BATON ROUGE, La. -- It's just after 7 p.m. Monday on the LSU campus, prime time for frat-house chapter meetings, and Tigers coach John Brady and four of his players, Glen (Big Baby) Davis, Garrett Temple, Ben Voogd and Tack Minor, are standing at the front of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon dining room. They're on what amounts to the post-practice campaign trail: Earlier in a nearby parking lot, they crossed paths with an actual politician -- incoming Louisiana Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, on his way to speak to his son's frat -- before entering these odoriferous digs and attempting to drum up grassroots support for a Final Four encore.
Brady asks the assembled brothers, "Did you all see our game last year against Duke?" and proceeds to introduce Temple as the guy who locked up J.J. Redick. One of the frat boys interrupts, yelling, "You shut that fool down, Garrett!" and the room breaks up in laughter. Davis gives a Greek-adapted plea for increased student attendance -- "Bring your kegs, whatever you've gotta do to get loose," he jokes -- before he and his teammates dig into the leftovers from SAE's dinner buffet.
Even on a football-mad campus, LSU basketball is becoming a pretty easy sell. Following a season in which they won the regular-season SEC title and made a run to the Final Four, the Tigers lost the No. 4 pick in the NBA draft, Tyrus Thomas, but return one of the game's most iconic players in the Big Baby and enough companion pieces to be an outside contender for the national title.
The team distributed its 2006 Final Four rings in a subdued, informal setting after Tuesday night's practice -- as Brady said, there was "nobody dropping in from the rafters"; just the coach, the team and a tiny group of boosters, dignitaries (the mayor of Baton Rouge) and special guests (such as Brady's old college coach, Charles Rugg) who were there to receive honorary hardware. It was a fitting non-celebration of sorts for a team that knows it's capable of even bigger things this season.
Everything will center around Davis, who, after going out on a low (and exhausted) note by fouling out against UCLA in the national semifinal, worked out like madman in the offseason and cut his weight to the sub-300-pound zone. He opted to return for his junior season and is on a mission to erase the bad memory of the Bruins game -- he said he felt like it was "his fault" -- and prove he's a first-round NBA prospect. It's the developments amongst Baby's supporting cast, though, that will decide whether the Tigers have a monster season ... or fall into a second tier of title hopefuls behind the Floridas, Kansases and North Carolinas of the world. Here are three necessities:
Tasmin Mitchell has to become LSU's second star. Brady had a request for the former McDonald's All-American in the offseason: "I told Tasmin, 'I really need you to do something for me: Instead of averaging 11.4 points a game, like you did last year, you need to average 17.4.' He liked the way that sounded."
Mitchell seems capable: The 6-foot-7 small forward was the Tigers' most effective player in the season-ending loss to the Bruins, scoring 12 points and grabbing six rebounds. With Thomas and Darrel Mitchell gone, he needs to become option 1A on offense after Davis. "I can take on that task," Mitchell said. "Last year I had to give a little bit, but I know that this year the role has to be played by me and Big Baby."
They have to exploit the advantage of their new, super-sized backcourt. The two most intriguing players I saw in practice -- partly because of the "unknown" factor, but mostly because they looked good -- were LSU's two transfers, 6-5 two-guard Dameon Mason (from Marquette) and 6-6 combo guard Terry Martin (from Texas Tech; he's eligible on Dec. 17). Together with the 6-5 Temple, who is the early leader (ahead of Minor) to take the starting point guard gig, they could form the biggest backcourt in the SEC, a league that's loaded with size in the post but not on the perimeter. "Our length [in the backcourt] is going to be a big help; we're all athletic and can play disruptive defense," Temple said. Brady is not traditionally a zone-heavy coach, but don't be stunned if the Tigers extend their D, trap more and experiment with a long-armed 2-3.