Tigers open Big Dance versus Iona

The preparations are over, let the madness begin. The 18th-ranked LSU men's basketball team put the wraps on NCAA Tournament preparation Wednesday with two practice sessions, including a 40-minute session before about 1,000 fans at Veterans Memorial Arena.

The Tigers open their 19th NCAA Tournament Thursday at 6:10 p.m. CST as the fourth seed in the Atlanta region against 13th-seed Iona, the tournament champions of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

The game will be seen regionally in more than 30 percent of the country as the opening game of the night session on CBS Sports and the radio broadcast of the game will be available on the affiliates of the LSU Sports Radio Network (Eagle 98.1 FM in Baton Rouge) and in the "Geaux Zone powered by USAgencies at LSUsports.net.

LSU is 23-8 overall and the champions of the regular season in the Southeastern Conference with a 14-2 record. Iona finished second in the regular season MAAC standings with a 13-5 record (23-7 overall) and won the tournament with wins over Niagara (80-54), Marist (100-84) and the championship over Saint Peter's (80-61).

Iona is 1-7 in NCAA Tournament play with the Gaels lone victory coming in 1980 when the then Jeff Ruland as player (now the head coach at Iona) toppled Holy Cross, 84-78, in the East Regional at the Providence Civic Center.

The Tigers have lost NCAA openers in 2003 and 2005, last year a somewhat surprising loss in Boise to UAB after the Tigers had won the SEC's Western Division.

"Please understand that there are only three players on our team that experienced that last year," said LSU Coach John Brady. "Most of the players that are playing in the game (Thursday) were not there last year. The most difficult thing to handle is unmet expectations and there wasn't much expected of that team before last year. We wound up winning the west, won 14-of-17, seven in a row until Kentucky best us in the (SEC Tourney) semis in overtime. When you play like that, then expectations build on your team and then when you go to the NCAA Tournament and don't play as well, when you don't meet an expectation level, it is more severe than when you overachieve."

LSU is 19-21 overall in its previous NCAA Tournament appearances, it's last win coming in the second round of 2000 tournament that advanced LSU to the Sweet 16.

The Tigers are looking forward to the return of LSU forward Tyrus Thomas after four games out with a high ankle sprain suffered in the first half of the Feb. 25 Kentucky game in Baton Rouge. Thomas, after having to leave Monday's practice early, has had strong practices both Tuesday and Wednesday.

"He's been really good," said Brady, "Much better than I thought he would be beginning (Tuesday) and (Wednesday). I was real pleased with his workout. He's been outstanding really, much more than I anticipated. We probably won't start him, but we will get him in there early. I'm sure it will take him some minutes to settle down."

LSU practiced mid-morning at a local high school before appearing for its 40-minute public appearance in the 13,700 seat arena located on the edge of downtown across the street from a new minor league ball park and within site of Alltel Stadium, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"We have had a couple of good days of practice leading up to this," said Brady. "We have gathered as much information about Iona as we possibly can. They are a good basketball team. They are perimeter oriented in terms of their players who score the majority of points for them. They average 80 a game and two players together score 41 between them. They are very smart, very tough, good basketball players who know what they are doing. They are a dangerous team in that they can score baskets easily at any given time."

Glen Davis comes into the game off All-Tournament honors for the SEC last week at the tournament in Nashville, scoring 28 against Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals. Davis averaged 18.5 points per game and 9.9 rebounds per game despite the threat of constant double teams and junk defense against him.

"I am still trying to learn how the think the game without thinking," Davis said. "I know the pass is there then think about it and I end up turning it over. If I can start seeing the game without seeing it will make a difference for my team. You just have to be a student of the game and learn from your mistakes."

Iona comes in with three senior guards, all the team captains on the squad, Marvin McCullough (6.7 points per game), the point guard who is averaging 7.6 assists in the last five contests and the two scoring guards -- Ricky Soliver (16.2 points per game and the MAAC Defensive Player of the Year) and Steve Burtt (25.2 points per game with 34 treys in last seven games).

"It's kind of weird starting three guards and they are all left-handed," said Ruland. "Two of them played together in high school. I'm a lucky man. They are great kids. I've said this many times before, off the floor and in the classroom, their legacy is beyond reproach, and the fact now that we'll hang a banner up, their legacy is, complete. But there is still some stuff that can be added. It's not over yet."

"We are just trying to make a name for ourselves and the MAAC," said Soliver. "A lot of team don't respect the MAAC. Hopefully coming out here (Thursday) and playing this game (LSU) will underestimate us. I just really, really want to get this win and prove a lot of people wrong."

While LSU may have the Temples with father Collis, Jr., and former player Collis III and now present freshman Garrett, Iona has Burtt and his father, Steve Burtt, Sr. (who in 1982 and 1984 led Iona to MAAC tourney titles) are the all time NCAA father-son scoring combo with 4,545 career points. The younger Burtt went over 2,000 points in the MAAC title game.

"He played the game and played it well," said the younger Burtt about his dad. "The things instilled in him, he instilled in me. I think it shows in my game. It has been a real good experience to be at the school that he was at, to create a legacy of my own. That was all part of his plan. He is happy on the way things have turned out."

Ruland, in his eighth season as the head coach at Iona after his stellar playing at Iona where he was an All-America and then eight seasons in the NBA with Washington, Philadelphia and Detroit.

"I've just been telling them it's one of the greatest things that will happen in their lives," he said. "It's terrific. Everyone comes in with their slates wiped clean. I haven't had to talk too much. They have been very focused. I'm really, really impressed with their maturity, and how they are focused on the task at hand."

Like LSU, the Gaels also played a very difficult non-conference schedule.

"We try to do that every year, not just this year, to prepare yourselves, when you're put in this position playing a team like LSU. So when you walk out on the court, the kids, are used to playing in big arenas against great, talented players. That's the thought behind it, it's not brain surgery or anything like that."

The winner of the game will continue on to the round of 32 on Saturday against the winner of the late game Thursday at the arena between Syracuse and Texas A&M. The Saturday game is tentatively set for 5:50 p.m. EST.

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