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Hoops Gets Ready for the Real Season

The big games start now

NCAA Basketball: Memphis at Louisiana State
More penetration!
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

We’re not used to having a relevant basketball team around these parts, but believe it or not, LSU is playing two critical games this week that will matter come Selection Sunday. I know you’re currently trying to learn all of the high school football players in America in anticipation of Signing Day, but there’s actual LSU sports to watch.

LSU plays Houston tomorrow night in their gym, and then travels to Vegas to play St. Mary’s in the Neon Hoops Showcase. Houston is undefeated in eight games and currently ranked 24th in the AP poll. St. Mary’s is just 7-4, but they are a dangerous team that can exploit LSU’s biggest weaknesses.

And what are those weaknesses? With four freshmen in the top six players in minutes, Will Wade is learning about this team just like we are. He’s tinkered with the lineup all season and while he hasn’t settled on a concrete lineup, we can see the pecking order emerge.

First off, this is Tre Waters’ team, and it will only go as far as he takes them. He’s the point guard in our four most common lineup combinations, and he’s the only guy averaging over 30 minutes per game. He hasn’t found the three-point stroke from last year, shooting just .314 from behind the arc, but the offense is flowing through him.

However, Skyler Mays has arguably been the team’s best player. He leads the team in scoring at 13.9 PPG. The shots are pretty evenly spread about among the team’s top four of Mays, Reid, Waters, and Smart, but Mays is simply a better shooter from both inside and outside the arc. He has an effective FG% of 64.8% on the season, well ahead of anyone on the team who taking a large number of shots.

While the veteran backcourt of Mays and Waters (with freshman Ja’Vonte Smart) was supposed to make the team go, it’s really all of those freshmen stalwarts up front which gives the team its identity. Wade’s usage patterns clearly shows he views freshmen Emmitt Williams and Naz Reid as the first team and freshmen Darius Day and senior Kavell Bigby-Williams as the bench guys, coming in to give those guys a breather.

The thing is, forcing those four into just two slots with that essentially set backcourt is cutting against the thing the team does well. LSU ranks 18th in the nation in effective FG% at 56.2%, but that’s not because of the guard play. LSU ranks 200th in three-point rate and 168th in three-point FG%. Let’s call that mediocre at best. The high eFG% is driven entirely by the fact LSU shoots 59.1% from inside the arc, mainly on short attempts from inside the lane.

But those attempts in the lane are not being created by guard play. One of the best ways to determine whether a team drives the lane is looking at FTA/FGA ratio. Teams that drive the lane go to the free throw line a lot, for obvious reasons. LSU ranks 189th in FTA/FGA rate at 33.6. It’s not bad officiating either. LSU has an assist on 51.5% of field goals made, just shy of the national average of 51.8%.

No, what drives the LSU offense right now is the unglamorous work of hitting the offensive boards with a frenzy. LSU grabs 37.5% of available offensive rebounds, 16th best in the country. Two LSU players rank in the top 50 in the nation in offensive rebound rate: Darius Days (11th) and Emmitt Williams (34th). Kavell Bagby-Williams ranks 57th.

Which creates a problem for Will Wade. Naz Reid is clearly his most talented frontcourt player. Reid’s game isn’t all there yet, but he just oozes raw talent. However, the things that are driving the LSU offense come from those offensive rebounds, and he lags well behind his teammates on that front. While Bagby-Williams, his backup, has a 14.2 OR%, Naz Reid has just a 6.5.

The good news for Wade is that the answer to most of his dilemmas for this team are simple: his best players need to play like it. The backcourt needs to start creating more shots, and Tre Waters needs to start hitting more threes. Naz Reid has to cash in on that potential, and start playing like the team’s best player all of the time, not just in flashes.

The bad news for Wade is the guys on the team who are producing and driving the team’s success are the back of the rotation guys. This is great for when the top guys need to rest, as the team can generate offense without its playmakers, but its also a problem because the way to get Naz to the next level is to keep feeding him minutes.

Right now, LSU has only played three teams ranked in the KenPom top 100. LSU has lost to the two highest ranked teams it has played, #15 Florida St and #64 Oklahoma St. Those games were learning experiences. Well, learning time is over. The Tigers need to start winning games against top ranked squads, and Houston is ranked 35th and St. Mary’s 53rd in the KenPom. These are key games for LSU’s eventual tournament profile come March.

Once SEC play starts, the only two teams on the schedule not ranked in the top 100 are South Carolina and Georgia. After that, is a steady stream of tournament contenders. LSU is going to need to go .500 in SEC play, but they also need to go at least .500 out of conference against quality teams.

We still don’t quite know what kind of team we have right now. But Wade has to roll with the one he’s got, and it’s time to start producing victories.