The 1981 LSU men’s basketball team had everything a team needed to make a serious run at a national championship.
Those Tigers had a silky-smooth point guard, strong perimeter play led by a high-scoring shooting guard, and a tough front line featuring an All-American and a shot-blocker at the forward spots and a menacing center.
LSU even had one of the best sixth men in the entire country, the leader of a deep group of reserves coach Dale Brown referred to as his “reinforcements” — his way of not demeaning them or their importance to the team.
They piled up a school-record 31 victories, claimed the Southeastern Conference regular-season title after starting 17-0 in league play, and put together an impressive 26-game winning streak that helped earn them the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Midwest regional.
“It was a fun year … it was very exciting,” recalled Howard Carter, the Tigers’ sharpshooting guard. “We were real talented, and we felt like we had all the pieces we needed. We had every position covered, and we even had a guy coming off the bench that would have started for any other team.
“We were very confident,” he said. “I remember how confident we were.”
The Tigers weren’t the only ones who thought they would win it all that year.
But in clinching the program’s first Final Four berth in 28 years with a regional final romp against Wichita State in the Superdome, LSU suffered the one thing even the most talented teams can’t overcome at tournament time: an injury to All-American forward Durand Macklin.
Macklin, the Tigers’ leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, fractured the pinkie finger on his shooting hand against Wichita State and with that misfortune, point guard Ethan Martin and Carter said recently, went their national title hopes.
“We had the whole package, we really did,” Martin said. “You can’t lose your main man. When you get to the Final Four, everybody there can play.”
In Philadelphia, LSU lost to Indiana in the national semifinals with a less-than-effective Macklin. Then, Brown’s team fell to Virginia 78-74 in the last consolation game ever played — just hours after an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
“The way I remember it, the injury to Rudy (Macklin) kind of took away our momentum,” Carter said. “At first, we didn’t think it was that serious an injury. We thought he would play, but at the time we didn’t know how it would impact him in the Final Four.”
It did, and Macklin scored just four points against Indiana even though he had eight rebounds. LSU, which had a 30-27 halftime lead, scored only 19 points in the second half and went down 67-49.
Indiana, not LSU, climbed the ladder two nights later to cut down the nets as national champion.
“We had a wonderful season,” said Martin, who ably directed the team with his ball-handling and passing skills. “We won the SEC title, we had a 26-game win streak, we had a bunch of guys who cared about each other and we had great coaches who believed in us.
“Overall, that season was a lot of fun,” he said. “It would have been better if we had topped it off and won the (national) title. But we had lots of fun getting to that point. To this day, I believe we had the better team and would’ve won the whole thing if Rudy hadn’t gotten hurt.”
“I remember the team being real confident,” Carter said recently. “We almost were overconfident, but we were young guys back then and the adrenalin was flowing when we got into the tournament.”
In addition to Martin, who averaged 11.5 points and 5.6 assists, and Carter, who led the team at 16.0 points per game in shooting nearly 52 percent from the field, LSU relied heavily on Macklin, freshman forward Leonard Mitchell and 6-foot-10 center Greg Cook.
Guard Willie Sims came off the bench to contribute 8.5 points per game for a team that also had current LSU coach Johnny Jones, a freshman guard, as one of its main reinforcements.
Both Martin and Carter said the 1981 Final Four season, even though it ended on a bitter note, was more special to them because they were homegrown.
Carter starred at perennial state champion Redemptorist High and Martin came from McKinley, another prominent basketball power in the late 1970s.
“Getting there was a real good experience,” Martin said. “We kind of faltered at the end, but it was a great experience getting there.”
Brown still contends the 1981 team, which finished 31-5 and rose as high as second in the AP rankings, was the best in the 108-year history of the program.
“It was a team that had unique qualities,” Brown said. “We had a bunch of guys who were easy to coach … and they were fun to coach. They all just kind of fit together like a glove on a hand, and Ethan was the key to that.”
That cohesiveness served them so well that Brown said he had a feeling his team was going to win it all — until Macklin’s unfortunate injury.
“I just thought we were on a roll; I had a feeling,” Brown said. “We capped that thing off in the Superdome, but then Rudy hurt his finger. Injuries happen, but without that I think we would have won it.”