Saturday March 21st, 2009

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Marcus Thornton remembers sitting at home and watching LSU play in the 2006 Final Four.

Only it wasn't really home. It was his home for the time being, Kilgore College in East Texas. Home was really Baton Rouge, and he wanted to go back. They all do.

Thornton was a freshman guard at Kilgore -- a brief detour from his plans to play Division I hoops because of academics -- and was watching not just his hometown university play on college basketball's biggest stage, but also his friends. On that Tigers roster were eight players from in and around Baton Rouge, including friends such as Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Tyrus Thomas, Garrett Temple and Tasmin Mitchell.

"It was a beautiful thing," says Thornton of watching the Final Four, "just to see the fans and how they were so into the game, before the game even started, and to see the smiles on [the players'] faces. It was a joy for me just knowing them as players and people. I just wanted to be in that position. I have that chance right now."

LSU, the No. 8 seed in the South region and 75-71 victors over Butler on Thursday, is still in that position -- though a steep challenge, No. 1 UNC, awaits them Saturday -- in no small part thanks to Thornton. The 6-foot-4 two-guard, who features a nearly-unblockable lightning-quick release, lifted floaters, banked intermediate jumpers and drained long three-pointers, all on 10-of-15 shooting for 30 points.

"He's Mr. Clutch right now," said center Chris Johnson.

That wasn't the case during the Tigers' brief cameo in the SEC tournament. LSU, which had won the regular-season title, was upset in the quarterfinals by Mississippi State, in part because Thornton shot just 5-of-19, including 0-of-6 from beyond the arc. But that game was the aberration from a season in which he's averaging 21.0 points per game, is shooting 47.3 percent from the field and 38.4 percent on threes and was named SEC Player of the Year.

Say what?

That's right, despite being overshadowed all year by Kentucky's Jodie Meeks and at times on his own team by Mitchell, a former top 10 national recruit, Thornton's less heralded production as the best player on the league's best team earned him the award. It's also fair to say he has the distinction of being the nation's most unknown major conference player of the year -- an assessment he agrees with.

"A lot of people don't really know about me, but I like being the underdog," Thornton says.

Now Thornton has the chance to join friends Mitchell and Temple in the NCAA tournament.

Rare in college athletics today does a school's teams represent its original demographic as much as LSU does. Four of this year's starters and two reserves are from Baton Rouge or a suburb, and two others are also from in-state.

Temple, who played point guard the last three seasons but moved to small forward this season, has often been called a glue guy for his selfless, often unquantifiable contributions to the team, but he's a central cog for LSU in a few other ways. His father, Collis Jr., was the first African-American player in program history, and his oldest brother, Collis III, was a double-digit scorer for the purple and gold from 1999-2003.

Garrett Temple is a fifth-year player, already equipped with an undergrad degree in business administration who is pursuing an M.B.A., has also at times served as an unofficial tutor. Freshman Chris Bass (whose brother, Brandon, also played at LSU) once flagged down Temple in study hall for some math help. Temple gave some advice and, on the ensuing exam, Bass says, "I did pretty well."

And nothing brings the team together quite like Temple's mom's shrimp and crawfish fettuccine. "She's hooking it up, man," Mitchell says, smiling as if he could taste it.

Because so many players have been friends, teammates and youth league opponents for years -- several of the friendships date back to when they were six years old -- they share families too. Most Sundays, the team will gather at the home of one of their families for dinner. Temple says he has the support of several "second moms," and some of them fondly remember childhood playtimes. "Sometimes I'd get dropped off at Marcus' house and we'd spend days or weeks together," sophomore point guard Bo Spencer says. "We'd just have fun."

Of the six most local players, Mitchell is the only not within the city limits. He hails from Denham Springs, exactly eight minutes east of campus. Yes, Mitchell has timed the drive several times. (Seven minutes is his personal best.) But he remains close enough that he can ably express the city pride the players share.

"It's good to let them know that we've still got ballplayers in Baton Rouge," Mitchell says. "We've got to represent Baton Rouge."

LSU suffered through a tumultuous 2007-08 season in which the Tigers managed just a 13-18 record and saw their longtime coach, John Brady, get fired. New coach Trent Johnson, hired away from Stanford, has helped restore the burgeoning LSU legacy from earlier in the decade.

For this year's surprise SEC champs, Thornton is the star and Baton Rouge's best hope for an upset against Carolina. Even after his 30-point outing against Butler, he demurs when talking too much about himself and the accolades he's received.

"It's called a team and that's what we play as," he says.

But at LSU it could almost be called a family.

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