The fall was rapid for Louisiana State.
Just three years ago, the Tigers won 27 games and advanced to the Final Four. Their win total slipped to 17 in 2006-07, then 13 in 2007-08, costing coach John Brady his job before the season even ended.
Now, as quickly as LSU faded is as rapidly as it has regained national prominence. The Tigers are 24-4 overall and have already clinched the West Division title in the Southeastern Conference with a 12-1 mark. One win in their final three games will give them the outright SEC regular-season title.
Furthermore, LSU is back in the national rankings, as it is No. 18 in the Associated Press poll. The Tigers are the only SEC team in the top 25, though they are just 37th in the Pomeroy Ratings.
The LSU administration was confident they found the right man when they hired Trent Johnson as coach last spring. It was Johnson who put Nevada's program on the national radar before moving to Stanford.
However, Johnson isn't gloating over his team's success. When LSU wrapped up the division title with a win over Florida, he only gave a smile, wave and small fist pump to the sellout crowd on Fat Tuesday at the Pete Maravich Events Center in Baton Rouge. The players celebrated briefly at midcourt then retreated to the locker room.
"I'm the type of guy who is more concerned about the game itself, playing it the right way and doing everything you can to put yourself in position to win," Johnson said. "I know other people in this business who hold walkthroughs just to practice cutting down the nets. To me, that's not spontaneous at all.
"Enjoying the moment is what makes it fun, makes it real. You can't practice happiness and I don't think you can be overly happy about reaching what is really only our first goal. We still have a lot of work left to do before we'll be satisfied with this season."
Nevertheless, it has been quite the turnaround for a team that went 13-18 last season.
LSU did return four starters from last season, but that could be looked at in two ways--returning starters are nice, but they were 13-18 starters. Also, they weren't Johnson's players, so he had to convince them that his style was the right one.
The 24-4 record leaves little doubt that the players decided to adapt to Johnson, a workaholic who had not taken a vacation in eight years until this past summer.
"We've matured as a team, though we still have our moments of immaturity," Johnson said. "Winning has something to do the maturation process and buying into what we're doing has something to do with it, too. If people are showing immaturity, it's going to be addressed. That goes for me, too. When I show immaturity, I'm fortunate I have assistant coaches who point it out."
Senior guard Marcus Thornton has matured into an outstanding player in his final season as he ranks in the top 100 nationally in four Pomeroy statistical categories. He is 49th in percentage of shots (32.1), 75th in turnover rate (11.4), 78th in offensive rating (120.6) and 96th in percentage of possessions (28.1).
One of Johnson's biggest concerns when he took the job was that his players weren't strong enough to compete in the SEC. Thus, Johnson scrapped individual workouts over the summer and had his team spend that time in the weight room.
That has paid off in the case of senior center Chris Johnson as he has become an inside force, ranking 14th in block percentage (10.9) and 70th in defensive rebounding percentage (22.4). Yet another senior, guard Garrett Temple, has emerged as a defensive stopper as he is 87th in steal percentage (3.8).
While LSU has already won 11 more games than it did last season, it still hasn't gotten much national attention in a down year for the SEC. However, Johnson isn't too concerned about publicity and figures it will come if the Tigers keep on winning well into March.
"What's important to us is being able to compete at a high level, not how many people are watching the game on TV or if the game is even on TV," Johnson said. "It's not that the kids don't enjoy the attention but that stuff is more important for the fans and supporters of the program. If you worry about stuff beyond what's happening on the floor, it's only going to cause you to lose focus."
The Big 12 States Its Case
It seems every conference is playing in the shadow of the ACC and Big East this season. That has some coaches in the Big 12 rankled as the general consensus among them is their conference deserves six teams in the NCAA tournament.
"I think our league has gotten lost, I really and truly do," Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel said. "I don't think our league gets the kind of respect it should get. It is a little down? Maybe from the last couple of years, maybe, when you look at who our league has lost, but if you look at our league, if you look at Kansas, at Missouri, at us, there are no easy wins in this league."
The Pomeroy Ratings rank the Big 12 as the nation's fourth best conference behind the ACC, Pac-10 and Big East. However, six teams are ranked among the top 40 in Missouri (No. 7, 24-4), Kansas (No. 10, 23-5), Oklahoma (No. 19, 25-3), Texas (No. 29, 19-8), Kansas State (No. 39, 19-9) and Oklahoma State (No. 40, 18-9).
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford knows that which Big 12 teams move on and off of the proverbial NCAA bubble tends to fluctuate rapidly.
"It changes almost every day," Ford said. "It almost becomes comical a little bit. It's not something we're talking about whatsoever."
Two other Big 12 schools in the Pomeroy top 60 also hold out hope for NCAA bids with strong finishes: Texas A&M (No. 55, 20-8) and Baylor (No. 57, 16-11).
"We don't talk about it a lot," Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon said. "At this time of year, if I'm worried about who we're playing, we've got no chance at postseason. I can't imagine our team or our coaches not being fired up to play everybody. If we played a high school team, we'd better be fired up to play."
Calhoun Gets #800
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun ended a tumultuous couple of days by notching his 800th career victory this past Wednesday. It was a pivotal road triumph, too, as beating Marquette kept the Huskies alone atop the Big East standings.
"I was asked [before the game] about some significant and memorable wins and I might put this one down," Calhoun said. "I can't believe how well we came together as a team."
Senior guard A.J. Price scored a career-high 36 points, the biggest output by a Connecticut player since Ben Gordon has 37 on Nov. 19, 2003 against Nevada. Price admitted he was extra excited to put on a show on a night when Calhoun could reach a milestone.
"A game like this is going to go down in history," Price said. "To have a game like that and help and help him get to 800 means a lot to me."
Calhoun became the seventh Division I coach to reach 800 victories, joining Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Jim Phelan, Mike Krzyzewski and Eddie Sutton.
"My father always told me that you'll be judged by the company you keep and that's some kind of company to be keeping," Calhoun said.
The win came four days after Calhoun got into a heated exchange with freelance journalist and political activist Ken Krayeske following a home win over South Florida. Krayeske started the press conference by questioning if Calhoun, the highest-paid public worker in the state, should take a pay cut because of the poor economic times.
Calhoun responded that he wouldn't "give a dime back," claimed the basketball program brings $12 million into the school annually and told Krayeske to shut up. Calhoun was criticized about his conduct by the governor and members of the state legislature.
New Committee Members
Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, Big Sky Conference commissioner Ron Fullerton and Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe have been appointed to the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee. Their terms will begin Sept. 1.
They will replace Utah AD Chris Hill, SEC commissioner Mike Slive and George Mason AD Tom O'Connor. Slive's role will as the committee chairman will be assumed by UCLA AD Dan Guerrero.
The remaining of the committee consists of Xavier AD Mike Bobinski, Connecticut AD Jeff Hathaway, Texas-San Antonio AD Lynn Hickey, Kent State AD Laing Kennedy, California-Riverside AD Stan Morrison and Ohio State AD Gene Smith.
Games to Watch
Top five games in the next week according to the Pomeroy Ratings with all times Eastern:
No. 22 Marquette (23-5) at No. 6 Louisville (22-5), Sunday, March 1, 12 p.m., CBS
No. 7 Missouri (24-4) at No. 10 Kansas (23-5), Sunday, March 1, 2 p.m., CBS
No. 13 Michigan State (22-5) at No. 21 Illinois (23-6), Sunday, March 1, 4 p.m., CBS
No. 22 Marquette (23-5) at No. 4 Pittsburgh (25-3), Wednesday, March 4, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2
No. 19 Oklahoma (25-3) at No. 8 Missouri (24-4), Wednesday, March 4, 9 p.m., Big 12 Network
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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