When Dale Brown looked at his Louisiana State basketball team on the first day of practice Oct. 15, he saw three 7-footers, including Tito Horford, two of the more talented forwards in the nation in John Williams and Nikita Wilson, and veteran guards who could make the whole thing go.
"I didn't want to put pressure on them by telling them," Brown said yesterday.
"But there was no question, on that day this team was destined for greatness. We had every element possible.
"But this has been the most bizarre season I've ever been involved in. . . . It began to crumble, and we're still trying to get it back together."
The 17th-ranked LSU Tigers bring a 16-5 record into Capital Centre at noon today for a nationally televised game (WDVM-TV-9) against No. 12 Georgetown.
But Brown's word "crumble" accurately describes what has happened to his team, and to LSU in general, this year.
A chicken pox outbreak, which hospitalized Williams and reserve Bernard Woodside, caused the postponement of one game and threatened today's game with Georgetown before doctors cleared the Tigers to play.
Two coaches, Auburn's Sonny Smith and Kentucky's Eddie Sutton, didn't seem to think it was that simple. After the postponement of the Auburn game last Saturday, Smith said he considered it strange that LSU practiced the next day.
And when Williams -- who was supposed to be out for at least two weeks and who had been pronounced in quarantine by LSU officials -- showed up on the bench for the Kentucky game Wednesday, Sutton wasn't exactly thrilled.
Williams, the Tigers' leading scorer and rebounder, probably will play against Georgetown.
Just before the chicken pox outbreak, Wilson was declared academically ineligible for flunking math and psychology in the fall semester. Wilson exhausted his final appeal, with the school's chancellor, on Friday. That was after Wilson had appealed to the instructor, the department head, the dean and the vice chancellor.
Wilson was the team captain, "the best captain I've ever been associated with," Brown said.
A few weeks earlier, during the holiday season, 7-footer Zoran Jovanovich suffered a serious knee injury that ended his season. So LSU, then 14-0 and ranked in the top 10, has lost two 7-footers in less than three months.
Then, of course, there was the well-chronicled escapade involving Horford, who first said he would never attend LSU, then enrolled, began practicing and mysteriously departed Baton Rouge on an odyssey that finally landed him at the University of Miami.
Even before Horford's departure, 6-11 Damon Vance was declared academically ineligible, 6-8 Jerry (Ice) Reynolds went the hardship route to the NBA, and Dennis Brown -- by all indications a good engineering student -- came up short on his number of major courses and also was declared academically ineligible.
"If you count Williams and Woodside, we lost eight men we counted on having this season," said Dale Brown, who went out and got a football player and another walk-on to join the team just so the Tigers would have enough bodies to conduct practice.
"We're talking about being, essentially, eight players down when we walked into Kentucky Wednesday night," Brown said.
Then there is the matter of Athletic Director Bob Brodhead, who is being investigated by a federal grand jury for bugging his own office, allegedly to eavesdrop on NCAA investigators interviewing LSU basketball players.
LSU's troubles have been the talk of the Southeastern Conference. The Atlanta Journal referred to LSU in Friday afternoon's editions as "LSZoo."
Wherever there is controversy, there is Brown. He and the NCAA have been fighting all year. The university even called in Brown and asked him to tone it down a bit.
Now, here's Brown again, trying to guide his team in the midst of a stretch of five games in seven days, four of them on the road.
"We're going to have to pull something out of a hat soon," Brown said at about 3 a.m. yesterday, only 10 hours before his team was blown out, 92-76, at Georgia.
"But you can extract good from bad it you discipline yourself. When we took the players to the hospital with the chicken pox, we went to the emergency room and saw an assaulted woman and a baby who'd been thrown through the windshield of a car. Our troubles are relative.
"Maybe I can say this now because I don't have anything else to prove as a coach. But this has been a worthwhile experience. I wish it hadn't happened. But I've never felt more proud of a team, and we lost the game" against Kentucky, 54-52, on a last-second jumper.
"I wasn't sure that you could be happy in defeat . . . but with all the things that have happened this season, as bizarre as it's been, it's been most fun. You wake up wondering what else can happen, though."
When Horford left school, Brown said, "it was like an anvil was lifted off my neck. I said, 'Things will get back to normal now.' "
Well, in some ways things are not that far from normal at a school where controversy is the sixth man.
After references in one conversation to Leonardo da Vinci and the dynamics of the submarine, Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, and Kipling, Brown said he is about to take matters into his own hands.
"I'm going to become more animated," he said. "I'm actually looking forward to it. I can't believe I am. I'm really not down about this.
"I'm always shooting off my mouth about my theories and ideas; anything's possible with the mouth. It's up to me to now implement them. Here's the test."