Mark, when Ralston was looking to leave LSU, did you and Johnny discuss that? I know Johnny wanted him to stay. Because of you guys relationship, how much did you talk about it?
We did. Ralston had actually reached out prior to hiring Johnny, and I knew his family well, having recruited them when he was real young. Ralston actually played with one of my sons in AAU basketball, so I've known their family for a long, long time.
I told the Turner family and Ralston to give Johnny a chance and that I was not going to talk to them and we're not going to pursue this until you know for sure later. And I told Ralston, I said, You're going to fall in love with him. You're going to like Johnny. So selfishly, I wanted him, but also that wasn't going to come between my friendship with Johnny. So then probably couple, two or three weeks later I think is when it really picked up some steam.
But it's kind of delicate for me, you know, because I'm a guy that pulls for Johnny Jones and here he's got a good player there, and I didn't want Johnny to be hurt in any way. But Ralston, I think, had already made up his mind and he needed a change so it ended up working out okay.
Mark, you've made some runs before as a lower seed. Is there anything that you could take from the '04 Alabama team or the team a couple of years ago, any common threads or anything that can help your team here this week?
I don't know that there's one thing. There's no magic dust we can sprinkle over our guys as they take the floor. But I think once you're in the tournament, it's the greatest show on earth, and everybody has a chance.
I'm a guy that's followed the tournament forever. I was in Salt Lake City watching Bird and Magic in 1979 as a 15-year-old, and I went to the Final Fours. But I remember Villanova when they made their run against Georgetown.
The seeding thing for me hasn't ever been that big of a deal. Everybody has a chance. Just like our team this year, we have a chance. You've got to take one game at a time, and you've got to play for that one game and see what happens.
And I'm sure that year, in '04, when we beat Southern Illinois and we were the 8, 9, coming out of the 8/9 game, there probably wasn't a whole lot of people that felt we had a chance against Stanford. They were 30-1. I think they might have been one of the ones and we were able to beat them. So it's part of the tournament. It's part of the magic of the tournament, really. Just got to be excited to play every opportunity you have.
You said earlier that you felt like you've been playing your best basketball down the stretch. What do you think is the reason for that? What's changed?
I think a couple things. We went to Louisville a couple, three weeks ago and we changed our lineup, put Lennard Freeman in the lineup. I thought that was a big difference for us, made us a little better defensively, seemed to execute our offense better and score a little better. We just became more efficient with him in there, even though he's not a great individual offensive player, he helped our team become a better offensive team.
And then I think kind of midyear, Cat Barber took his game to a whole 'nother level. And that was big for our team. We needed that. There was a point early in our season when we relied so much on Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner and our inside guys weren't scoring as much. Cat wasn't scoring as much. We just had a hard time. So our guys have developed and gotten better. Beejay Anya is playing better now, giving us more quality minutes that he did early on. So number of things like that, I think, have kind of contributed to us playing a little bit better here down the stretch.
A three-part question. One, how did you and John become such good friends because you never played against each other in college. Secondly, how did you come to hire him. Third, obviously, he went back to LSU as head coach. Do you feel that was just waiting to happen?
Just over the years, I was and still am good friends with Tic Price. Johnny was with Tic in Memphis. A lot of people forget what a great job he did as an interim head coach the year when Tic didn't coach and Johnny was the head coach. At the end of that year, I actually had an assistant coach with me at Alabama, Robert Scott, who had passed away and developed cancer. So I had an opening on my staff. Johnny was available.
We kind of always have stayed in touch throughout the years. Even though I never played for Dale Brown, Dale Brown was like a second kind of father guy, a father figure coach out there. He always put his arm around me. When we played, he did the same thing. As I coached at UCLA, I almost went back to LSU at one time and worked for Dale. Kind of through that, that's where Johnny and I became friends and had a chance to bring him to Alabama. He was there one year, did an unbelievable job coaching on the floor, recruiting, responsible for Mo Williams and Earnest Shelton, two guys that ended up being really, really good players for us at Alabama.
Then he had a chance to go to North Texas. Gene Stallings was on the trustees at North Texas, which worked to Johnny's favor there. Then I thought he just did an amazing job there. North Texas is one of those places where no one's ever really won, ever. He had them going really well. And so when he had the chance to go back to LSU, I was thrilled for him. Because I knew deep in his heart, that's where he wanted to be. He's got a great love for LSU. So just worked out really well for him.
Could you talk about the matchup with Jordan and Jarell and specifically Martin's improvement over the last month. What do you attribute that to?
Well, both of them are obviously very talented. I think they're very comfortable playing for Johnny in their system. They're getting the ball a lot more, in my opinion, here lately. They've been very effective.
I think the change maybe in their lineup, when they made the change at the guard line there, probably helped both those inside guys a little bit more. We play in a great league, and when I look through our league and you start talking about Duke and Carolina and Louisville and Virginia and Syracuse and Pitt, I'm not sure that anybody in our league has two guys, a tandem, a pair like they have.
So they're going to be a handful for our guys. They've been pretty impressive as we've gotten to watch them a lot more.
Mark, you were talking about Cat kind of finding a new gear. What is the difference in his game? I know he went through personal issues for a while. Is it kind of just getting through that, or is there more to it?
I don't know for sure. I know we went down to Florida State and a very tragic situation happened in his personal life there with a good friend to him that passed away. Then we came back, and I didn't start him the next game. And he didn't practice a lot. He was just, he was in a tough place. But after that, kind of deep in my gut, I always felt like for us to ever go to another level, he's the guy.
Somehow, we've got to get him playing at a high level. My encouragement to him was just you need to be you. Go be Cat. Go play. If you're going to make mistakes, make them, but let's make them a hundred miles an hour. I don't want you walking the ball up the floor, playing conservatively. I want you to cut it loose.
We went to Georgia Tech and all of a sudden, he's like a brand new guy. He's making threes. He's playing with confidence. He's smiling on the floor. His demeanor changed a little bit. So he just kind of took off. I don't know that there was one thing. I don't know exactly what it is, but some of it's maturity. He's just a sophomore.
But he certainly rose to the occasion for other team. I thought - we played Pitt in the first round of the ACC tournament, and I thought he played as good as anybody in the country that night. He was terrific.
You mentioned the lineup change and the three guards that start now, Patterson, Quarterman and Hornsby. Jarell and Jordan get a lot of attention and deservedly so, but their defense, what catches your attention about the way they're going to play defense against your guys?
On the perimeter, I think they're good. One thing with Keith Hornsby, and we know him pretty well right now, he's a tough guy. Not going to back down from anybody. They've got length, you know with their point guard and they can shoot the ball offensively. I just think sometimes, you're trying as a coach to figure out what's the best unit, how your team needs to play.
Seems to me they somewhat figured it out late, a little bit like our team did. We started figuring it out with Lennard Freeman. They seemed to do the same thing, trying to figure out how their team could be the best they could be.
Mark, where were you in your career when you said you thought about going to work for Coach Brown and what happened there? What did you do instead?
I was at UCLA coaching with Jim Harrick. Dale had an opening. We talked about potentially coming back. I was one of those guys, even though I was an opponent of LSU, I played at Alabama, from a distance, you always liked that guy. I always liked him and liked coach Brown. I can remember, I want to say it was '87, and we beat him in the SEC tournament, and he huddled our team up. He was coach at LSU and he got our team together at midcourt and huddled us up and gave us a speech about how great he thought we were and how well we were going to do and we could win the National Championship and was motivating us.
So anyway, he and I kind of always -- I got into coaching and so we would bump into each other out recruiting or different places. So I always had a lot of affinity for him and still do to this day. So it was something back then that certainly I thought about doing.
Do you know who they hired instead?
Mark, you've had ups and downs this year, obviously. But what do you think's been the biggest challenge with this group? I think you talked about the way they've responded. How do you think you've been able to get that out of them?
I think for us, the challenge, and I think this is true sometimes when you have young teams, is consistency. We haven't been -- that's probably the one thing that's eluded us all year long. We've had great moments. We've had some that we haven't felt really good about when we've played poorly. Sometimes you're counting on young guys, you're counting on freshmen, counting on sophomores.
Maybe that's the one thing that's kind of hard sometimes is for those guys to understand what it takes every single night to play. I look at Johnny's team, probably a little similar. You look at some of the games at Auburn or Mississippi State or Texas A&M, then you turn around and watch them play against Kentucky or at Arkansas and go, wow, they're something else. He's relying on a lot of young guys too. That for our team has been the one thing, the consistency that we haven't done as good a job there as I would have liked.
Mark, if I would have told you four years ago when you were hired this would be your fourth straight trip, would you have taken that, or would you have wanted more?
I'd have absolutely taken it. You've got to remember, the program at that time, they'd been five years without participating.
I'm sure when they hired me, a lot of people were going, you know what, what are you hiring that guy for? He's working for television. So I get it. I understand all that. At the same time, even that first group we had, you're thinking maybe -- I'm not sure if we're an NCAA tournament team, but maybe because we did have some parts there. That was the good news when we walked in and took the job.
So we were able to kind of get it going in the right direction. And so although we've been to four, we've won in the tournament, which has been nice. We're like everybody else. We're hungry for more. You want more. So hopefully this is the year we can do some things.
You touched on the inconsistencies and the youth and LSU's team especially. Does talent camouflage maybe some of that youth and maybe you guys forget to coach it up as much and as thoroughly as it needs to be?
I don't know if it's forgetting to coach them up. I just think younger guys, long college basketball season. It's a long year.
They're going through all kind of different things. Usually, for all of us in coaching, when you end up with a veteran team -- now, at our level sometimes it's hard to get a veteran team because if they're that good, usually they've left. They've gone to the NBA. But when you have a veteran group, then you can start to see the difference. Practice every day, there's more attention to detail, guys are a little more focused every day. Different than when you have a lot of young guys. A lot of young guys, they're thinking about all kind of stuff and they're looking down. They've still got a couple more years of college and it's not as urgent maybe when they're younger.
So that's typical, I think, for a lot of us in our business, especially in basketball. We've got to coach a lot of young guys nowadays. That's the nature of our world we live in. But it's different when you have that group compared to when you end up with a veteran group of fourth year, fifth year seniors. When you got a number of guys that are older like that, it becomes a little different. Things change a little bit.
Does it help having a team that's been to the NCAA tournament? This is your all's fourth year in a row and LSU hasn't been there in the past six years. Does that give you all an advantage at all? Or when the game starts, does it really matter?
I'm not sure it's much of an advantage, because last year we had three starters start on our team -- on that team, which one of those was T.J. Warren, and he made more baskets than anybody in the nation last year. He led the country in field goals made, so we had that luxury.
He's gone. We had two other starters go. Ralston Turner played the tournament. Trevor Lacey has not played in an NCAA tournament. Some of our younger guys didn't play as much. So I just don't know if that ends up being much of an advantage for our guys or not because we're still relatively young too. I think, like you said, when the ball goes in the air, I think all that kind of stuff kind of moves to the side and then you just have two teams playing against each other.
I know you don't look at your progress through the prism of Carolina or Duke, but you beat Carolina this year. You beat Duke at home this year. In terms of progress that you feel like you're making in our area, do you feel like that's something you guys are making a move towards?
Yep. You know, those are two Hall of Fame coaches at programs that have been standing somewhat on the top. And we know it. So you're trying to reach up there and get them whenever you can.
For us, because of the proximity, we're so close to both schools, it makes it a little bit more interesting. So as we try to get our program better and we're trying to improve our program, part of those benchmarks are having the ability to beat Duke or North Carolina. I think especially this year, which was Carolina on the road, beating them there, and that was a huge step for us. Doesn't guarantee anything in the future, but it does make you feel like you're making some progress, especially with those two guys in your neighborhood. It's a tough neighborhood.
Maybe the toughest neighborhood in the country when you think of proximity and college basketball and North Carolina's history, Duke's history and here we are, right there. So it's a tough neighborhood, but it's a neighborhood I like living in. It's a great challenge with those guys every day.
Back to Ralston and I've got a second question way out of left field. Ralston, his first two years at LSU, I think you saw him as an analyst. How has he changed, improved, matured, gotten better for you? Then the second question is, this is looking down the road, LSU's playing Wake Forest next year. What did you see from them this year with Danny there that makes you feel like they're on the right road?
First of all, with Ralston, he's had a great two years with us. I thought when he played the first couple years there, there just wasn't very much excitement around the program. It was hard for those kids. I'm not knocking Trent. It just was hard. I'd walk in there and do games and it was tough. Tough environment.
So I just think with him, he's got a pep in his step. He's excited every day. We went last year and beat Tennessee on the road in Knoxville. We're coming off the floor, and we haven't, you know, gotten to the edge of the hardwood there yet and he put his arm around my neck and said, I'm not used to this, Coach, winning on the road at a place like Tennessee. So for him, I think this two years that's he's played has just been a great -- it's been a great feeling for him. It's a good experience. He's won, he's been in the tournament. This year, in the league, we averaged I think 18,600 fans in conference this year. So he's gone from where he was for the first two years to having that every night when he walks out there. So I'm happy for him. And he just, his whole demeanor, I think, is much better. As far as Wake goes, they're good, and they're going to get good.
Danny's going to do a great job. He did a really nice job this year, walked into a tough situation and talent level may not have been the best. I thought he had them organized. He coached them really well. We are recruiting against him now every day. He's in our neighborhood too. So he's going to do a great job there too. So that will end up being a really good one right there for him.
I know I'm about to ask you to choose between which child you like best, but it does seem with this group, Ralston who you've known forever, Trevor who you've known forever and Cat who you have an affinity for. Seems like you enjoy coaching this group. Tell me about how this group maybe brings out the best in you too.
Because for the most part, each of those guys are different. Cat still to me is really young. I know it's a young player's game. But I've loved watching Cat develop, not just as a player, but I see him developing as a person, gaining confidence, his demeanor, his maturity. I love that about him.
With Trevor and Ralston, you've got to remember those guys, first of all, they're guys I've known for a long time. I'm eating at the Golden Corral in Norfolk, Virginia, with Ralston and his parents when my son is on the AAU team and they're 15. I watched him have two tough years at LSU. The team wasn't winning, wasn't a lot of fun. I wanted more for him because I care about him. Same with Trevor. He plays -- and even though I went to Alabama and coached there, it just wasn't a lot of fun for him at all. And you could tell that. When I watched him on television, it's like, God, the kid doesn't look like he's having much fun.
For those guys, to see them now flourish and play and play with confidence and it makes me feel good for those guys. So, you know, all the guys on our team, when you recruit guys, you feel like you get close to them. But I have known Ralston and Trevor a long time. I've known them since both of them, you know, eighth, ninth grade. So it's fun to watch those kids have success.