Dale Brown took all kinds of heat last weekend when his Louisiana State Tigers got to play their first two games of the NCAA basketball tournament's Southeast regional at home in Baton Rouge.
But not many people expected Brown's Marauders, as he has referred to them, to reach the final 16. However, here they are, and Thursday night at 9:09 p.m. they will get a taste of what Purdue and Memphis State had to chew on, as they face Georgia Tech in the regional semifinals at the Omni.
LSU makes up a third of the Southeastern Conference contingent competing here. Top-seeded and third-ranked Kentucky will take on fifth-seeded Alabama in the opening game Thursday at 6:37 p.m.
"If we were in four different regionals, there is the chance the SEC would play a conference tournament in Dallas next week," Kentucky Coach Eddie Sutton said of next week's Final Four. "This is kind of like the SEC invitational, and Georgia Tech used to be one."
The second-seeded Yellow Jackets (27-6) played six games this year at the Omni, finishing with a 4-2 mark.
The Yellow Jackets were able to return to Atlanta to play because, in the Baton Rouge round, they beat Marist, 68-53, and Villanova, the defending NCAA champion, 66-61.
"I hope it does help," said Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins, "but I don't think it will help Georgia Tech as much as it helped LSU last week. But we'll be lucky to have 50 to 100 students in here because this thing's been sold out for months. All the SEC fans will probably cheer for SEC teams."
But Brown, while playing the valiant underdog role for all it's worth, said his club isn't backing down, mainly because it has nothing to lose.
"There is not one person who will be in those stands that can block a shot or steal the ball away from us," Brown said today after his team worked out in the 16,000-seat Omni. "Sure, they can get behind them and maybe give them a boost, but if you need a crowd to stimulate you at this time of year, you must be a zombie."
But Brown said his Tigers will play anybody.
"We'll play on Red Square," he said. "I'd like to play the Salvation Army on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem."
Those weren't Brown's only historical or geographical allusions.
In discussing past performances in unfriendly confines, he referred to Kentucky's Rupp Arena as the "Roman Colosseum," and later said, "Jesse Owens -- now, that was pressure, going to the Olympics in front of El Sicko Adolph Hitler ."
This season has been a tad disconcerting for Brown and LSU. Last season ended with a first-round loss to Navy in the NCAA tournament, and the status of Tito Horford was a topic of discussion throughout the summer. Forward Nikita Wilson was averaging 13.1 points and six rebounds a game when he was declared academically ineligible in January, and 7-foot, 247-pound reserve center Zoran Jovanovich ruined his knee in a pickup game over Christmas.
On the court, the Tigers started 14-0 but then lost six of their next eight games, including a 74-72 loss to Georgetown at Capital Centre on Feb. 2.
"Anything's possible," Brown said. "These guys have persevered and believed in the system. This is a very resilient team. Mentally, it's the toughest team I've ever coached. We've had to change our whole defensive game after losing those players. We now have 11 players and nine of them are guards. It's like changing course in midstream."
Indeed, the Tigers, who before the season were thought to be among the tallest in the SEC, will take the court Thursday with only two players 6-8 or more. One is 6-8 forward John Williams, who is listed as the center and leads the team in scoring (18.3) and rebounding (8.6).
"We said we're not coming here just to have a meal, but we do have a major hurdle in a super Georgia Tech team," Brown said.
That Georgia Tech team (27-6) has had to deal with starting the year No. 1 and trying to play up to it. And playing at home certainly doesn't lessen the pressure.
"The expectations have been high all year," Cremins said, "and it's hurt."
Alabama hasn't been hurt by preseason hype. In fact, the Crimson Tide may by a bit underrated. If they had a deeper bench, they might be outstanding.
But in the SEC, this was Kentucky's season. The Wildcats (31-3) lost only once in the conference (to fellow final-16 member Auburn) and beat Alabama and LSU three times.
Kentucky beat Alabama, 76-52, in their first meeting, in Lexington, then won, 73-71, in Tuscaloosa on a Roger Harden 25-footer and, finally, 83-72 in the final of the SEC tournament in Rupp Arena.
Sanderson will likely use a 2-3 zone against Kentucky all-America Kenny Walker, who was 11 of 11 from the floor and 10 of 13 from the line in the Wildcats' 71-64, second-round win over Western Kentucky in Charlotte, N.C.
"Heck, I thought I'd gotten away from these guys," Walker joked. "Alabama is a great team. They know everything about us and we know everything about them. The bottom line is to come ready to play."