Inside “The House That Pete Built” it’s quiet today. The basketball equipment — balls and nets and hoops and jerseys — have been packed away for another year at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. No one will be in need of them again for a few months.
High above the court four banners — five if you count the one from the 1935 “national championship” LSU won in something called the American Legion Bowl Tournament — mark the greatest achievements of Tigers basketball history. They record the years of LSU’s quartet of Final Four trips: 1953, 1981, 1986 and 2006.
Like the Coliseum or a great aqueduct stretching across Italy recall the glory that was Rome, the banners remind everyone who enters Pete’s Palace of the glory that has been LSU basketball. Those four shining seasons in which the Tigers achieved what all those so-called basketball schools achieve.
About 4½ hours west of Baton Rouge, players from North Carolina, Oklahoma, Syracuse and Villanova are hitting the court Friday inside Houston’s NRG Stadium (where LSU won the Texas Bowl in December) for the public practice day. All have been there before, with all but Oklahoma having won national titles in the past.
They are the schools that belong, it would seem. LSU belongs on the outside, holding up a pair of fingers hoping not to pay too steep a scalper’s price to gain admission inside.
It begs the question: Does it really have to be that way?
It’s easy to find arguments against why LSU should be a national power in basketball, the way it is in football and baseball. But frankly, if Oklahoma can make an appearance in the CFP semifinals and follow that four months later with a trip to basketball’s national semifinals, if a small Catholic school in Philadelphia can make it, if a school in frigid and often inhospitable upstate New York can make it, why not LSU?
It’s easy to come up with the arguments against LSU being one of those teams. But they can just as easily be shot down:
1. LSU is a football school; it doesn’t have the basketball tradition.
LSU’s basketball tradition is better than you think. Only 20 schools have made more Final Fours. Of those, only three Southeastern Conference schools — Kentucky with 17, Arkansas with six, Florida with five — have more appearances than LSU. The only other SEC schools to make it are Georgia and Mississippi State (once each). Only Kentucky has won more Southeastern Conference regular-season titles (47) than LSU (11). And when the NBA voted on its 50th anniversary team in 1998, no school in the country had more players on the list than LSU with three (Maravich, Shaquille O’Neal and Bob Pettit).
2. LSU doesn’t have the facilities.
Admittedly the PMAC, which opened in 1971, isn’t a shiny new venue anymore. But the identical practice gyms LSU built a few years ago for men’s and women’s basketball are top-notch. And the fact they were grafted onto the existing PMAC structure is not a small consideration. Florida just recently built a glittering basketball practice complex, but it’s a half-mile away from the O’Connell Center. Arkansas’ recently built basketball complex is across the street from its Bud Walton Arena. The biggest knock on LSU’s setup is that its basketball offices are across the street from the PMAC in the athletic administration building.
3. Louisiana doesn’t produce enough basketball athletes.
Craig Victor is from New Orleans. Jarrell Martin was from Baton Rouge. So was the incomparable Pettit, Brandon Bass, Glenn “Big Baby” Davis and Tyrus Thomas. The other starters besides Davis and Thomas from that 2006 Final Four team were from within 50 miles of LSU’s campus: Darrel Mitchell, Tasmin Mitchell and Garrett Temple (another Baton Rouge native). Louisiana may not churn out the basketball stars like it does in football, but they can be found. And LSU has to keep more of them at home. The Tigers didn’t land any of the top five players on this year’s 24/7 Sports composite list of the state’s best players, and that’s a problem that must be rectified.
All of these are issues that can be addressed, challenges that can be overcome. It shouldn’t be any harder for LSU to reclaim its standing on the national stage that it built in the late 1970s and into the 80s and 90s than it was for the school to overcome zero tradition and poor facilities to start making regular trips to the College World Series as it did 30 years ago. Now no LSU baseball season is truly complete without a trip to Omaha.
It all starts with an attitude, a determination, a will, like flying solo across the Atlantic or going to the moon. It starts with LSU stop saying “Why not” and instead asking “When?”
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.