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February 24, 2009

Mitchell sparks LSU's sudden rise in SEC

Junior forward Tasmin Mitchell is the reason Trent Johnson is coaching at LSU.

At least that's the way Johnson sees it.

Mitchell didn't do anything to cause John Brady to be fired a year ago. He didn't lobby to bring in Johnson. Heck, he didn't even play for most of last season � and that was the problem.

He played in only three games before he needed surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left shin bone. But while Mitchell was on the mend, Brady was fired last February and replaced by assistant Butch Pierre.

The players pushed for the administration to keep Pierre, but officials hired Johnson away from Stanford.

Johnson says that if Mitchell had been healthy all season, the Tigers wouldn't have gone 13-18 and wouldn't have fired Brady. Losing center Chris Johnson to a broken hand for seven games didn't help Brady, either.

Instead, Mitchell (6 feet 7/240 pounds) is helping Johnson look awfully good in his first season as LSU coach. At 11-1 in the conference, LSU quietly has become the top team in a weakened SEC. The Tigers lead the overall SEC title race by three games going into tonight's game with Florida, which is tied for the SEC East lead.

Mitchell's health has been a major reason for LSU's turnaround. He is second on the team in scoring (16.8 points per game) and rebounding (7.3 per game), and he is one of four league players averaging more than 20 points in SEC games. Another is LSU guard Marcus Thornton.

"For me, the sign of a good player or a great player is his ability to make other people better or make things easier for his teammates," Johnson said. " 'Taz' is commanding double teams in the post and making good decisions."

Mitchell was a starter and the fourth-leading scorer on LSU's 2006 Final Four team and is on pace for career highs across the board this season. He also has been one of Johnson's most versatile defenders, working against frontcourt players and perimeter shooters.

"Probably lost in all this is he's doing a good job of guarding bigger players at the "4" [power forward] and he's had some games in non-conference on perimeter players," Johnson said. "He's playing as well as you could expect right now."

Mitchell, point guard Garrett Temple and Chris Johnson were part of the Tigers' 2005-06 team that won the SEC and went to the Final Four. Mitchell and Temple started as freshmen that season. Since the Tigers lost to UCLA in the national semifinals, though, most of the past two seasons have been unbearable for Mitchell. LSU was 30-33 overall and 11-21 in the SEC in the two seasons after the Final Four appearance.

By the numbers
Tasmin Mitchell played only three games in the 2007-08 season because of a stress fracture in his left shin bone. Toss out that season, and Mitchell's numbers have improved in each full season he has played.
"I wasn't too used to losing. I never won a [national] championship, but we won the SEC championship," Mitchell said. "We always had winning seasons. � I was just thinking 'in due time.' It was due for a good season for us. It was due for us to have a breakout season."

Before that happened, Johnson, 80-48 in four seasons at Stanford, needed to take stock of his program. Academics were a concern. So was team chemistry.

When he first arrived, Johnson kept his team out of the gym; he wanted his players in the classroom or the weight room instead.

"For me, the worst thing I could do is get into the gym and start to push them," Johnson said. "They needed to get away from the game. There was a lot of negativity around the program.

"The conditioning was a huge concern. We weren't as a strong as we needed to be. We wanted to start fresh in the fall."

As for repairing chemistry, he put some of that burden on Mitchell. Though Temple was voted team captain, Johnson urged the vocal Mitchell to be a captain in all but name.

"[He said], 'You know how you're missing the one link to the puzzle that you just can't put together?' " Mitchell said. "Coach Johnson said I'm the guy that makes everything go around me and makes everybody play hard and brings that team chemistry."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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