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LSU’s rebuild is ahead of schedule

Will Wade’s quick roster overhaul, and an elite point guard, pose a test for Mizzou on Saturday (1 p.m. CT, ESPN2).

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

When LSU joined the market for a new basketball coach last March, their wares were among the most intriguing.

No doubt, football reigns supreme in Baton Rouge. And anyone who’s spent time in the city will quickly glean that baseball, with its 18 trips to the College World Series, a $37.8 million stadium and $1.5 million in profits, rates ahead of hoops. The running joke is that basketball has two months — between the end of football in late November and the start of baseball season in February — attract a following among a rabid fanbase.

Still, the Tigers own a venerable hardwood history.

First, Pistol Pete. Oh, the Big Aristotle, too. Over 25 years, coach Dale Brown won almost 60 percent of his games, claimed four SEC titles, earned 13 NCAA tournament bids and twice reached the Final Four. And John Brady made four trips the Big Dance, including a Final Four run in 2006, during his 11 seasons on the job.

At most schools, a basketball program with 21 NCAA tournament trips, four Final Fours and 10 conference titles would be revered. At times, though, it barely rates in south Louisiana.

But to coaches willing to take a closer look, it’s evidence that there’s a chance to build a perennial winner.

Resources aren’t an issue.

First, LSU’s athletic department is a treasury, one whose operations spent $141 million and still cleared $17.5 million in profit, according to data submitted to the U.S Department of Education. And while LSU’s alumni base is small, there’s a large concentration in oil and gas -- the largest’s out of state concentration is in Houston — and helps explain the nearly $51.6 million in booster support two years ago, according to Tiger Athletic Foundation financial records.

At most schools, handing out the five-year, $15-million contract given to Will Wade would count as pushing chips to the middle of the table. At LSU? Reaching parity with other high-majors is affordable. Wade doesn’t need to worry about infrastructure, either. He arrived and inherited a $15 million practice facility that’s only seven years old.

Salary? Check. Facilities? Yep. Talent?

Well, Louisiana is underrated, finishing fifth in elite recruits per capita. And the pressure to stay within The Boot is immense. Taken together, LSU has all the components to regularly contend atop the SEC. All it needs is a head coach to marshall those resources.

Once the Tigers moved on from Johnny Jones, LSU’s search zeroed in on Middle Tennessee’s Kermit Davis, a former assistant under Brady, VCU’s Will Wade and former Indiana coach Tom Crean, who once employed Eddie Nunez, then LSU's associate athletic director overseeing basketball. The move to lock down Wade, all of 35 years old and with just four years of coaching experience at Chattanooga and VCU, came swiftly, too.

Three days after VCU’s second-round loss to St. Mary’s in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva and former associate AD Eddie Nunez, flew to Virginia to interview Wade for the LSU vacancy. Alleva was already familiar with Wade’s work, having served five years on the NCAA Tournament committee, and Nunez, who played under Billy Donovan at Florida and is now the athletic director at New Mexico, is well-connected among college basketball coaching circles. “When we left,” Nunez says, “I had goosebumps. I turned to Joe, and I said, ‘Joe, everything about that guy – his demeanor, his mannerisms, the way he talks – everything reminds me of Billy Donovan.”

And therein lies the calculus for the Tigers: mimicking Florida’s ascent with a precocious up-and-comer to pair with football-generated largess. Even then, expectations were modest for his debut campaign, one where he inherited a 10-win team that had lost 15 in a row and slogged to a 2-16 SEC record last season.

His roster? Guard Brandon Sampson, a Baton Rouge native and top-100 prospect, was back in the fold. So too was center Duop Reath. Yet no one would assume that local prospects in combo forward Aaron Epps and wing Skylar Mays — a pair solid three-star prospects — were elite components for a quick turnaround. Forward Craig Victor, a former top-100 recruit, had been booted during Jones’ swansong campaign. Guard Antonio Blakeney bolted for the NBA. Jalyn Patterson redshirted and transferred. Lastly, center Elbert Robinson, a former top-60 recruit who battled conditioning issues, stepped away from the program.

Like Cuonzo Martin, Wade spent his first three months on the job gutting and rehabbing his roster on the fly. He held on Brandon Rachal and Galen Alexander, a pair of in-state recruits inked by Jones, and imported center Mayan Kiir, a VCU signee who followed the coach west.

Wade’s coup, though, was landing point guard Tremont Waters, a top-50 prospect who could shoot from the perimeter, pull up off the bounce, had a soft touch on floaters and owned stellar floor vision to thread needles in traffic. Lastly, Wade plucked Daryl Edwards, the No. 3 JUCO wing in the country, to go with grad transfers Randy Onwuasor and Jeremy Combs — a trio that was supposed to provide some hint of experience.

Naturally, scribes picked LSU to finish dead last.

Four months later, though, the Tigers have exceeded expectations. Take a look at their resume. Wade’s group is 6-6 against the KenPom top-50. A mishmashed roster is 34th in offensive efficiency, while its defense — still porous at 134th and routinely leaving Wade exasperated — is far from the abomination that was the worst among high-major programs last season. Coming into Saturday’s tilt against Missouri, the Tigers are on track to finish between eighth and 10th in the SEC standings — a coaching job overshadowed by the resurgence of Tennessee, Mizzou and Auburn.

Athletic Director Joe Alleva’s investment is reaping dividends already, too.

Not only does Wade bring back Waters, but Sampson and Edwards should join him to form solid backcourt trio. Wade’s also quickly ramped up LSU’s recruiting, snagging the No. 3 class in 2018, a group that includes three top-40 prospects in Nazreon Reid (No. 18), Emmitt Williams (No. 24) and Ja’Vonte Smart (No. 34). Don’t forget Daris Days, who just happens to check in at 54th in 247Sports’ composite index. There’s also forward Kavell Bigby-Williams, an Oregon transfer who sat out this season.

The present, however, is just as intriguing. LSU’s five remaining opponents sport an average KenPom rating of 70.3, and the Tigers have a cumulative win expectancy of 53.8 percent. If they prevail in a home toss-up against Mizzou, Wade’s crew has a workable path to a finish that exceeds a projected 8-10 SEC mark.

Eleven months ago, it was fair to wonder where LSU would turn next. Now, there’s a new bit of intrigue: What’s their ceiling in the years to come?