They've been ridiculed, cuffed around and even quarantined. They've gone through winning streaks and losing streaks, and according to Coach Dale Brown, they've done it with a combination of guesswork, voodoo and a wild defense called "The Freak."
Louisiana State meets Louisville Saturday at Reunion Arena (3:42 p.m.) in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, and there still are many questions concerning these bizarre Bayou Bengals. Who are you, LSU? What are you doing here?
For instance, get Brown doing his mystic number. Some might say his psycho-babble is not fit conversation on the eve of a Final Four, but it surely does get attention, sort of like Johnny Carson's Carnac.
"I have certain feelings about ESP," Brown said. "You might laugh, but there's something in us, it's electricity, and it's going from one player to the next. I don't know if its destiny or magic, but I feel really good. Everyone feels good, right down to our trainer."
Laugh while you can, because it's actually as good an explanation as any for LSU's strange progress from disgrace to Dallas. The Bengal Tigers (26-11) have suffered various controversies this season ranging from silly to sad, and they have displayed an uncanny knack for getting themselves in and out of trouble with equal ease.
"We've had a lot of adversity and a lot of guys criticized," point guard Derrick Taylor said. "But we peaked at the right time. It's been a roller-coaster year, but they gave us our chance and we took it. We're here now, and it's ours as much as anyone else's."
A team that started 14-0, LSU lost four players to various problems, physical and otherwise. Even now, after this team has pulled off a triumphant reversal of its season, there is the sneaking suspicion that another outbreak of chicken pox or academic ineligibility could strike at any moment.
As recently as the start of the tournament, there were murmurs of trouble. Reserve forward-center Jose Vargas of the Dominican Republic was the subject of an NCAA inquiry directed toward all foreign players. The allegation against Vargas was that he had played in a semipro league over the summer in his native country. According to a sports information office spokesman, LSU provided proof that Vargas did not play in the league, and Brown has refused comment until after the season. Year of Disruptions
That was the latest and least significant episode in LSU's year of tragicomedy, which began when center Tito Horford of the Dominican Republic pulled his now-you-see-him, now-you-don't act. The freshman first turned up at LSU when the NCAA declared that he had been illegally recruited at Houston. But on Nov. 2, LSU announced that Horford had been dropped from the team for failing to show up at practice and an intrasquad game. He later enrolled at Miami (Fla.), after making a cameo appearance and prompting rumors in Washington, D.C.
Also in the fall, reserve guard Dennis Brown was lost to academic problems. Although he was due to become eligible again on Jan. 1, he was redshirted instead. Then, over Christmas break, the Tigers lost another center when 7-footer Zoren Jovanovich tore up his knee in a pickup game. He underwent reconstructive surgery.
Despite all the disruptions, LSU nevertheless won its first 14 games. But on Jan. 23, 6-8 forward-center Nikita Wilson was declared academically ineligible and an exhaustive series of appeals failed to get him reinstated. That was undoubtedly the most crushing loss. LSU's team captain and second-leading scorer, he averaged 13.1 points and six rebounds.
"There's no comparison -- the most difficult thing was Wilson," Brown said. "If there was going to be a straw that broke the camel's back, that was it. I saw going out the window our captain, our leader, and the guts of our defense."
There was more: Following Wilson's last game, a 74-65 loss at Florida, a number of players complained of sore throats and displayed red welts. On Jan. 23, the same day Wilson was declared ineligible for the rest of the year, chicken pox broke out. Leading scorer John Williams and reserve Bernard Woodside were hospitalized and all team members who were not immune were quarantined.
From there, the Tigers slowly began rebuilding. It is a testament to their depth that they have managed to scrape together a more than passable collection of starters.
Built around Williams, averaging a team-high 17.9 points and 8.4 rebounds, they have become a complete team. That was made clear in the earlier rounds of the NCAA tournament, when Williams, a brilliant sophomore forward, went into a scoring slump. Four of the starters have risen way above their averages to carry them in tournament play, which culminated with last weekend's 59-57 upset of Kentucky in the Southeast regional final.
Thrown into the middle was center Ricky Blanton, a 228-pounder from Miami with a quick smile and a newly acquired penchant for banging. A sophomore reserve guard before the series of problems, he has since conducted himself admirably. He averaged 6.2 points and 4.8 rebounds, shooting 59 percent from the floor, during the regular season. But he has averaged 9.3 points per game in the tournament and was five for five from the field against Kentucky.
"It's been a big adjustment," he said. "It took a lot to go through all the downfalls I went through at first. It's been rough inside, no doubt about it, and I probably won't show the benefits until next year. But I can't worry about it. We're here now."
Don Redden, a senior from Monroe, La., has been one of the mainstays. A 6-6 guard, he was moved to forward when Wilson was lost. He averaged 12.7 points in the regular season but has averaged 21.5 in tournament play and was named MVP of the Southeast regional.
"I've had a hot hand and my teammates have realized it," he said. "I guess it's just one of those streaks or grooves a player gets in. I've had one game here and there, but I've never had one last this long." Steadying Influence
The steadying influence of the bunch is Taylor. The 6-foot point guard averaged 13.7 points for the season but 16.3 in tournament play, and he led the Southeastern Conference in steals. His partner in the back court is 6-5 Anthony Wilson, who came off the bench to start when Redden was moved to forward and averages 9.5 points.
Taylor, a fifth-year senior, knows perhaps a little more about the rise and fall of this season because he has been through something similar: as a sophomore he had a problem with academic ineligibility but survived it. He was further humiliated when as a joke his roommate told Brown he had failed classes because he spent too much time playing Pac-Man. Brown told the joke to sportscaster Al McGuire, who retold it on the air. Taylor never has played Pac-Man, but he was stuck with the story. 'The Freak' Defense
The unofficial symbol of the Tigers is the defense they call "The Freak." As far as anyone can make out, it is a mixture of zone, man to man, triangle, box and diamond. The players call the defense depending on the opponent's offense.
The point of the defense is to confuse the offense, except the Tigers often get mixed up themselves. "It gets pretty confusing," Taylor said. "Sometimes we don't know where we should be. It's so simple, I guess that's why it's so complicated."
The orchestrator is Brown, who is often the target of criticism and skepticism. But there is no question his frequently bizarre style has carried over to the team this season. He rants, harangues, and often speaks in quasi-philosophic terms -- "Time alters emotions," or, "Hype vanishes in environment." But his players buy it, even if they don't always catch his meaning.
"Coach Brown has a certain enthusiasm," Taylor said. "A certain fire. It's like a grapevine. It comes through and you can't help but feel it. That's the only way we're winning right now."