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SEC Basketball Preview: Somehow Will Wade is still the head coach of the LSU Tigers

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Previewing the No. 7 team in the SEC, the LSU Tigers

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Louisiana State at Michigan Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get this out of the way: Will Wade sucks.

Talking about LSU without talking about Wade, his illegal approach to recruiting, and the Tigers’ resulting success, is a giant disservice. The actual on-court product has been outstanding, but FBI wiretaps give us a glimpse at the, uh, questionable way it came to be.

And by no means was Wade the lone ranger on this adventure, but it was against the NCAA bylaws, and recent (and overdue) advances in NIL don’t work retroactively. LSU is also a team recovering from a hefty amount of roster turnover after its most recent stars decided to turn more pro.

Once again, Wade imported a hefty amount of talent, so what challenges face the LSU Tigers this year? One quick caveat: this was all written before Adam Miller’s season-ending ACL injury occurred. I’m not switching rankings, but I’ll make a few edits to reflect that impact.


Previous SEC Previews

LSU Preview

#7 LSU Tigers

Last Season: 19 - 10 (11-6 in conference) No. 24 KenPom

My Prediction: 20-11 (9-9, 7th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 9.9 - 8.1 (7th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 6th in conference

KenPom Projection: 18 - 12 (9-9 in conference) No. 43

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

HEAD COACH: Will Wade | Fifth Season, 86-42

It’s hard to believe, but it was March 2019 when we first heard the words “strong ass offer,” as Wade described going beyond a full-ride and cost of attendance to keep Ja’vonte Smart home. Now, more than two seasons later, Wade still collects a multimillion-dollar salary after LSU — under the worry of what pain Wade’s lawyers might inflict — reinstated the coach after a brief suspension. Meanwhile, the NCAA’s enforcement arm kicked the case to an independent arbitration panel, which hasn’t handed down a ruling.

Even under that cloud, Wade’s continued to land elite talent. Perhaps it’s the allure of playing half-hearted perimeter defense or an offense that lets its players take turns playing out of isolations. Regardless, LSU’s remained competitive and an annual contender in the SEC. I don’t expect the season to be all the different, but there’s a catch: Wade and LSU cannot appeal the panel’s rulings—whenever they arrive. And it might hand LSU a convenient and buyout-free way to move on.

Seat Temp: PENDING

lsu preview 10 year look 2021

Had COVID-19 not interfered, LSU would be coming off a third consecutive NCAA tournament, but the last two saw the Tigers doomed middle-tier seeds. In the graph above, watch the yellow line. When LSU cared about defense in 2019, the Tigers were borderline elite. Wade has proven he can coach offense, never ranking lower than 12th in adjusted efficiency the last three years. Back in 2019, the program was a respectable 59th in adjusted efficiency at the other end. But the last two seasons saw them finish 179th and 124th, respectively. No matter how potent your offense can be, the margin for error almost disappears. LSU will likely be good again, but will there be a commitment on the defensive side to get them past being a marginal NCAA Tournament team?

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Javonte Smart professional 28 85.58% 18.89% 17.82% 18.55%
Cameron Thomas professional 29 84.38% 28.17% 23.17% 25.12%
Trendon Watford professional 28 83.18% 19.27% 18.51% 20.77%
Josh LeBlanc transfer 25 35.88% 3.37% 6.27% 3.62%
Aundre Hyatt transfer 24 32.88% 4.22% 4.95% 4.45%
Jalen Cook transfer 20 12.88% 2.61% 2.78% 2.67%
Charles Manning Jr transfer 6 9.18% 1.05% 0.97% 1.39%
Josh Gray transfer 10 2.83% 0.34% 0.23% 0.53%
Bryan Penn-Johnson transfer 5 1.37% 0.08% -0.10% 0.24%
69.63% 78.00% 74.60% 75.18%

Smart, the player at the center of the Wade controversy, played uncontested for three years at LSU, a minor miracle. As the 35th ranked player in the 2018 class, he received his offer in 2017, oddly enough the same year he committed to play at LSU. Weird, right? Smart was really good for LSU and improved each year. Once Smart moved off the ball, he learned to pick his spots and improved his shooting to improve his professional prospects, and it worked.

Trendon Watford was leaning towards committing to LSU but decided to open things up when Wade got suspended. Once Wade and LSU reached a reconciliation, Watford signed on. Weird, right?

Watford was one of the most skilled big men in the league and a monster on offense. But he seemed to have a passing interest in defense and tended to float on offense when not the featured threat. It’s why LSU’s defense suffered the last two years. Watford wasn’t a rim protector, and in trying to show his switchability on the perimeter, opponents could feast on open driving lines and met little resistance in the paint. But he was an elite offensive talent for sure.

Freshman Cameron Thomas was just a stud. There’s no other way to describe the offensive technician who spent his one season in Baton Rouge. Thomas was just wired to score, especially when using his dribble to create space for jumpers and a knack for drawing contact. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him averaging 20 points or more in the NBA in a few years.

Gone also are Josh LeBlanc, one of the few guys on the roster who seemed to enjoy defending, and Audre Hyatt, an effective wing. Neither pressed the attack offensively but fit their roles well and helped elevate a roster that focused hard on the three main offensive cogs. Jalen Cook struggled to find consistent minutes behind Smart and freshman Eric Gaines Jr. and opted to transfer to Tulane. Josh Gray also saw very little playing time but certainly has the body and athleticism to play at this level; he moved to South Carolina.

Charles Manning was an elite defender who left early in the season, and Bryan Penn-Johnson never saw minutes at Washington or LSU. And he transferred again.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Darius Days SR CF 28 64.89% 13.67% 64.00% 15.59%
Mwani Wilkinson SO WING 27 39.48% 4.05% 80.30% 6.31%
Eric Gaines SO PG 29 33.56% 3.08% 36.40% 2.15%
Shareef O'Neal JR POST 10 12.53% 1.18% 45.10% 1.42%
Parker Edwards JR WING 5 1.20% 0.00% 0.00% -0.07%
Brandon Egemo SO PG 2 0.17% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
30.37% 21.98% 25.40%
NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Darius Days | SENIOR | COMBO FORWARD

As much publicity as Smart, Watford, and Thomas received, Days was an overlooked but vital piece that filled in the gaps. A willing defender, Days was also a capable enough scorer to provide that much-needed fourth option in the LSU isolation offense. Days provided floor spacing, and he also excelled in second-chance opportunities. LSU lost 10 games last year. Days played in 9 of those losses, averaging 4.6 points. In 19 wins, Days played each time and averaged 14.8 points. In 9 losses, Days made three 3-pointers...combined. In 19 wins, he sank 52. Having one more threat on offense changed the whole game. Days had the best net rating of any LSU starter with a 0.139 PPP differential. Basically, LSU was almost 14 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor, the best among any roster member.

If Mwani Wilkinson is left out of the rotation this season, something is wrong. The former top-80 wing was sensational in limited appearances because of a willingness to play without the ball. Wilkinson had an absurd 80.4 effective-field-goal percentage, reflecting a player who understood their role and how to pick their spots in an offense with dominant pieces. Meanwhile, freshman Eric Gaines Jr., a long and lean point guard, showed flashes of being the best perimeter defender. If the point guard’s facilitating skills improve, LSU will be better off.

I’m not sure what to do with Shareef O’Neal, the son of Shaquille O’Neal. The younger has flashed a world of talent but has struggled to stay healthy. If he’s able to do that, it’s still hard to project where O’Neal fits. He’s shown enough skill at times to be a combo forward, but with the size of a center, it’s all just a guessing game.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Efton Reid 6'11 235 ★★★★★ 26 POST
Fr Justice Williams 6'3 170 ★★★★ 54 WING
Fr Alex Fudge 6'8 185 ★★★★ 57 WING
Fr Brandon Murray 6'5 215 ★★★★ 81 WING
Fr Jerrell Colbert 6'10 215 ★★★ 131 POST
Fr Bradley Ezewiro 6'8 245 ★★★ 265 POST
So Adam Miller 6'2 185 transfer Illinois WING
So Tari Eason 6'8 215 transfer Cincinnati CF
Sr Xavier Pinson 6'2 155 transfer Missouri PG
NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier Pinson | SENIOR | COMBO GUARD

Since this is published on a Missouri blog, we know Pinson well. In Columbia, he had a system tailored to his strengths and almost 31 percent of possessions flowed through him. Yet Pinson never truly leveraged them. He was a below-average finisher at the rim, and when he did shoot the ball from the perimeter, the results were streaky. If Pinson wasn’t getting whistles, it could be tough for him to produce. Pinson flashed tantalizing ability, but he’s never quite put it together consistently enough. If that happens in Baton Rouge, he’ll be a terrific addition.

Wade also landed Tari Eason, an athletic combo forward from Cincinnati. Unfortunately, Eason was less boom and more bust last year. Though he’s talented, the former top-150 talent didn’t quite hit as a freshman, and after Cincinnati’s rough season, he took the chance to refresh at LSU.

Wade’s freshman class is also a talented one, led by five-star post Efton Reid. Reid is one of the more traditional back-to-the-basket type post players in the class, and he’s big and talented. Justice Williams is an athletic but undersized wing with a workable jump shot but is more at home attacking the rim. Alex Fudge is a very similar player to Williams but about 4 inches or 5 inches taller, probably more cut out to be a proper wing or combo forward type on this roster. Finally, Brandon Murray is yet another freshman wing, but a little bulkier and more physical.

Jerrell Colbert is a slight forward prospect who is still a little unpolished offensively but is athletic enough to make things happen around the basket. The last member of the freshmen class is a physical and undersized post, Bradley Ezewiro, a California native who attended Oak Hill Academy.

Adam Miller is out for the season with a torn ACL, but I wanted to keep what was written about Miller here: The saga of Miller’s transfer from his home state school in Illinois to play for Will Wade’s band of misfits in Baton Rouge is an interesting one. The talented scoring guard out of Chicago was a heralded recruit, started every game, played over 25 minutes per contest, and seemed fixed as a breakout player once All-American junior Ayo Dosunmu moved on to a professional career. Still, Miller left, unhappy with his role as a freshman on a team that ended up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Had he returned, Illinois would likely be a top 10 team again (and might still be without him). Miller is talented, and even in his rocky first year, he still held a 101 offensive rating and made 34 percent of his 3-pointers. It remains to be seen how Wade’ll deploy him, but I’d expect him to see a lot more shots and possessions.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Eric Gaines
(2) Combo Guard Xavier Pinson Justice Williams Adam Miller*
(3) Wing Mwani Wilkinson Alex Fudge Brandon Murray
(4) Combo Forward Darius Days Tari Eason Jerrell Colbert
(5) Post Efton Reid Shareef O'Neal Bradley Ezewiro

Wade has a penchant for investing heavily in a few players and keeping his bench short. Tremont Waters, Skylar Mays, and Duop Reath were the only players to see more than 60 percent of the minutes in his first season. In Year 2, it was Mays, Waters, Javonte Smart, and Naz Reid. Then it was Mays, Smart, Trendon Watford, and Emmitt Williams. Last year it was Smart, Watford, Cameron Thomas, and Darius Days.

Days has spent almost all of his minutes at LSU playing the four and spot minutes at the five. As he’s the only real returner who’s played minutes for Wade, so it feels safe to put him in with the starters. After Days, Adam Miller was set up to play a lot of minutes, likely with the ball in his hands, but now he’ll be relegated to watching. In his place is Pinson, who only played 63 percent of the minutes last year at Missouri. The minutes deficit was likely due to his lack of effort on the defensive end, but Wade has a notoriously longer leash for players who lack defensive effort. Meanwhile, Efton Reid is also the guy likely to fill in the bulk of the minutes at the five.

I’d expect Wilkinson, Williams, Fudge, and Murray to battle it out for minutes on the wing. And now it seems like Eric Gaines might have the inside position on the start at point guard.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 20-11 | KenPom Projected Record: 18-12

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 9 Home Louisiana-Monroe 252 W
Nov 12 Home Texas State 152 W
Nov 15 Home Liberty 97 W
Nov 18 Home McNeese State 328 W
Nov 22 Home Belmont 77 W
Nov 26 Neutral Penn State 70 W
Nov 27 Neutral Wake Forest / Oregon State 104 / 73 L
Dec 1 Home Ohio University 115 W
Dec 11 Neutral Georgia Tech 54 L
Dec 14 Home Northwestern State 331 W
Dec 18 Neutral Louisiana Tech 88 W
Dec 22 Home Lipscomb 219 W
Jan 29 Away TCU 75 L
avg 143.13 10-3

I’ll always complain about a good team scheduling zero true road games, as LSU has done here. Five straight buy games to open the season, then a so-so MTE with Wake Forest, Penn State, and Oregon State, a couple more buy games, a neutral court matchup against a Georgia Tech team coming off an ACC Championship but having to replace a lot of production... it’s a pretty underwhelming schedule considering expectations for LSU should be nothing short of an NCAA Tournament berth. The SEC-Big 12 Challenge does force LSU out of their comfort zone with a trip to Fort Worth to face a rebuilding TCU squad.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 29 Away Auburn 28 L
Jan 4 Home Kentucky 17 W
Jan 8 Home Tennessee 13 W
Jan 12 Away Florida 25 W
Jan 15 Home Arkansas 15 W
Jan 19 Away Alabama 19 L
Jan 22 Away Tennessee 13 L
Jan 26 Home Texas A&M 78 W
Feb 1 Home Ole Miss 57 W
Feb 5 Away Vanderbilt 79 L
Feb 8 Away Texas A&M 78 L
Feb 12 Home Mississippi St 65 W
Feb 16 Home Georgia 159 W
Feb 19 Away South Carolina 86 L
Feb 23 Away Kentucky 17 L
Feb 26 Home Missouri 96 W
Mar 2 Away Arkansas 15 L
Mar 5 Home Alabama 19 L
avg 48.83 9-9

Maybe loading up on home buy games was with the foresight of four home and home matchups against four of the best teams in the SEC? Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Alabama will each see LSU twice, and LSU’s success against those four will be inextricably tied to whether or not they’ll play in the NCAA Tournament or not. Wade has not had a lot of success against Alabama, and mixed success against Arkansas and Kentucky. But LSU has won the last three against Tennessee. In the SEC, it’s easy to drop a game or two you don’t expect to and LSU has been especially prone to a bad loss. Last year it was at Georgia, two years ago it was at Vanderbilt... and with as much turnover as this roster has seen it seems like there are a few potential potholes. At South Carolina, at Texas A&M, and at Vanderbilt all in the second half of the season are games I’d watch pretty closely.

OVERVIEW

Strictly speaking about the basketball product, LSU has a talented roster, but it also presents Wade and his staff a few more challenges.

With Miller sidelined, there’s no clear pecking order for a lead guard. Coming out of high school, Gaines was considered a good set-up man. And as we mentioned earlier, Pinson can facilitate, but he’s looking to attack more often than distribute. Using multiple creators isn’t unfamiliar for Wade, but the catch is that Pinson needs a ton of possessions flowing his way to offset lagging efficiency.

Doing that, however, limits Gaines’ opportunities to route the ball to other members of the rotation. There’s also a fair amount of offensive talent surrounding those two. How will they feel if Pinson’s dominating the ball? That would not have been as much of a concern with Miller serving as the alpha.

But the season isn’t likely to hinge on whether LSU can score or not. Wade’s recruiting afforded him a simple philosophy: get the ball to your best playmakers, and let them make plays. That’ll likely be the case again.

lsu synergy 2020

The problem has been Wade getting buy-in from his team on defense. The Tigers’ approach to perimeter defense permits guards to gamble a bit more and put more pressure on the point of attack. But when you do that, you need to have a genuine rim protector lurking in the paint to clean up any breakdowns. LSU hasn’t had players like that since Kavell Bigby-Williams and Naz Reid in Wade’s second season.

This season, Reid’s around, but prep scouts have noted he’s more of a finesse five and not a physical defender who will front the post or challenge players around the rim. His offensive skill is evident, but can Wade turn him into the interior defender LSU has missed the last few years?

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

This is why I’m intrigued by the growth of Gaines. He’s not a bucket-getter, and while his points-per-possession differential was roughly the same as Smart, it was felt more on the defensive end. Gaines doesn’t have to carry the offense, but he needs to find a way to flip his turnover rate (28.9%) and assist rate (13.4%) in taking a step forward.

Odd as it sounds, seeing Watford and Smart move on might be a slight bit of addition by subtraction. Both could be disinterested defensively, and now their minutes are likely to be inherited by Gaines and Days, who are more consistent on that end. Nevertheless, the improvement on defense might be enough to offset any dip that comes with losing two key offensive pieces.

Defense is the side of the floor that has held LSU back the last few years. They’re in every game, but they give up too many points. So, can Wade manage personalities to get everyone to buy into their role? And then can he talk them into guarding?

This team has all the pieces needed to win 12 or more games in SEC play. If Wade can answer the first two questions, it’s easy to see LSU sliding up the conference standings. But the potential pitfalls are too large to ignore, which is why I’m hesitant to put them in the same class as several of the teams above them. They’re too talented to see the bottom fall out, but to lift the ceiling, Wade has to get his team of hired guns pulling together and defending.

And at some point, the NCAA will come calling.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

Few SEC teams run out the amount of raw talent that LSU can. Even without Miller, Pinson still helsp retool a potent offense, and there’s enough shooting the keep the floor spaced giving all kinds of room to drive. Much of the season hinges on Pinson consistently exploiting those advantages. If so, LSU will be tough to beat.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

We’ll believe the defense is fixed when we see it. And there’s no one at the top of the depth chart that looks all that interested in doing so. If there’s any dip offensively, LSU might find itself on the wrong side of a few games it should otherwise win, and that might lead to a long winter inside the PMAC.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for 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 Masses” picks. 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.