senior forward Brad Buckman said after the Tigers (27-8) beat his Longhorns 70-60 in overtime to win the Atlanta Regional and earn a meeting opposite UCLA next Saturday in the Final Four in Indianapolis. "I wouldn't count LSU out against anybody."
"We're going up against the human fly-swatting machine," UCLA coach Ben Howland said after his Bruins (31-6) defeated Memphis to win the Oakland Regional.
Howland was paying attention to the Tigers because this LSU frontcourt is actually better defensively than offensively. Sure, Davis scored 26 points and Thomas had 21 (on a combined 21-for-33 shooting, compared to guards Garrett Temple and Darrel Mitchell going 4-for-19), but the defensive performance was more impressive.
Thomas had three blocks after swatting five (which looked like double that) in the Sweet 16 win over Duke on Thursday night. Davis had only one block, but his defense on Aldridge was one of the defining differences in the game. Aldridge ended up 2-for-14 for four points after scoring 26 in the Sweet 16 win against West Virginia two days earlier.
With Davis in position to defend every time Aldridge spun underneath, he gave Texas' super sophomore that necessary bump to ensure he knew baskets would not be easy. LSU coach John Brady said the Mountaineers weren't as physical with Aldridge inside.
This also isn't your typical college team, where LSU's cohesion comes from a season or two of playing together. Mitchell, Davis and Thomas are all from Louisiana and have known each other for years; the latter two went to different Baton Rouge high schools. Defensively, they rarely get mixed up, and often know when to gamble and when not to on a block or defensive switch.
"Glen and [I] live together and have known each other since we were 10, and we've got the same background, so we have a bond that you can't teach," Thomas said. "We aren't jealous of each other. We're never selfish. He's like my brother."
Brady pointed out that, despite his guard's poor shooting game, the team committed only 10 turnovers, so the Tigers' ability to protect the ball shouldn't be overlooked.
"I said if our perimeter could hold up, we would have a chance to win the game," Brady said.
The frontcourt jumped, literally, at that chance.
Thomas' mother, Jessica Johnson, said her son just has the "God-given talent" to jump. She said she wanted him to do the long jump in high school -- her specialty as a teenager -- but he refused. Instead, he saved his leaping for the court. He had a few dunks Saturday that were hard to explain; he snatched and threw down alley-oops that looked as if there wasn't a way he could reach them.
"That putback he had in the first half was something you don't expect from any college basketball player, any human," Temple said of one reach-back flush. "I'm glad he's on our side."
Davis said he remembers watching Thomas, who actually redshirted last season as a true freshman because of a neck problem, dunking a ball in a high school game that was so high that he smacked his elbow on the rim.
"One game against Arkansas this season I threw him an alley-oop and he caught it at the top corner of the backboard," Temple said. "After that, I expected him to get everything off the rim."
The forward-thinking Tigers' arrival in the Final Four goes against the current makeup of elite D-I teams, but nothing this team did this season was by design. They lost close games at Connecticut and Ohio State and to Northern Iowa and Houston, but won at West Virginia and mostly rolled through the SEC with a 14-2 record -- after Brady had put on the grease board at the Tigers' conference opener at Arkansas that he just wanted to win at least 10.
Now, the Tigers arrive in Indy fresh off two ferocious performances in the Atlanta Regional. This show might not close until late next Monday night if the Tigers can continue to lean on the most unique frontcourt in the field.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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