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March 1, 2013

Tech's success built on defense

RUSTON - Great shooting isn't required to play for No. 25 Louisiana Tech. Neither is the superior ability to handle the ball or rebound.

Only one attribute is absolutely necessary.

"You've got to be in shape," senior Brandon Gibson said, shaking his head. "Full-court defense all game is no joke."

It's that frantic, full-court pressure that has been the bedrock for Louisiana Tech's resurgence into the national rankings for the first time in nearly three decades. The Bulldogs (25-3, 15-0 Western Athletic Conference) are on a 17-game winning streak that's lasted more than two months.

They can earn at least a share of the conference title with a victory over San Jose State (9-17, 3-12) on Saturday.

It's a recipe that doesn't require any stars. Just an 11-player rotation that's a blur of the school's red, white and blue uniforms as it creates havoc for opponents.

The Bulldogs are fifth in the nation in turnover margin and those extra offensive possessions provide the needed margin of victory on most nights - even if their shooting touch is marginal.

"It's just a lot of energy, intensity and want to win," said sophomore guard Raheem Appleby, who leads the team with 14.7 points per game.

Second-year coach Michael White said he didn't come to Louisiana Tech looking to recreate a version of Arkansas' famous '40 Minutes of Hell.' But after he arrived on campus in March of 2011, he quickly realized the roster was limited in a few areas.

The most problematic was shooting. The Bulldogs weren't - and still aren't - intimidating when it comes to that critical aspect of the game. They shoot a very pedestrian 41.4 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3-point range.

But running, that was some they excelled at doing. So instead of dwelling on the lack of scoring ability, White focused on what his team did well.

"We were picked last in the league that first season, we had nothing to lose and we were so unproven offensively," White said. "So we just decided early in the year, we'll extend pressure because we are pretty quick and athletic. We'll substitute based on effort and aggression, and I found out going through the WAC that we were really the only team that did that."

It didn't translate to instant success. But Louisiana Tech finished with a respectable 18-16 record last season and made a run all the way to the WAC tournament finals before losing to New Mexico State.

That's when White decided to go all-in on his full-court defense.

"I had a few scholarships available, so we just went out and signed as athletic of players as we could find so we could ride this momentum," White said.

But Gibson said the Bulldogs' defense wasn't built overnight. There was plenty of sweat equity.

Gibson grimaced as he talked about the misery of all the 44s (four sprints up and down the basketball court in 44 seconds) and 22s (two sprints up and down the basketball court in 22 seconds) that led to this point.

The end result: players who can run all day. And if someone does get tired, there's always another body ready to replace him.

"He expects a lot out of us," Gibson said. "And sometimes we'll look at him like 'This man's crazy.' But he really gets the most out of us."

The baby-faced White played for Mississippi in the late 1990s, starting at point guard as the Rebels advanced to the NCAA tournament three straight seasons. He was also an assistant coach at Ole Miss for seven seasons before taking the job at Louisiana Tech.

Now 35 years old, he looks 10 years younger, and Louisiana Tech's players say his enthusiasm and laid back manner have been a big hit.

"When it's time to play, he loves this game just like we love it," Gibson said. "He's still young and he just finished playing this game. He knows everything that we're going through."

And now Louisiana Tech is going through the pressure-packed games that will decide whether the program advances to the Big Dance for the first time since 1991.

Despite 25 wins, the Bulldogs don't have an overall resume that would assure a bid to the NCAA tournament as an at-large team.

So the victories need to keep coming. White feels good about his team's chances since he has 11 players who have "sold out" to the team's philosophy and don't care who gets the credit.

"We've been through a crazy two-month run," White said. "I didn't think we'd be sitting here 25-3. I thought we could be near this good defensively, but I knew we'd be up and down on offense. We're still a relatively young team.

"The biggest factor to me is we've got a high-character group who is OK with playing 14 minutes on Thursday and then maybe 35 on Saturday depending on how productive they are."



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