After seven years of nonstop salesmanship, LSU Coach Dale Brown has quit talking and started cooking. And for hungry basketball fans in Baton Rouge the taste of success is better than a Creole banquet at Ralph & Kacoo's.
Louisiana State beat Alabama 86-66 last Thursday to run its record to 22-3, clinch the SEC regular-season championship and become the top seed in the league's inaugural tournament next week in Birmingham.
It has been 25 years since LSU last slogged its way out of the basketball bayous. In 1953 and '54 Bob Pettit, now a New Orleans bank executive, led the Tigers to one outright SEC title, one co-championship and two NCAA appearances. In the seasons since, the highlights have been few and the disappointments many—one trip to the NIT in 1970 (with Pete Maravich's sagging socks) and only four winning records in conference play.
Now the Tigers have their best team ever and, according to the polls, one of the five best in the country. This in itself is a notable achievement, but the fact that it was accomplished almost entirely without LSU's best player in the lineup is amazing.
While the Tigers were playing Mississippi a couple of weeks ago, Rudy Macklin was sitting on the bench in street clothes, snapping pictures with a Polaroid camera. Macklin, a 6'7" junior forward, averaged 19 points and 10.6 rebounds last year, but after the first two games this season, in which he had 46 points and 24 rebounds, he broke his left foot in practice and has not played since.
"When Rudy first got hurt I developed a Joan of Arc complex," says Brown. "I felt like a martyr. I had expected an outstanding season, but without Rudy I was worried." Instead of collapsing, the Tigers rose to meet the challenge. "We knew we'd all have to play harder, and after a few weeks we just forgot about him," says sophomore Forward De-Wayne Scales, who has emerged as the new star at Louisiana State. Sophomore Guard Ethan Martin adds, "We didn't know what we were capable of doing, but we wanted to prove to ourselves and everybody else that we could win without Rudy. Now we've learned we can play ball as well as he can."
As it turned out, the person who had the hardest adjustment to make was Macklin. "It's been tough," he says. "You never realize how much you love the game until you are unable to play. All I can think about is that I'm alone and not doing anything. That's why I'm studying three hours a day and, after that, playing cards or chess with the guys. I've got to keep my mind off not playing."
LSU has become so good without Macklin that it boggles the mind to think how good it would be with him. The Tigers lead the SEC in scoring, winning margin, field-goal percentage and field-goal-percentage defense, and have lately shown they can play effectively at either a fast or slow tempo. "We've become a complete team," says Brown. "We're capable of winning it all this year. But we're also out there having fun, too. The players haven't shown an ounce of pressure."
The Tigers have succeeded by accepting and executing roles as sharply defined as the tasks on an assembly line. Oddly, the main roles are the reverse of what one might expect, with the 6'9" Scales handling most of the outside scoring and 6'2" Guard Al Green taking care of the inside punch. Center Lionel Green rebounds, Forward Greg Cook knocks bodies around, guards Ethan Martin and Willie Sims take turns steering the offense, and Jordy Hultberg comes off the bench to fling line-drive jumpers at the basket. Two weeks ago, as the Tigers swept Auburn and Mississippi, Hultberg shot 17 for 21.
Had Macklin been available, LSU's unique Mr. Inside-Mr. Outside combination of Scales and Al Green might never have developed. Scales likes to set up low and then dart out to the top of the lane where he can receive a pass and fire his arching jumper. He is scoring 19.6 points a game on devastating 57.6% long-range shooting. Green goes down low and stays there, sneaking around with slithery moves that produce a bucket or a foul or often both. He is averaging 18.5 points a game on 63% shooting and has made 48 more free throws—a total of 131—than Scales has attempted.