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As the NCAA looms, Will Wade and LSU have built another contender

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Previewing the #3 team in the SEC, the LSU Tigers.

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

It feels like it’s been ages since Will Wade got caught up in the FBI’s pay for play scheme, but it was just March of 2019. Wade was suspended, but was reinstated and continued to collect paychecks, and also continued to land elite prospects. Through it all, LSU also continued to win basketball games. They finished the 2019 season in the Sweet 16 (sans Wade at the helm), and won 20+ games again last year. No matter the season, no matter the roster, Wade continues to win. So why should we expect anything different this season?


Previous SEC Previews

LSU Preview

#3 LSU Tigers

Last Season: 21-10 (12-6 in conference) No. 37 KenPom

My Prediction: 18-8 (12-6, 3rd in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 3rd in conference

KenPom Projection: 17-10 (10-8 in conference) No. 38

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

HEAD COACH: Will Wade | Fourth Season, 67 - 32

This may not be a very kind section.

Will Wade is heading towards being fired, at some point. LSU is simply waiting for the SEC to bring the charges so they can fire Wade for cause and not have to pay some massive buyout. Wade broke all kinds of NCAA rules offering to pay players to get them to come play at LSU. IF there’s an elite player who has come through Baton Rouge during Wade’s time in charge, it’s a safe assumption they were on the take. If you decouple Wade’s blatant cheating and corruption from his coaching (which is entirely possible) Wade has proven to be at worst an adequate coach. He’s brought in talent (cough) and that talent has performed well. Wade does a good job of providing his players with a system to excel in, but they’ve been prone to lapses in concentration as well.

Seat Temp: WELP

lsu 10 year preview 2020

LSU has a long history of high highs and low lows, and that’s just in the last 10 years. Wade has done well to build back excitement and the brand of winning basketball, harkening back closer to when Dale Brown was running high end talent like Shaquille O’Neal or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and winning 5 SEC Championships, and 20 seasons of double digit losses out of 25 seasons. But there have been only 8 NCAA tournaments for the Tigers since John Brady took over after Dale Brown, so Wade’s two trips (supposing they made the tournament last year — which they would have) in three years, it’s easy to see why LSU fans have been a little more willing to except the warts that have come along with the Wade tenure.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Skylar Mays professional 31 85.44% 20.72% 22.23% 18.98%
Emmitt Williams professional 31 69.44% 16.47% 18.08% 15.55%
Marlon Taylor graduation 21 39.04% 4.97% 4.84% 5.17%
James Bishop transfer 16 10.88% 1.96% 0.89% 2.36%
Marshall Graves graduation 17 9.28% 0.96% 0.58% 1.02%
Courtese Cooper transfer 11 4.80% 0.48% 0.76% 0.44%
43.78% 45.56% 47.38% 43.52%

The straw that stirred the drink in Baton Rouge the last four years was Louisiana native Skylar Mays. There was a lot of praise for Mays and his role over the last few years in this space, and many others. He became a clutch shot-maker and big time playmaker, and really set the tone for Wade and his crew. Emmitt Williams came in with a lot of excitement, and he was an offensive rebounding monster, but his game never fully rounded into shape. Marlon Taylor was one of the most athletic players in the SEC the last few years, but he wasn’t the most skilled. James Bishop saw his playing time fluctuate, but didn’t see much during SEC play and transferred to George Washington. Courtese Cooper also had trouble cracking the rotation and transferred to Southern University.

THEN, WHO’S BACK

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Trendon Watford SO POST 31 78.24% 16.78% 55.50% 15.84%
Ja'Vonte Smart JR CG 31 84.88% 15.51% 51.90% 14.26%
Darius Days JR CF 31 58.32% 13.79% 59.80% 14.45%
Charles Manning SR WING 19 34.32% 6.01% 57.30% 5.97%
Audre Hyatt SO CF 29 25.36% 2.24% 40.10% 2.10%
56.22% 54.33% 52.62%
NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Trendon Watford | SOPHOMORE | COMBO FORWARD

A big recruiting win, Trendon Watford made his presence felt right away last season. He struggled defensively, but Watford is a skilled offensive weapon who was really tough to slow down no matter who was guarding him. He’s not super explosive, but he can score from all three levels and adds a great offensive dynamic to the team. Where Watford needs a world of improvement is on the defensive end. On that end, Watford was only slightly better than a sieve. His general lack of athleticism prevents him from being a big time shot blocker, but Watford can become a much more engaged and positional defender.

I might be the biggest fan of Darius Days, and have been since he was a recruit. Days has a great combination of sturdy rebounding and extended range shot making that most teams covet in a combo forward these days. Charles Manning is the kind of player every team needs— he’s a rock solid perimeter defender, solid outside shooter, low-usage guard who doesn’t complain about his role. And Aundre Hyatt had a bit of a fluctuating role last year but could be a regular fixture this season. He’s a wing with enough size to play some minutes at the four.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Javonte Smart | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD

The forefront of Wade’s troubles began with a “strong-ass offer” he made for Javonte Smart. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of money being exchanged, but Wade admitted on tape that the price seemed high for a “two or three year guy”, which Smart has turned into. He’s still a really good player, he’s good with the ball in his hands, although he’s not really a point guard. Smart is best as a scoring guard with a very strong complementary guard, and he has that again this year even without Skylar Mays. Smart may take a slight dip with his usage this year, but that could mean LSU’s offense excels.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Cameron Thomas 6'4 210 ★★★★★ 25 WING
Fr Mwani Wilkingson 6'5 215 ★★★★ 71 WING
Fr Eric Gaines 6'2 155 ★★★★ 93 CG
Fr Jalen Cook 6'0 205 ★★★ 153 PG
Fr Josh Gray 6'11 255 ★★★ 195 POST
SO Bryan Penn-Johnson 7'0 260 Transfer Washington POST
SO Shareef O'Neal 6'10 225 Transfer UCLA CF
JR Josh LeBlanc 6'7 230 Transfer Georgetown CF

The aforementioned complement to Javonte Smart is 5-star scoring freshman Cameron Thomas. Thomas is an elite scorer who is wired to score. Did I mention he likes to score? Thomas might be the freshman most likely to lead his team in scoring. Mwani Wilkingson is a physical wing who will fit easily into the rotation. He likes to attack the rim. Eric Gaines is a hyper athletic late blooming guard who shot up the rankings and the one word to describe him is electric. He has a huge ceiling. Jalen Cook is a nice looking point guard prospect, but he’ll have a hard time finding minutes in this deep guard rotation.

Maybe the most important recruits came by way of transfer with Bryan Penn-Johnson and Shareef O’Neal. Both can provide the one thing LSU was drastically missing last year, defense at the rim. Josh LeBlanc is a talented transfer from Georgetown who will have to sit out this year.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Ja'Vonte Smart Jalen Cook
(2) Combo Guard Charles Manning Eric Gaines
(3) Wing Cameron Thomas Audre Hyatt Mwani Wilkingson
(4) Combo Forward Darius Days Shareef O'Neal Josh LeBlanc
(5) Post Trendon Watford Bryan Penn-Johnson Josh Gray

You always start with what you know, and we know Javonte Smart and Trendon Watford are basically what this team is build around. And it’s hard to imagine Cameron Thomas and his scoring touch not being apart of any lead lineup. Wade has never been one to play a lot of guys, preferring to keep his rotations tight, only going about 7 or 8 deep. This hurts them defensively, because the best lineups the last few years (including this one) have been with a defender like Watford, who could best be described as passive. There is some size and rim protection, and playing Watford at the four could yield some of its benefits, but then you lose the scoring punch brought by Days or one of the guards.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 19-8 | KenPom Projected Record: 17-10

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 26 Neutral SIU Edwardsville 337 W
Nov 28 Away SLU 43 L
Nov 30 Neutral Southeastern Louisiana 331 W
Dec 6 Home Louisiana Tech 109 W
Dec 12 Neutral South Florida 88 W
Dec 16 Home New Orleans 313 W
Dec 19 Home North Texas 103 W
Dec 22 Home VCU 97 W
Jan 30 Home Texas Tech 6 L
avg 158.56 7-2

LSU rescheduled some games and went to Saint Louis to play SIU-Edwardsville and the SLU Billikens. They lost to SLU, and didn’t play well against SIU-E, and promptly sank in the rankings. The rest of the schedule is... not great. They’re forced into a tough game against Texas Tech thanks to the Big12 - SEC Challenge, but otherwise, their toughest opponent is a VCU team who’ll travel to Baton Rouge and a neutral court game against a decent South Florida squad.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 29 Home Texas A&M 64 W
Jan 2 Away Florida 24 L
Jan 6 Home Georgia 97 W
Jan 9 Away Missouri 55 L
Jan 13 Home Arkansas 50 W
Jan 16 Home South Carolina 66 W
Jan 19 Home Alabama 57 W
Jan 23 Away Kentucky 21 L
Jan 26 Away Texas A&M 64 L
Feb 3 Away Alabama 57 L
Feb 6 Home Florida 24 W
Feb 10 Away Mississippi State 81 W
Feb 13 Home Tennessee 18 W
Feb 17 Away Ole Miss 41 W
Feb 20 Home Auburn 75 W
Feb 23 Away Georgia 97 W
Feb 27 Away Arkansas 50 L
Mar 2 Home Vanderbilt 127 W
avg 59.33 12-6

Each of the last few years, LSU has started the season on a winning streak and this year sets up well for them to do just that. The only bumps in the road are the road games at Florida, — which should be projected as a loss, but it’s not unwinnable — and Missouri, a team LSU has struggled with in recent years but has eked out wins. So a 7-0 start wouldn’t be unheard of or shocking. A trio of road games to Kentucky, Alabama, and Texas A&M could be tough. LSU always seems to find one or two games to sleepwalk through, and a road contest at A&M kind of screams pitfall. But either way, this is a schedule where LSU should win a lot of games.

OVERVIEW

I’ve obviously been harsh on Wade above, but he deserves it. He’s collecting millions of dollars while the NCAA parses through enough evidence to charge him with wrongdoing. The likelihood of some kind of show-cause is high, as there are fairly recent reports of the NCAA gathering evidence from players Wade didn’t sign and an offering of payments. All in all, it’s just a really bad look. I’ll even add that I don’t really think Wade is a bad guy; it’s just a seedy dark underbelly of the sport that most fans and even the NCAA doesn’t want to confront. In a more neutral world, Name, Image and Likeness laws would be passed, and players would be able to collect money above board. But that’s not the rule book Wade signed up to adhere by, and he broke a lot of those rules.

lsu synergy 2020

It’s also weird talking about LSU in a strictly basketball context, when there are elitely talented players currently on the roster who knowingly signed up to play for a coach who is under the white-hot heat of NCAA scrutiny. But the reality is, LSU has a really talented roster, and they’re... gasp... pretty fun to watch.

The Tigers play up-tempo, and run modern offensive sets, they attack the glass on offense, and play with energy (on most nights). When they get Smart making shots on the outside, with Watford attacking from all angles, they’re just a fun basketball team. It’s probably what makes the lapses in attention or the lackadaisical defense more infuriating.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

It’s also why I like guys like Darius Days, or Charles Manning, as they’re more willing to do the dirty work to keep LSU’s defense afloat. And if there’s one area of the game where the Tigers are lacking it’s on the defensive end. They end up playing small and giving up easy baskets around the rim. Don’t believe me? With Days and Manning on the floor LSU gave up 0.92 points per possession, and without them on the floor that number was 1.01, per Hooplens. Manning is even more of a key, as he’s a better overall shooter and a truly elite perimeter defender. Somebody has to get some stops.

And the offense doesn’t suffer with Days or Manning either. As good as Smart and Watford are offensively (on the floor their lineups hit the 1.10 ppp mark), Wade needs to hold them more accountable on defense (on the floor their lineups gave up 1.02 ppp). The net difference of having Smart and Watford off the floor last year improved the Tigers’ efficiency margin from +0.08 ppp to +0.12ppp. This is all a long way of saying Wade runs good offense even without premier offensive weapons. Those premier offensive weapons make the sets more potent, but as a significant drag on the defense.

Something needs to improve if LSU wants to be more than just an NCAA tournament team, and focus more on becoming a second weekend type of team. They had a second weekend type of team two years ago, when Wade’s team committed to defending the rim and forcing turnovers. We’ll see how much defensive commitment they have this year.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

There really shouldn’t be a reason not to be optimistic about LSU this year. They’re talented and have solid depth, and are returning multiple players who’ve tested the NBA waters recently. That’s usually a combination for success. They should win at least 11 games in league play, and should easily make the NCAA tournament. It’s just up to the defense if they want to be more than that.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

Because it’s all going to come to a head, and probably soon. I don’t profess to say I know what the NCAA will do, but it seems like a case where a coach gets a show-cause. So at the least LSU is going to be hiring a new coach soon. Just how soon? Who knows, but they’re probably getting at least through this season before anything happens.


About the preview: In past years we’ve had a single Google Form where a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick of the entire league schedule game by game. Because the Coronavirus has impacted just about everything, the schedule came out so late we were unable to run through this process. I worked with Matt Harris to get as much of a consensus between our two outcomes of picks (they are still game by game) but in the end these are all MY picks. I’ve tried to include the SEC Media’s predictions and KenPom’s preseason ratings into the preview to set some kind of balance.


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.