Meanwhile the LSU Tigers were edging Mississippi 58-53, for their fifth consecutive win. They are safely into the big dance with a record of 11-4 in conference play, 18-8 overall. Considering that they had four losses in non-conference play (to West Virginia 84-69, Southern Mississippi 88-84, Houston 81-72, and Utah 69-55), it has been a big turnaround. Their only conference losses have all been on the road: Alabama (73-58), Kentucky (89-58), Tennessee (77-55), and Arkansas (65-62). Their conference road wins are at Georgia (95-79), Mississippi State (80-72), Auburn (77-64), and Mississippi. At home the Tigers have defeated South Carolina (79-64), Arkansas (66-63), Mississippi (70-60), Mississippi State (69-62), Auburn (90-69), Florida (77-72) and Alabama (61-59).
50-year old John Brady is in his eighth year as coach of the Tigers. He took over at a time when the basketball situation at LSU was grim because of NCAA penalties incurred because of previous transgressions, and for years he had to work with a reduced number of scholarhips. His record is now 138-100, remarkable considering the circumstances. In 1999-2000 his team had a 28-6 record, best in the SEC that year, and the Tigers made it to the Sweet 16. 2005 will mark LSU's third NCAA appearance under Brady.
Brady, who replaced long-serving Dale Brown, arrived at LSU without fanfare. He had been head coach for six years at Samford University, compiling a decent but not sensational record of 89-77. A native of McComb, Miss. and a graduate of Belhaven College, he had earlier served nine years as an assistant coach at Mississippi State under Bob Boyd and Richard Williams, after a seven-year stint at Crowley, La. High School.
Since the departure of 6-8 sophomore Regis Koundjia after the first six games of the season, Brady has relied almost entirely on just eight scholarship players. Fortunately for the team, there have been no major injuries and all but one of the eight has appeared in every game. Three walk-ons-- 6-10 junior Paul Wolfert, 6-3 junior Josh Maravich, and 6-0 freshman David Fleshman-- see very limited duty.
The leading scorer and star of the team is 6-8 sophomore Brandon Bass (AP photo by Phil Sandlin), a likely all-conference selection. The 250-pound Bass is scoring 17.4 ppg and is the number two rebounder (8.6 per game). He also blocks nearly two shots per game and even hits the occasional three, although he operates mainly near the basket. In his five most recent games, he has scored 21, 27, 15, 22, and 13 points, and against Mississippi State pulled down 17 rebounds.
The most noticeable player is 6-9 Glen Davis, a massive 310-pound freshman who eats up space beneath the basket. He is scoring 13.1 ppg and leads the team in rebounds with 8.8 grabs per game. With so much weight, Davis doesn't get off the ground very well, but he does get up and down the floor with surprising speed. He is a cinch for the conference all-freshman team.
5-11 sophomore point guard Tack Minor (11.0 ppg) has settled down considerably this season, and his assist/turnover ratio is now a respectable 5.0/3.5. He has blazing speed and quickness, always a threat to drive to the basket, and is a fairly good outside shooting threat (30.9% of threes made). He plays about 30 minutes per game, and gets help from steady 6-2 senior Xavier Whipple (2.1 ppg), who has a better than 2:1 ratio on assists/turnovers.
6-6 senior Antonio Hudson averages 36 minutes per game and scores 12.2 ppg. Sometimes he tends to be overlooked, but he is a good outside threat (36.9% on three-point attempts), and also gets 3.3 rebounds per game. Before the season began, Brady said that he needed consistency from Hudson, and he has gotten that.
The main outside scoring threat on the team is 5-11 shooting guard Darrel Mitchell, who is the number two scorer (13.4 ppg). Mitchell averages six threes per game, hitting on 37.6% of them, and is the team's best free-throw shooter (83.5%). He leads the team in steals with about two per game.
Two useful reserves are 6-9 sophomore Ross Neltner and 6-8 sophomore Darnell Lazare. Neltner (2.8 ppg) plays more and recently hit the winning shot against Alabama. He is also a good rebounder. Lazare (2.0 ppg) gives seven or eight minutes of relief to the big men.
A look at team statistics suggests that LSU is a better offensive than defensive team. The Tigers rank second in the conference in shooting percentage and free throw shooting and fourth in points scored per game. They are third in assist/turnover ratio and assists, fourth in rebounding margin, sixth in shots blocked, and seventh in both field goal shooting and percent of three-pointers made. They rate lowest in three-point defense (12th), field goal defense (8th), and points allowed (11th).
This is a game that Vanderbilt could win if the Commodores are able to take advantage of LSU's weakness in defending the three. They are likely to get drubbed on the backboards, and will have a lot of trouble stopping Bass and Davis from getting put-backs and scoring underneath. A victory will allow LSU to at least share the championship of the Western Division, or take it outright if they win and Alabama loses at Mississippi State on Saturday. LSU is picked here to win by five to eight points.