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As potential NCAA trouble looms, LSU should still be really good this year.

Previewing the #4 team in the SEC, the LSU Tigers

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Maryland vs LSU John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Limbo is described as an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition.

It’s also an apt description of LSU basketball is right now.

Last year, Will Wade, the second-year head coach of Tigers, was suspended by the school after he was caught on an FBI wiretap with Christian Dawkins, who was at the center of a federal probe involving shoe companies and recruiting violations. Wade was overheard discussing a payment offered to Javonte Smart, a guard and a Baton Rouge native. Additionally, there were reports he made a similar pitch land big man Naz Reid. With those allegations swirling around the program, Wade’s superiors made the smart move: suspend the coach as they scrambled to figure out whether a fire was smoldering around the smoke rising up from the PMAC.

But Wade lawyered up. LSU relented. And now Wade is back on the job.

Why?

The university’s general counsel likely realized that for all the evidence hinting at a scandal, none of it was airtight enough to fire Wade for cause. Or at least until the NCAA makes a case stick. However, the powers that be in Indianapolis haven’t dropped a notice of allegations off in Baton Rouge.

So until that happens, this marriage isn’t annulled.

Oh, and he returns the makings of a pretty decent basketball team, too.


Previous SEC Previews

LSU Preview

#4 LSU Tigers

Last Season: 28-7 (16-2 in conference) No. 19 KenPom

My Prediction: 21-10 (11-7, 4th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 11.2-6.8 (3rd in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 3rd in conference

KenPom Projection: 19-12 (10-8 in conference) No. 38

Texas A&M v LSU Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

HEAD COACH: Will Wade| Third Season, 46-22

Assessing Wade’s body of work is a challenge under the circumstances. At VCU, he was an able caretaker after Shaka Smart departed for Texas. A slight dip took place, but nothing that caused alarm. Meanwhile, he remained on the radar of athletic directors hunting for a young, charismatic and analytically-inclined coach.

When LSU hired him, Wade managed to import some quality talent to stabilize the program, along with a centerpiece in point guard Tremont Waters. Before Wade became bogged down with wiretaps and the minutiae of contract law, his first season was a mild success. Meanwhile, the Tigers tore up the recruiting trail, which set up a run for last season’s regular-season SEC title — the school’s first in a decade.

They held on to win that crown in spite of Wade sitting out three games. After getting bounced in the SEC tournament quarterfinals by Florida, Wade returned to lead a run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, capping a 28-win season. Yet the vibe around the program oozed uncertainty. Yet here Wade is, sitting through media scrums and deflecting uncomfortable questions about his future.

How do LSU fans feel about the matter? Well, most seem to view Wade’s plight as persecution in the face of asinine NCAA bylaws. His potential violations were excused by the notion that every program is making clandestine payments to players. However, Wade’s sport is probably behind football and baseball in terms of popularity. If recruiting dries up under increased scrutiny, the backing of the fanbase might go with it.

Seat Temp: WARMING

lsu 10 year look 2019

LSU lives at the tail ends of a distribution. The Tigers are either contenders or mired in relative mediocrity, with very few seasons in the middle. Yet the program has always had immense potential. It’s made three trips to the Final Four. It counts Bob Petit, Pete Maravich, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Jackson, Glen Davis and Ben Simmons among its alumni. Its facilities are top-notch, and there’s more than enough money sloshing around the booster club’s bank account. In other words, all the resources exist to be a perennial NCAA tournament team. If they can avoid the worst of the NCAA’s wrath, there’s reason to think they can be a factor in the SEC.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Tremont Waters professional 33 74.56% 17.90% 18.58% 14.91%
Naz Reid professional 34 64.46% 16.45% 13.75% 12.89%
Kavell Bigby-Williams graduation 35 51.43% 9.77% 13.00% 10.29%
Daryl Edwards transfer 9 10.73% 1.42% 1.00% 2.15%
40.24% 45.54% 46.33% 40.24%

Waters was a joy to watch over the past two seasons, and the hole he leaves behind is gaping. The point guard generated almost 20 percent of LSU’s offensive output, while his defense — he was fourth nationally in steal rate — triggered easy buckets in transition for the Tigers. For a young team that could be a sieve defensively, flipping possessions was crucial.

As for Reid, who went unpicked in the NBA draft and signed as a free agent, Wade might have overpaid. The center never quite fit what LSU strived for offensively. The five-star freshmen excelled at spacing the floor and attacking off the dribble. However, he spent most of his time playing on the block and with subpar results. And for all his size and athleticism, Reid struggled as an interior defender, often hunting for blocks.

Where Reid thrived was cleaning the glass, along with Kavell Bigby-Williams, who used offensive rebounds and dump-offs to the short corner as his prime scoring outlets. Daryl Edwards transferred early on in the season after losing playing time to younger players, most of whom are back for Will Wade this year.

AND, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Skylar Mays SR PG 34 80.77% 16.70% 57.90% 17.12%
Javonte Smart SO WING 34 70.80% 13.36% 47.70% 10.54%
Emmitt Williams SO CF 34 46.97% 8.45% 65.10% 10.00%
Marlon Taylor SR POST 28 57.00% 8.28% 55.10% 7.41%
Darius Days SO POST 30 35.54% 6.54% 60.80% 7.53%
Marshall Graves SR POST 4 5.99% 0.99% 52.10% 0.86%
Audre Hyatt R-FR WING REDSHIRT
Courtese Cooper R-SO CF TRANSFER
59.41% 54.32% 53.46%
NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Skylar Mays | SENIOR | COMBO GUARD

Mays’ decision to return was the first in a slightly surprising series by crucial pieces of Wade’s roster. For a while, it looked like Wade’s uncertain future had triggered a mass exodus. Once LSU announced Wade would be retained, everyone but Waters and Reid signed up for another season. Mays predated Wade, but he might be the most essential player hanging around.

Playing off Waters, Mays was adept at spacing the floor as a shooter, but was better with the ball in his hands and attacking. He was good at drawing fouls and getting to the line, and even though his shooting was spotty last year, he was rose to the occasion when LSU needed him to make a play. With the ball in his hands more this year, Mays should put up some big numbers.

Emmitt Williams wasn’t a focal point of LSU’s offense, but managed to scrounge up consistent offense by crashing the glass. Now that higher-usage players have moved along, it opens up more touches for the sophomore. The same reasoning should apply to Darius Days, who is a capable floor-stretcher at combo forward but got lost in the shuffle as a freshman. He supplied shot-making in small doses, but more minutes and an expanded role seem likely this season.

Marlon Taylor doesn’t do a whole lot of things well, but he’s a freak athlete and smart enough to know his limitations. Often, defenses sagged off the JUCO product to clog up the floor, but Taylor used that extra space to launch just 59 attempts behind the 3-point arc. If the senior can be a replacement-level shooter, he might be primed for a big season. Both Courtese Cooper and Audre Hyatt sat out last year with redshirts. Cooper is a stretch-four kind of big. Hyatt was a late addition to the roster a year ago and is a bit of a developmental wing.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Maryland vs LSU Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Javonte Smart | SOPHOMORE | COMBO GUARD

When you’re the reason a coach got suspended, it’s not standard practice to stick around. For a while, Smart appeared to be reading from that playbook, tossing his name into the NBA draft mix. However, the former five-star guard and hometown product reversed course once Wade’s status stabilized.

With Waters entrenched at point guard, Smart was pushed off the ball and slightly out of his element. Down the stretch, though, Smart adapted and became a pretty good spot-up shooter. This season, the ball figures to be in his hands more, while Mays moves to combo guard and serves as a secondary creator. It should also allow Days to flex between the wing and combo forward spots. When Smart had chances to navigate ball screens or attack defenders solo, he produced good results. We should more of that from him this season.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Trendon Watford 6'9 230 ★★★★★ 17 POST
Fr James Bishop 6'2 170 ★★★ 152 CG
So Charles Manning, Jr. 6'6 180 ★★★ 22 WING
Jr Deshawn Thomas 6'9 250 ★★★ 28 POST

The big get was Trendon Watford. Watford was an LSU lean but seemed to sideline the Tigers once Wade’s future seemed tenuous. By now, you know Wade’s return cleared up any issues, and it helped the top-20 prospect feel assured in pledging to the Tigers. The 6-foot-9 Watford fits the mold of a modern forward — a reliable shooter to pull defenders off the baseline and nimble enough to navigate tight spaces around the rim.

The rest of the class is mostly filler around Watford. James Bishop is a wing who profiles more like an undersized combo guard. Still, his sound shooting stroke could help him earn spot minutes. Wade also has an affinity for athletic wings who’ve spent time in the JUCO ranks, and Charles Manning Jr. seems like the heir to Taylor. Deshawn Thomas was a teammate of Manning’s in junior college, and he’s big. There isn’t much else to say because he doesn’t appear all that skilled, but he could throw his weight around on the interior.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Javonte Smart James Bishop
(2) Combo Guard Skylar Mays Marlon Taylor
(3) Wing Darius Days Charles Manning, Jr. Audre Hyatt
(4) Combo Forward Emmitt Williams Courtese Cooper
(5) Post Trendon Watford Deshawn Thomas

It’s an interesting roster, one Wade’s patched together on the fly and amid some uncertainty. The fact LSU is sitting on a pair of open scholarships tells you as much. Obviously, depth might be an issue, but Wade’s tended to keep his rotation tight and bench short. That approach works well when you have four former top-70 prospects in Watford (No. 18), Smart (No. 26), Williams (No. 35) and Days (No. 62) in your starting rotation. Meanwhile, Mays might be among the more underrated players in the conference. Toss in Taylor’s energy, and issues about Wade’s bench diminish.

And while Wade’s future is uncertain, he’s adept at managing a small cluster of players, who all can see clearly defined roles and minutes for them. Six bodies aren’t enough, so the question is whether Manning emerges as a back-up ball-handler, while Cooper or Thomas will contend for time behind Watford.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 21 - 10 | KenPom Projected Record: 19 - 12

NCAA Basketball: Richmond at VCU Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 8 Home Bowling Green 117 W
Nov 13 Away VCU 23 L
Nov 16 Home Nicholls 294 W
Nov 19 Home UM-BC 201 W
Nov 22 Neutral Utah State 68 W
Nov 24 Neutral Rhode Island 83 W
Nov 29 Home Missouri State 166 W
Dec 3 Home New Orleans 265 W
Dec 8 Home Northwestern State 347 W
Dec 18 Home East Tennessee State 74 W
Dec 21 Neutral USC 48 L
Dec 29 Home Liberty 88 W
Jan 25 Away Texas 32 L
avg 138.92 10-3

It’ll be cool to see Wade take his team back to his old stomping grounds at VCU, which is also a top-25 squad this season. The Rams return the vast majority of their rotation and are tough in Richmond. LSU will get all they can handle in a meeting between two teams steeped in the ways of Havoc.

It’s part of a laudable move by Wade to schedule feisty mid-majors. Under Steve Forbes, East Tennessee State’s become a consistent top-100 program in KenPom and a heavyweight in the Southern Conference. Utah State is the likely favorite in the Mountain West and led by Sam Merrill. Dana Ford has Missouri State on the rise in the Missouri Valley Conference, and Liberty is a prohibitive favorite out of the Atlantic Sun Conference.

The Tigers also locked in a pair of notable power-conference opponents. A semi-true road game in the Hall of Fame Classic in Los Angeles against USC won’t be an easy trip, as Andy Enfield tries to rebuild with a young talented roster. Then LSU will participate in the Big 12-SEC challenge by making a trip to Austin, where Wade will face his former boss in Smart and a loaded Texas squad.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 4 Away Tennessee 19 L
Jan 8 Home Arkansas 44 W
Jan 11 Home Mississippi State 53 W
Jan 14 Away Texas A&M 58 W
Jan 18 Away Ole Miss 60 L
Jan 21 Home Florida 12 W
Jan 29 Home Alabama 70 W
Feb 1 Home Ole Miss 60 W
Feb 5 Away Vanderbilt 148 W
Feb 8 Away Auburn 22 L
Feb 11 Home Missouri 39 W
Feb 15 Away Alabama 70 L
Feb 18 Home Kentucky 2 L
Feb 22 Away South Carolina 69 L
Feb 26 Away Florida 12 L
Feb 29 Home Texas A&M 58 W
Mar 4 Away Arkansas 44 W
Mar 7 Home Georgia 55 W
avg 49.72 11-7

Yes, drawing three games against Florida and Kentucky isn’t ideal, but those matchups aren’t front-loaded. Opening SEC play at Tennessee isn’t as daunting as it might seem, and following it up with Arkansas, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Ole Miss could prime Wade’s program for a fast start. Late January features a home against the Gators and a trip to Alabama sandwiched around a non-con game versus the Longhorns, and that’s when we might get our first true sense of whether LSU is a threat to repeat.

February is saltier than January, but the schedule relents later in the month into March. By the third week of the month, we’ll have a good read on Wade’s skeleton crew. Home games against Florida and Kentucky can be good or bad. An optimist sees two relatively young teams making a road trip to a hostile environment, while a pessimist views those games as robbing LSU of bankable wins against less-talented foes.

So what happens, a February swoon or a late-season kick?

OVERVIEW

As you can tell, Wade’s future tinges every conversation about LSU. On the court, his program has momentum, and it showed last spring that its culture is resilient enough to set up a deep run in March. In that sense, the current situation isn’t new for this roster. It’s merely the status quo.

leu shot chart 2019 preview
LSU Returning Players Shot Charts per Synergy Stats

On the bright side, any penalties the NCAA might dish out won’t impact this group. Barring Wade being fired mid-season, they can treat this season like any other. And through that lens, the roster is chock full of talent and could be a factor at the top of the SEC table.

Losing Waters hurts, but enough pieces are back from the league’s second-most efficient offense. Scoring won’t be an issue. A looming concern might be at the other end. LSU wasn’t elite defensively. In fact, there would be stretches where they were outright bad. But the Tigers masked those issues by bludgeoning opponents on the glass.

Survey the roster, and you’ll notice the lack of traditional bigs who rim protect and rebound. Instead, this group should be more athletic and mobile, which helps in the event they switch to slow down a bunch of elite guards around the league. But can they limit teams to just one possession? If LSU is more sound in its defensive approach and forcing contested shots, it might offset the lack of proven rebounders.

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Another is how capably Smart replaces Waters. If he does, it will be a stylistic contrast, but the sophomore has the skill level and mentality to take command of the offense. So long as Smart and Mays are healthy, I don’t anticipate many hiccups with LSU at that end of the court.

The onus begins to fall onto Watford and how effective he can be early on. While Reid had stretches of inconsistency, the overall body of work was solid. Often, Reid’s issues were simply a matter of a motor that would idle. That doesn’t appear to be a problem for Watford. He attacks offensively, goes to the glass, and works on defense. The depth is a concern, so any issues with health or — ahem — eligibility could force Wade to dip into the less experienced players on the roster.

Finding some consistent production from players seven through 10 on the roster could lift this team into the same echelon as Kentucky or Florida. But if that doesn’t come to pass, LSU shouldn’t fall far in the SEC pecking order. At some point, Wade might be called to the NCAA carpet. But that’s why LSU fans should just enjoy this run while it lasts. On the floor, the Tigers should be a joy to watch.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in the record prediction for the site listed at the top of the page, and within “the Masses” picks as well. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.