LSU, UCLA should be positioned for another run
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Walk anywhere on LSU's campus with Glen "Big Baby" Davis and the women flock to him. One even sang to him, on call, on Thursday.
Does that mean the Tigers' hoops program has arrived, even down here in the heart of football's fiefdom?
Well, it doesn't hurt that the effusive Davis is coming off a Final Four run that came on the heels of an SEC Player of the Year award. Would he be as popular around campus if Darrell Mitchell's 3-pointer had not gone in to beat Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAAs? That's debatable.
What's not debatable on the official eve of the start of the 2006-07 season is that the Tigers are in position to be back in the Final Four and to prove their program is not turning back -- as is the team that beat them in the national semifinal in Indianapolis in April, UCLA.
Both LSU and UCLA, which didn't necessarily need its jaw-dropping comeback against Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 to be back as a top-tier program, are surging forward as national players. Both teams should be in play for a national title this year and next, and at least be in the discussion beyond that.
"We have an opportunity to have another good team, and with the way we're recruiting, things are going quite well," LSU coach John Brady said.
Meanwhile, UCLA coach Ben Howland, reached by phone Thursday, said, "We could be there again if we're healthy." Howland was referring to a knee injury to junior forward Lorenzo Mata. "Obviously, if we had [highly regarded class of 2007 big man signee] Kevin Love, we'd be better. And if we don't lose anybody [to the NBA draft from a team that has no seniors], with Kevin a year from now, we could make a run at it."
Like LSU, the Bruins lost a player to the NBA draft (point guard Jordan Farmar) but retained another star (guard Arron Afflalo). The Tigers saw Tyrus Thomas bolt, but Davis stayed home. This season's Tigers have only one senior -- Darnell Lazare, a role-playing forward. While Davis could declare for the NBA draft in the spring, as Afflalo could for the Bruins, both teams are stocked well enough to sustain a hit. That's not something either program was able to do in the recent past.
"When we lost Stromile Swift [in 2000] early to the NBA, Jabari Smith graduated and we couldn't replace them," Brady said of the Tigers that finished 13-16 the season after Swift and Smith led them to a 28-6 season and a Sweet 16 berth. "But now we can survive losing Brandon Bass early and then Tyrus Thomas."
The year after Bass (an All-SEC performer) bolted, the Tigers went to the Final Four.
"If we don't have anything unforeseen happen to us out there, we should be one of the better programs in the country the next three, four or five years," Brady said.
"We're doing a good job of controlling the things we can control," he said. "We have good players coming in, they're going to school, not getting into trouble and we haven't had injuries or defections."
The Tigers' Final Four run allowed them to be a finalist for Darrell Arthur, who ultimately chose Kansas and could end up being a national freshman of the year candidate along with Texas' Kevin Durant and Ohio State's Greg Oden. Brady said that neither big-time center Anthony Randolph of Dallas nor forward Garrett Green of Woodland Hills, Calif., had LSU in the picture until the Tigers made their March run.
LSU already has a big commitment in the class of 2008, center James Tyler of Patterson, N.C., and a point guard for the class of 2009, Tommy Mason-Griffin of Houston.
"The weekend before the Final Four was huge, when we beat Duke and Texas in 48 hours in Atlanta," Brady said. "Those are special teams and programs that are extremely well-coached. That was significant. Our key here is to sustain it."
Brady was rewarded with a new contract in the spring that showed the school has a commitment to him. It also proved he was willing to stay here, too, after privately having his representative look at interest from NC State, among others.
"My contract isn't over the top, but it was appropriate, good for the school and good for me," Brady said. "We're building a new practice facility and a new locker room over the next year and a half. UCLA is probably farther ahead of us [in terms of a program], but our situations do parallel each other with this year's teams."
The Bruins bring back Josh Shipp, one of the top scorers in the Pac-10, who redshirted last season. Howland said Shipp is playing extremely well. The return of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute on the wing, Darren Collison (Farmar's replacement at the point) and Alfred Aboya inside means the Bruins have all the pieces in place to make another run. Their defense, a Howland staple, likely will be just as stingy.
The loss of center Ryan Hollins, a senior last season, hurts more with Mata's knee still an unknown (he'll start practicing Saturday). Still, the Bruins are established as a West Coast power. The addition of Love next season, along with small forward Chace Stanback of Fairfax High in Los Angeles, shows the Bruins can lock up the left coast. Getting a commitment from Canyon High (Anaheim) point Jerime Anderson for 2008 is even more proof.
UCLA and LSU also seem to have locker-room tones that are similar to last season, when these teams meshed early without any disruption. But Davis, even with a siren in tow, wasn't about to pronounce the Tigers as a member of the college hoops hierarchy just yet.
"After this year [we can be]," Davis said. "Some teams make a run, a lucky run, the Cinderella run. This program is on the rise and we're a nice basketball program. But we're on our way."
Indeed, the Tigers are on their way to doing much more. The Bruins are, too. The two "forgotten" Final Four teams, the ones that didn't get as much offseason hype as No. 1 Florida or everyone's underdog, George Mason, are just as deserving of praise for what they accomplished and what may lie ahead. That could be more of what occurred in April -- a trip to the hoops holy land called the Final Four.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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