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SEC Basketball Preview: #11 LSU Tigers

Previewing the No. 11 team in the SEC, the LSU Tigers.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Mississippi State Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

When you’re looking at the history of LSU basketball, there’s virtually no middle ground. They’re either good or awful. The only coach who has seemed to coach the Tigers to an average state of play was Johnny Jones who recruited well enough to field good teams but struggled to be competent enough of a coach to win big.

So it would make sense that when Matt McMahon took over a program in shambles thanks to Will Wade’s malfeasance, it would be a tough road up. The smart play was the path he took, inject your program with familiar faces and hope it scales up.

The bad news, it didn’t scale up. LSU was a disastrous team a year ago. After navigating a soft as Charmin non-conference schedule at 11-1, and even beating Arkansas in the conference opener, the bottom fell out. 14 straight losses saw LSU’s rating drop from 75th in KenPom to 151st. They would only win one more conference game and entered the SEC tournament as the 14th seed.

Not exactly a great introduction for McMahon’s first season. So how do you fix it?


Previous SEC Previews:

LSU Preview

#11 LSU Tigers

Last Season: 14 - 19 (2-16 in conference) No. 151 KenPom

My Prediction: 15 - 15 (7-11, 11th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 5.6 - 12.4 (11th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 13th in conference

KenPom Projection: 17-12 (8-10 in conference) No. 47

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

HEAD COACH: Matt McMahon | 2nd Season, 14-19

Matt McMahon took the job in Baton Rouge after seven seasons at Murray State, and for many the expectation was that he would be able to import some of his roster from Murray, blend it with the high major talent a program like LSU attracts, and not reach the bottom of the league.

But anyone who thought that would’ve been wrong. McMahon’s first season was a disaster. Nothing worked as the talent that stuck around or was imported from other high majors disappointed, and only McMahon’s All-OVC post K.J. Williams could be counted on regularly. Without consistent guard play like he had at Murray, all of McMahon’s plans went to the wayside.

For years at Murray State, the plan for success centered around good guard play. McMahon also helmed one of the best mid-major programs in the country, one that routinely passes head coaches onto the next level. So how much of McMahon’s success was Murray, and how much of Murray’s success was McMahon?

Seat Temp: COOL

lsu 10 year look

LSU at its best is one of the better basketball programs in the league. With the talent level in and around Louisiana and an administration willing to overlook a lot of questionable accounting, if you were willing to skirt the rules you could easily build a big-time team. 12 league championships, 24 tournament appearances and four Final Fours.

But with that risk comes a lot of highs and lows, and when Will Wade was cheating, he was winning. McMahon’s hands were a bit more tied, but now with NIL the playing field has been leveled. It will be interesting to see how things adapt for a program willing to spend big.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
KJ Williams graduation 33 82.12% 26.13% 29.96% 20.38%
Adam Miller transfer 33 82.42% 16.99% 11.47% 16.96%
Cam Hayes transfer 31 54.32% 11.25% 11.13% 10.68%
Justice Hill transfer 30 51.67% 7.53% 5.98% 10.40%
Justice Williams transfer 23 27.65% 3.45% 2.73% 4.71%
Parker Edwards* graduation 2 0.53% 0.27% 0.28% 0.07%
Kendal Coleman transfer 21 12.80% 2.20% 2.72% 2.04%
Shawn Phillips transfer 20 11.14% 1.21% 1.80% 1.51%
Brandon Egemo graduation 1 0.08% 0.00% 0.02% 0.00%
64.55% 69.03% 66.09% 66.75%

With so much going wrong last season, it should be no surprise with the high level of turnover. Only K.J. Williams left the program because he had no choice in the matter (he graduated). The one player to keep the team remotely afloat on a regular basis, Williams put up 17 points and 7 rebounds on a nearly nightly basis for a bad team. In a better situation Williams would have played a secondary role and not needed to be relied upon so greatly, but somehow his efficiency didn't suffer from his time at Murray when he had much more consistent guard play. Williams’ effort was in a lot of ways wasted at LSU during a really awful season.

The rest of the departures were a mixed bag starting with Adam Miller. A top 40 level recruit out of high school, Miller was good as a freshman at Illinois and transferred to LSU seeking a larger role. But after tearing his ACL his ability to attack seemed lessened and he became more of a spot up shooter. He transferred to Arizona State in the offseason.

Cam Hayes is another highly recruited transfer who didn’t work out. A top-100 point guard out of high school, he chose NC State, played there for two years and transferred to LSU last year where he put up 8 points and 2.3 assists. He transferred to East Carolina.

Then there were two Justices, Williams and Hill. Hill started at Arkansas, transferred to Murray State where he was an All-League guard, then he tried his luck at LSU where things were a bit bumpy. And he landed at Loyola Marymount for this upcoming season. Meanwhile, Williams came in as a top-70 recruit who struggled to find a consistent role after two years in Baton Rouge. Then Kendal Coleman transferred in from Northwestern State and only saw action in 21 games. Shawn Phillips signed as a 4-star post out of high school and saw action in only 20 games.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Derek Fountain SR CF 31 55.23% 11.16% 63.25% 14.90%
Trae Hannibal G-SR CG 30 46.89% 9.10% 51.34% 10.63%
Tyrell Ward SO WING 23 24.92% 3.85% 47.99% 3.42%
Jalen Reed SO POST 33 38.33% 5.47% 46.04% 3.46%
Mwani Wilkinson SR WING 12 11.82% 1.39% 55.60% 1.51%
Adam Benyahoune* JR WING 1 0.08% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
35.44% 30.97% 33.92%

LSU has a lot of players who could be featured as there are a ton of subplots which could evolve on this roster. One that is way up there is that Tyrell Ward, who stuck around Baton Rouge after a bumpy freshman season. Ward’s talent is undeniable but his consistency was an issue. A former top 50 wing with great length and athleticism, Ward has the shot making ability to be a standout if he can find that consistent effort. He flashed last season here and there, including a 15 point effort against Texas A&M, but finished the season shooting just 37.8% from inside the arc including just 45.5% at the rim. With his athleticism that number should increase significantly.

Derek Fountain is a hard player to take off the floor when he’s playing with energy. He’s a defensive menace with his size and mobility, and capable of guarding nearly anyone on the floor. LSU doesn’t ask him to be an offensive threat, but when he’s aggressive and attacking around the rim he’s a bonus scorer. He’ll be joined by Trae Hannibal on the All-Effort team. Hannibal isn’t much of a shooter but few attack the rim with the same veracity he does. And when he has it going he’s a tough train to slow down. Synergy backs this up, Hannibal had just 9 catch and shoot jumpers last season while he had 109 rim attempts.

It will be interesting to see how Mwani Wilkinson fits back into the lineup. Early in his playing career Wilkinson was one of the most efficient players in the country, he knew who he was and he did it well. As a sophomore the jump shots didn’t connect as often, and then last season he barely played after dealing with an injury. And Jalen Reed is hoping to take a sophomore step after an ugly freshman season. The talented and mobile big man saw action in all 33 games last year.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
FR Corey Chest 6'8 210 ★★★★ 97 POST
FR Mike Williams 6'3 181 ★★★★ 119 PG
JR Jalen Cook 6'0 194 TRANSFER Tulane PG
JR Carlos Stewart 6'1 193 TRANSFER Santa Clara PG
JR Daimion Collins 6'9 191 TRANSFER Kentucky POST
G-SR Jordan Wright 6'6 230 TRANSFER Vanderbilt WING
G-SR Hunter Dean 6'10 250 TRANSFER George Washington POST
G-SR Will Baker 7'0 245 TRANSFER Nevada POST
NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Quarterfinals - Kentucky vs Vanderbilt Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Wright | SENIOR | WING

The prodigal son returns.

After four quality seasons under Jerry Stackhouse at Vanderbilt, Jordan Wright returns home to play for the school he grew up watching. A Baton Rouge native, Wright was lightly recruited coming out of high school and picked Vanderbilt over Houston and Georgia Tech. But his home school, LSU, never offered. For Wright it was easy to return as the previous staff is long gone, and playing for Matt McMahon makes more sense than Will Wade.

Wright is featured here because he should provide the one thing that LSU missed last season, Leadership. Wright isn’t the most talented guy, but he’s a very good and incredibly smart player. And for those reasons he’ll be relied upon to lead LSU out of the basement.

Trying to reset the roster, McMahon leaned hard into the transfer portal. Along with Wright, he also added former 5-star center Will Baker. Baker is a skilled big who shoots it well from outside and has a soft touch around the basket. After committing to Texas out of high school, Baker found Nevada a better fit and he averaged double figures each of the last two seasons. Trying to improve the overall size on the roster, LSU also added Hunter Dean, a 6’10, 250-pound big and Louisiana native who has spent the last few seasons at George Washington. They also brought in Daimion Collins, a former 5-star post who played sparingly at Kentucky behind Oscar Tshiebwe.

Another Baton Rouge native returning home is Carlos Stewart from Santa Clara. He jumped from 5.4 points per game as a freshman to 15.2 ppg as a sophomore. His ability to knock down 40.2% on his catch and shoot opportunities will help him stay on the floor.

Finally, there are two freshmen joining the team 6’8 post player Corey Chest, a 4-star originally from New Orleans. And Mike Williams, an athletic 6’3 guard from Maryland.

NCAA Basketball: Tulane at Wichita State William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Jalen Cook | SENIOR | PG

It’s probably not a great thing to be featuring a player who may not be eligible to play but here we are. Because a lot of the LSU season hinges on whether Jalen Cook, a two-time transfer, gets granted a waiver to play this season.

Cook originally signed with LSU out of high school, but after barely seeing the floor his freshman year he transferred to Tulane. At Tulane he blossomed into one of the best scorers in the AAC. Cook fit well into Tulane’s up-tempo pace and it’s pick and roll heavy offense and put up 19.9 point a game last year. With a scoring punch at point guard LSU could have the rest of the pieces to contend for an NCAA tournament. That’s a big if. The NCAA hasn’t been generous in giving out two-time transfer waivers. Without Cook LSU should be improved, with him they can make a jump.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Jalen Cook Carlos Stewart Mike Williams
(2) Combo Guard Jordan Wright Trae Hannibal
(3) Wing Tyrell Ward Mwani Wilkinson
(4) Combo Forward Derek Fountain Daimion Collins Corey Chest
(5) Post Will Baker Jalen Reed Hunter Dean

I know above I said the NCAA isn’t being generous in their granting two-time transfer waivers, and we’ve got Cook starting at point guard, but this is the plan. If Cook is eligible, he’s your starting point guard. If not it’s probably Carlos Stewart with Mike Williams playing a fair amount there as well. But then the ball handling issues will start to show up a bit more.

Off the ball things are pretty solid, which is why Cook is so important. If Tyrell Ward isn’t quite ready to make this sophomore jump, Jordan Wright and Mwani Wilkinson should provide enough quality there to make up for it. On the inside, there are plenty of options, especially if Jalen Reed also makes the sophomore jump. With Derek Fountain and Will Baker, the Tigers have versatility. With Daimion Collins and Reed they have length, and with Hunter Dean and Corey Chest they have depth.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 16-14 | KenPom Projected Record: 17-12

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament Championship - Kansas vs Texas William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home Mississippi Valley St. W
Nov 10 Home Nicholls W
Nov 16 Neutral Dayton W
Nov 17 Neutral St. John's / North Texas L
Nov 19 Neutral TBD -
Nov 24 Home North Florida W
Nov 28 Away Syracuse L
Dec 1 Home Southeastern Louisiana W
Dec 9 Home Kansas State L
Dec 13 Home Alabama State W
Dec 16 Neutral Texas L
Dec 21 Home Lamar W
Dec 29 Home Northwestern State W
avg #DIV/0! 8-4

LSU didn’t back off a good schedule that’s for sure. Just two games (plus an exhibition) before they hit the Charleston Classic, which features Houston, St. John’s, Utah, Wake Forest, Dayton, LSU, North Texas and Towson. LSU opens with Dayton, who have been good under Anthony Grant. The next game would be against either St. Johns, revitalized under Rick Pitino, or North Texas which just won the NIT last season. Either way 2-1 would be a good result here.

They travel to Syracuse for the ACC-SEC Challenge, the Orange are resetting under new coach Adrian Dantley after Jim Boeheim finally retired. There’s a home game against Kansas State which will be a good measuring stick. Then a road contest at Texas looms in mid-December. 8-4 would be respectable but if they can get to at least 9-3 or better LSU can be considered an NCAA threat.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 6 Away Texas A&M L
Jan 9 Home Vanderbilt W
Jan 13 Away Auburn L
Jan 17 Home Ole Miss W
Jan 20 Home Texas A&M L
Jan 24 Away Georgia L
Jan 27 Away Alabama L
Feb 3 Home Arkansas L
Feb 7 Away Tennessee L
Feb 10 Home Alabama W
Feb 13 Away Florida L
Feb 17 Away South Carolina L
Feb 21 Home Kentucky W
Feb 24 Home Mississippi State W
Feb 27 Home Georgia W
Mar 2 Away Vanderbilt L
Mar 6 Away Arkansas L
Mar 9 Home Missouri W
avg #DIV/0! 7-11

Opening up on the road against everyone’s favorite to win the league this year isn’t exactly how you want to build momentum. But it could prove an opportunity for LSU to see where they’re at. The home and home opponents being Texas A&M, Arkansas, and Alabama has a two-sided effect of potentially putting LSU into a 0-6 hole or giving them opportunities for big wins. On the flip side, Georgia and Vanderbilt project towards the bottom of the league, providing a path to potentially 4 wins.

If the schedule set up better it might be easier to see how LSU could move up. The home slate offers opportunities against Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss, but the road is tough with only South Carolina projected behind the Tigers.

OVERVIEW

So much of this LSU projection is difficult because there’s no way to know how the NCAA might rule on Cook. There are pieces to make LSU a threat in the league, and even though they’re sitting here in the 11th spot their record of 7-11 is really not that far off from an NCAA tournament discussion.

That’s what so much of this league comes down to, a few results that go for you or against you.

LSU has all the components of being pretty good. However, it’s a bet on things that could happen versus things that have happened. Without Jalen Cook things get a little dicey, but the roster should be, at worst, decent.

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

I’m not sure how the Will Baker experiment will work out. He’s a good player, skilled, and in the Mountain West he found a place to be home where he could post up and run pick and pops to his heart’s content. One of the issues he ran into while at Texas was the high level of athleticism, and the SEC is an athletic league. So it seems unlikely Baker will spend a lot of time on the block with his back to the basket, but that was his game at Nevada so like I said, it’s an experiment.

If Baker isn’t what LSU hopes he is, there are plenty of acceptable options on the interior with Collins, Reed or Dean. Collins provides the rim protection LSU struggled with last season. There weren’t enough scoring options outside of KJ Williams, and with a lackluster offense and little rim protection, the defense was so leaky.

Matt McMahon needs to find a solution to their defensive woes, perhaps it’s enough to jettison the bulk of his roster and just start again. After all it’s the transfer portal era, right?

But even so this roster feels a bit like a bridge roster. A homecoming for several transfers, coming back to help build up the home school program. It all works as long as Cook gets his waiver. With a point guard who can score, a couple wings who can knock down shots, and some bigs inside who can protect the rim and extend the defense it would seem like LSU is remade.

Without Cook though, things get a bit more dicey. There are some solid options for McMahon at guard, but the lack of depth and quality ball handlers is concerning. Ball handling and guard play is so important, especially in the SEC. If you find players on the perimeter who can make shots and take care of the ball, the interior becomes secondary. So I think we wait until the NCAA hands down a decision on Cook. If he’s eligible then LSU is probably a break or two away from an NCAA Tournament bid. If he’s sitting out, they’re likely on the outside looking in.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

If Jalen Cook gets a waiver there is a lot of reason to think LSU can hit a quick turnaround. With a scoring guard who can also facilitate, all McMahon needs is a few of the transfers to hit and his sophomores to take a step and the Tigers will be in business. If Cook gets a waiver then I would think an NCAA berth is a reasonable goal.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

It’s hard not to be a little pessimistic when your team finished last and were in a free fall for much of conference play last year. Season one did not go according to plan and if Cook doesn’t get a waiver the ball handling with this roster could get a little rough at times. Getting out of the Wednesday night play in games of the SEC tournament might be the goal at that point.


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.