GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP)—Tasmin Mitchell took a feed on the block Wednesday during LSU’s open workout, spun around and kissed a layup off the glass.
Getting the Tigers to the NCAA tournament every year was supposed to be that easy, too. Or so Mitchell thought, anyway, after a freshman season in which he helped lead LSU to its first Final Four in two decades.
“Every team goes into the season thinking they can make it to the Final Four, especially if we made it the year before that,” Mitchell said. “The sky’s the limit for the team. You know, as the seasons played out, it didn’t go as planned.”
No, it didn’t.
A broken leg, a coaching change and a pair of mediocre finishes later, and Mitchell finally has the eighth-seeded Tigers (26-7) back in the bracket. They’re preparing for ninth-seeded Butler in a South Regional first-round matchup marked by an intriguing juxtaposition of the teams’ experience levels.
The young Bulldogs (26-5) have had to mature quickly into tournament regulars, making the field of 65 for the third straight year despite a starting lineup that has three freshmen joined by a pair of underclassmen—sophomore Matt Howard and junior Willie Veasley—who have become team leaders by default.
“We talked about being inexperienced, but between (Howard and Veasley), they played seven NCAA tournament games, so those guys understand what this is all about,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said.
The senior-dominated Tigers, meanwhile, start four fourth-year players—but only two of them, Mitchell and guard Garrett Temple, logged significant minutes on LSU’s most recent NCAA tournament team.
Those 2006 Tigers advanced to the national semifinals before struggling badly enough during the years that followed that coach John Brady was fired midway through last season. It didn’t help that Mitchell played just three games that year before taking a medical redshirt and having surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left shin.
“Me and Garrett sit back and talk about it all the time—remember it was like this, remember that game,” Mitchell said. “That’s over with. We’ve got to try to get back where we were. The two years after that, you know, we kind of really, really dropped the ball. We really proved to teams that, OK, LSU is not the same as 2006.”
These Tigers aren’t much like the ones of the past couple seasons, either.
Under Southeastern Conference coach of the year Trent Johnson, LSU won the league’s regular-season title by going 13-3. But they slipped into a late-season swoon that included losses in three of four games and probably was responsible for their drop to a No. 8 seed.
To regain their swagger, they’ll need to find a way to handle a Butler team that built its reputation as one of the nation’s most dangerous mid-majors by taking down several teams from BCS conferences.
Since 2000, the Bulldogs have knocked Maryland, Mississippi State, Louisville and Wake Forest out of the tournament. Last year, they took Tennessee to overtime before falling in the second round.
“It’s in the perception of what people think we should do, is the main thing,” forward Matt Howard said. “So when they see us, as a mid-major, going up against them, people will assume that we’re going to have to elevate our games. In some regards, we may have to.
“But I think more than that it’s just the fact that you have to play tough against those teams, because you may be a little smaller, or maybe a little more athletic. But as long as you’re executing, that can go really far. When the team’s more athletic than you, you’ve got to do the things that you do to outwit them.”
Then again, maybe the Horizon League has begun to close the gap with the mighty SEC—which claimed only three NCAA bids to the Horizon’s two.
Both teams won their respective regular-season conference titles but were upset in their tournaments by the eventual champions, Butler by Cleveland State and LSU by Mississippi State.
“Whether it was strength of schedule or what,” Temple said, “the SEC just wasn’t the old SEC this year.”
It was, however, the same Butler—even if it really wasn’t supposed to be.
Not much was expected of these Bulldogs after they lost four starters and the sixth man from last year’s team that had a school-record 30 wins. But behind Howard and three freshmen who combined to contribute nearly 30 points per game, and employing the same deliberate, space-conscious offensive system, Butler hasn’t missed a beat in Stevens’ second season.
“A lot of people didn’t really expect us to be here. Last year was sort of the opposite situation,” said Howard, the only returning starter. “When we’re playing really well, we’re moving the ball, we’re spaced really well. When you’re not spaced really well, stuff becomes cluttered, and it’s hard to get good shots. So when we’re playing well and executing, and we’re in the spots that we’re supposed to be, our offense flows a lot better.”