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Hope on the Hardcourt

LSU hoops is... back?

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

Joe Alleva is not the most popular man amongst LSU fans right now, but let’s give the man some credit: given enough chances, he made one hell of a basketball hire.

Will Wade took over a terrible team that went 2-16 in conference play last season, and it almost felt like they overachieved to get to that point. Apathy was so high that we rarely wrote about the team, and when we did, it reads like a catalog of sorrow.

The goals for this season were rather modest: show some improvement, raise interest in the program, and maybe make the NIT. The media picked LSU to finish last in the SEC in the preseason, and while there were some signs LSU would be better than the cellar, no one thought the prediction was unfair.

Even as the team worked through an admittedly weak non-conference schedule, earning big wins over Michigan and Houston, the enthusiasm for the future rose, but the prospects for this season remained modest.

The start of the SEC season loomed like a monster, with three consecutive games against teams in the KenPom top 40, two of them on the road. LSU could lose all three of those games and still be a pretty good team. The goal for the first week and half of the SEC season was simple survival.

The team didn’t just survive, it thrived.

LSU opened up the year with a heartbreaking loss to Kentucky at home. LSU hung tough, but a desperation three came up short, and UK survived. It felt like a good building block and while you hate the idea of good losses, this was a program that was in no position to turn down anything positive.

Only Will Wade did. Instead of coming out and talking about how proud he was of the team and how hanging with SEC hoops royalty showed that this team would compete in the SEC, he instead harped on the mistakes the team made. Read his opening statement at the postgame press conference:

“I thought in the first half that we played really well. We should have been up more at halftime. That’s where we lost the game. We didn’t give ourselves enough of a working margin in the first half. In the second half, they (Kentucky) figured out what was going on and just put their head down, which was very, very smart. We should have had more of a working margin in that first half. We were tougher in some spots. We did a pretty good job on the back boards. We gave up some critical free throw offensive rebounds. We had that possession where they had four offensive rebounds. We had some critical mistakes. Against a team like Kentucky, you have to play 40 minutes. I said that the other day. You have to play the full game. We just had too many lapses.”

Those aren’t the words of a man just happy to be there. He took a positive development and spit in its face, demanding even more. It didn’t matter how far this program had to climb, we don’t celebrate moral victories, only real ones.

The team responded by winning its next two games on the road. First, a thriller in College Station which garnered national media attention for Tremont Waters spectacular 12-second rally. Then, even more impressively, a total destruction of Arkansas in Bud Walton.

All of a sudden, this team isn’t talking about modest improvement and maybe making the NIT. This team has its sights, legitimately, on being in the NCAA tournament.

Tremont Waters is a legitimate star, and one of the most exciting players in the country. Even better, he does what great players can do, turn a bad night into a great one in crunch time. Waters was having an awful night against the Aggies, until he turned down an open look for a three with around four minutes remaining. The moment of passivity must have sparked something in him, like he realized that he can’t be afraid, and he responded by putting the team on his back and hitting four three-pointers down the stretch, including two in the final 12 seconds.

He is the kind of player who changes programs. He makes things happen, and he’s a joy to watch. Forget the big shots for a second, his ball handling is insane.

LSU profiles in the KenPom rankings as a dangerous team, at least on offense. LSU has the 28th most efficient offense in his rankings, and they crush the Four Factors test. The team’s effective field goal percentage (13th), turnover percentage (57th), and offensive rebounding rate (51st) all profile as a tournament team. This is not a mirage.

However, it’s also not going to be smooth sailing. These early SEC wins are great, but LSU will be saddled with a horrific non-conference schedule come Selection Sunday. They also have a bad loss to Stephen F Austin, ranked 128th in the KenPom.

And that’s even assuming this team can keep things going. As great as the offense has been, the defense ranks a pedestrian 116th in efficiency. LSU only ranks in the top 100 in one of the Four Factors on defense: FTA/FGA ratio (96th). Poor defense is not a recipe for success.

Furthermore, Will Wade is doing it with smoke and mirrors up front. He only has two players taller than 6-6 who play significant minutes: Duop Reath (6-11) and Aaron Epps (6-10). If Reath comes out of the game, Epps is the primary backup center, forcing the 6-6 Wayde Sims into the power forward slot. Sims is virtually always in a size matchup whenever he is on the floor.

That’s not to see we should hold this team at arm’s length. It’s been a long time since LSU hoops has had a future this bright. While the tournament is still an unlikely goal, it is remarkable it is even in play. That’s a credit to Will Wade and these players.

And I wouldn’t bet against them. Welcome back, everyone. LSU basketball is fun again.