MULE': Pettit says LSU has title flair

Hang on, folks. The best may be yet to come.

Hang on, folks. The best may be yet to come.

 

A magical basketball ride like the one the Tigers took to the Final Four 20 years ago may be in the offing – despite the formidable road block of the Duke Blue Devils.

 

Even before Darrel Mitchell's buzzer-beater to nip Texas A&M and LSU's second-half dispatching of pesky Iona to reach the Sweet 16, one keen observer said that John Brady's young Tigers have the stuff to make a run.

 

"They have the pieces,'' said Bob Pettit, who carried LSU to its first Final Four appearance 53 years ago, then went on to make All-Pro 10 times in an 11-year NBA career. Pettit, a regular at LSU home games, said the Tigers' rebounding abilities, balance and athleticism are enough to keep them in the fight with just about anybody. "I'm not making predictions,'' Pettit said before the NCAAs, "because anything can happen in a basketball game. But I will say LSU has the capability to win a few games in the tournament.   

 

"(Center) Glen Davis is a phenomenal player in the middle, and Darrel Mitchell is more than effective running the team and shooting from the outside,'' Pettit said, almost prophetically before the last-gasp drama against the Aggies. "And Tyrus Thomas is just outstanding,'' marveled Pettit, who continued to heap praise on less heralded but major contributors like Tasmin Mitchell and Darnell Lazare.

 

"That is a very talented bunch,'' Pettit, now a financier in New Orleans, reiterated. "There's a reason why Davis was the SEC's Player of the Year and Thomas was the SEC's Freshman of the Year.''

 

 

There is another factor about this team that has impressed Pettit, and it came to the fore in the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament – Resilience. "They find a way to fight back when things aren't going their way,'' Pettit said.

 

In four halves against low seeds in the opening rounds, LSU was dominant in just one: the second against Iona. Still, the Tigers prevailed to play another day.

 

"They have a lot going for them,'' Pettit said. "I'm only saying I wouldn't be surprised if they won a few games.''

 

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Pettit would know. Perhaps the best player in LSU history – and his former teammate, guard Joe Dean, who has seen them all over the last half century, believes that's the case – he strapped the Tigers on his back and became the engine that drove LSU to Kansas City with a 22-1 record at the end of the 1952-53 season. Pettit, then a 6-foot-9 center who was the SEC's first All-American not from Kentucky, averaged 24.7 points and 12.7 rebounds in that ground-breaking season. He was so impressive that in 1974, the league's 40th anniversary season, Pettit was voted the best player in the history of the SEC. 

 

Of course, the NCAA Tournament wasn't really the same mega-event it is now, Pettit is quick to point out. Barely a blip on the sports radar screen, it was small and exclusive.

 

Only 22 teams were invited, a field expanded by six from 1952, and television had yet to air a title game.

 

The Final Four was not even officially the Final Four; the last rounds were just the semifinals and championship game.

 

Pettit, then a 6-foot-9 center who was the SEC's first All-American not from Kentucky, remembers the NCAAs as a series of games that were important – but not that important.

 

"Games kept coming up and we kept playing,'' he said. "I think we were just focused on playing. It all seemed a lot bigger looking back than it did at the time.''

 

A half-century ago the tournament also was restrictive. A team had to prove its mettle in the regular season and earn its way in. Kentucky was not a factor in the SEC; Wildcat basketball was shut down, the first program given the "death penalty'' by the NCAA for serious recruiting violations and the complicity of some UK athletes in a point-shaving scandal.

 

In the East Regional, LSU defeated Lebanon Valley – who had a 20-1 record, same as the Tigers, 89-76. Holy Cross, at the time a major power, was next, and LSU won 81-73 to secure a berth in what we now know as the Final Four.

 

That's where LSU's run ended. Indiana beat the Tigers 80-67, despite Pettit's 29 points, and in the consolation game, Washington soundly whipped LSU 88-69, despite 36 points by Pettit.

 

In a classic case of the victors receiving the spoils, Pettit racked up a tournament-high 121 points in LSU's four games and clearly was the overriding reason the Tigers were even in the Final Four, but he was omitted from the all-tournament team.

    

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That was then and this is now, and Pettit is caught up in the potential of the current Tigers. "I think they are very good,'' Pettit said. "And the best thing about them is that they are so young,'' he added about the team that has just one senior and started three freshmen and a sophomore for much of the season. Pettit said, "LSU fans may have a lot to cheer about for another year or two.''               

 

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Marty Mule' can be reached at MJM981@Bellsouth.net.


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