Jan 23, 2019; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers head coach Will Wade reacts to a play against Georgia Bulldogs in the first half at Maravich Assembly Center.

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LSU prepares for Kentucky, eyes chance to join college basketball’s elite

The Tigers play the Wildcats tomorrow evening

Seth Dunlap
February 11, 2019 - 8:00 pm
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It’s March 10th, 2017 in Baton Rouge and LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva is speaking to the media.  Alleva had just fired basketball coach Johnny Jones after a disastrous campaign that saw the Tigers finish 2-16 in SEC conference play, dropping 17 of their final 18 games.

The LSU basketball program had reached the depths of irrelevance just one season removed from having Ben Simmons, the NBA’s 2016 first overall draft pick, on campus.  That year also ended in disappointment, with the Tigers failing to reach the NCAA basketball tournament despite having one of the country’s best players on their roster.

The coaching search would stretch on nearly two weeks, with many around the program preferring the Tigers to make a run at veteran coaches like Indiana’s Tom Crean or Nevada’s Eric Musselman.  Instead, by March 22nd Alleva and the powers that be decided to give the reigns to the struggling program to Will Wade, a young, fresh-faced coach who had spent two seasons at VCU, guiding the Rams to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

Wade’s allure was evident – a 34 year-old native of neighboring Tennessee with a skyrocketing national profile.   He was already recruiting in the same pipelines most SEC schools were, and he had won consistently at his previous two jobs.   There was still some risk, big risk, to hiring a relatively inexperienced coach to such a prominent job.  Or maybe that’s only how those around LSU viewed the program anymore – prominent.  It had been nearly a decade since the Tigers were truly a national player on the hardwood. 

That was in Trent Johnson’s first season, when LSU won the SEC and beat Butler in their opening game of the NCAA tournament before losing to top-seeded North Carolina in the second round.   You have to go back even further, to the 2005-06 season, to find the last time the Tigers had made it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.  LSU made the Final Four that year, led by coach John Brady and star forward Glen Davis.

Wade’s introductory press conference in Baton Rouge was full of bravado and gusto aimed at energizing a highly apathetic fan base.  He began by announcing, “It’s a new day for LSU basketball.  It’s a new day for LSU basketball.”

Anything besides consistent disappointment and conference cellar-dwelling probably would have been enough to placate football-ravenous fans, but Wade was making promises of elevating LSU basketball to a place among college basketball’s blue-bloods. 

“I’m so excited about the opportunity to lead this program and LSU Basketball back to the top of the SEC and back to regular, consistent NCAA Tournament appearances.  We have been to four Final Fours.  We have been to 20 NCAA Tournaments.  We have 10 SEC Championships, and we are going to add to all three of those categories over our tenure here.”

The most educated, and jaded, LSU supporters surely gave a few guffaws eye-rolls during Wade’s speech.  SEC basketball was owned and operated by John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats.  Before them it was Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators.  Occasionally Tennessee, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and others would challenge that top tier, and perhaps LSU would have an occasional seat away from the conference’s kids table.  Consistent conference and national championship contention, however, was a promise that Wade almost assuredly couldn’t keep.  Or at least that was the conventional wisdom.

Fast forward 23 months later, and LSU has quietly, and quickly, become a surprise conference title contender and trendy dark-horse pick in next month’s NCAA Basketball Tournament.  The Tigers are 9-1 in conference play, and 19-4 overall.  They’ve won 12 of their past 13 games, are ranked #19 in the Associated Press Poll and #21 in the Coaches Poll.  They’re a #5 seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketlogy projections, #17 in NET ranking, and in the top-25 of both Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin’s rankings.   

LSU rise to prominence under Wade has been remarkable.  The Tigers bypassed any real rebuilding effort and went straight to contending, much like the young coach predicted.  Now, though, begins their real tests.  The Tigers will face #5 Kentucky and #1 Tennessee in the next 11 days, but it’s tomorrow’s road romp against the Wildcats that will go a long way towards proving, or disproving, any ideas LSU has a deep post-season run in them next month.

Kentucky has reeled off 10 consecutive wins after their conference-opening loss to Alabama.  They’ve won 13 of their past 14 games with victories against #8 North Carolina, #16 Louisville, and #14 Kansas during that stretch. When the NCAA selection committee unveiled their top-16 seed preview yesterday, they had the Wildcats as the fifth best team in the country, only slightly behind Gonzaga for a #1 seed. 

Kentucky, North Carolina, Louisville, Kansas, Gonzaga – all part of college basketball’s royalty.  Will Wade hopes to eventually have LSU included in that conversation, but they’ll have to prove they can beat the big boys first.   

It won’t be easy tomorrow.  The Wildcats have four players averaging in double figures, with forwards P.J. Washington and Reid Travis combining for nearly 26 points and 15 rebounds per game.   It’s the Wildcat’s stingy defense, however, that has helped them re-emerge as a national championship contender over the past month.   They’ve held six consecutive opponents to under 70 points, with four teams failing to score 60 during that stretch.  Contrast that to LSU, who’ve allowed 80-plus points in four of their last six games.  They’ve held only one opponent under 60 points during conference play.

LSU’s young freshman forwards, Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams, are likely to have their hands full on both sides of the court tomorrow.  They’ll need to play with a veteran’s composure in one of the country’s most hostile environments.  Same for sophomore guard Tremont Waters, the Tigers leading scorer at 15.7 points per game, who has struggled with turnover problems at times this season.  Waters must be patient and smart when he runs LSU’s offense.

“I identified LSU as somewhere that was just an absolute sleeping giant.  LSU has everything it needs to be successful,” Wade said in that introductory press conference in 2017.  “If we could just get it all going in the right direction, we could make it work.  We could make it work.”

The Tigers have an opportunity to truly start emerging on the national state if they can beat one of the established blue-bloods tomorrow.  It won’t be their last opportunity, and a loss could be both expected, and constructive, for this young team.  Why settle for constructive defeats, however, when you can have breakthrough wins?  LSU will try to make that leap tomorrow.

 

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