Exactly one year ago today, LSU Basketball announced Will Wade as their 22nd head coach shortly after the release of Johnny Jones following a 10-21 (2-16 SEC) season. Wade would have his first press conference as the head coach of LSU Basketball in the Student Union only two days later, and had a majority of his new coaching staff rounded up within his first month. More importantly, Wade had a lot of work cut out for him with the previous year’s roster.
Antonio Blakeney left for the NBA Draft, Kieran Hayward, Branden Jenkins, and Jalyn Patterson transferred, and Elbert Robinson III resigned from the team. Will Wade was left with only seven players from the 2016-17 roster, and two of them were walk-ons.
Within two months of his tenure, Wade had signed four star Mayan Kiir, JUCO Daryl Edwards, and grad transfer Jeremy Combs. Kiir would later take a leave of absence from the team, and Jeremy Combs’ nagging injury would effectively end his basketball career before SEC play even started. Fortunately, Wade was able to convince former Georgetown commit Tremont Waters to step up and be the guy to help rebuild this program. To recall my feelings about the offseason happenings:
“If you’re still with me here, that’s seven returning players (two walk ons), eight new players (with one transfer sitting out), and nine new coaches, with only Administrative Assistant Brittany Carvalhido returning for her eighth year. The goal of the offseason was very clearly to wipe the slate that went 10-21 (2-16) completely clean, and I feel pretty comfortable in agreeing that the goal was met.”
When the dust settled after an expectation-tempering exhibition loss to Tulane, it was time to tip off the season with the squad Wade managed to glue together. It didn’t look like a great roster on paper, but they still put on a good show for the 11,856 in attendance with a 99-59 walloping of Alcorn State. Wade had the non-season tickets sold for only one dollar apiece, and the crowd answered his call.
The Tigers would play another warm-up game against Samford, then hit the road to the Maui Invitational. I can’t exactly tell you what my expectations were before the trip, but boy was I blindsided by the 77-75 victory over now Sweet 16 Michigan. Just take a gander through those comments, better yet check out the actual gamethread! For the first time since I started covering hoops, people were excited to watch our basketball team. It became pretty apparent after that game that this year’s squad might not have elite talent, but they’d be as well-prepared as any for the season ahead. Plus, we got this sweet play:
The rest of the trip in Maui wouldn’t go so well, as the Tigers would fall 92-53 to Notre Dame (Brandon Sampson left with an ankle injury only 30 seconds in) and 94-84 to Marquette. As fun as it was to watch Waters drop 39 points against Marquette, it was pretty apparent our defense would need some serious help.
After a pair of throwaway games against UT-Martin and UNC-Wilmington, the Tigers would play host to another tournament team in the Houston Cougars. I specifically said “LSU will need to play out of their minds on defense to have a shot tonight” before the game, and boy did they. By that time we all knew Tremont Waters was something special, but it was the 26 point, 16 rebound performance by Aaron Epps that truly made the difference that evening. Speaking of defense, the Coogs had one last chance to tie up the game and possibly send the Tiger fans home unhappy, but Waters was having NONE OF IT.
The Tigers would lose an 83-82 heartbreaker against another eventual Tournament team in Stephen F. Austin, but rebounded by winning their last three non-conference games, including a strong 71-61 win on the road against the Memphis Tigers. LSU opened up conference play with yet another heartbreaker against yet another Tournament team, the Kentucky Wildcats. The Tigers played one of the better first halves of the season to lead the Wildcats 36-31, but would eventually fall three points shy of the defending SEC Champions. LSU would then have to hit the road to take on two more eventual Tournament teams back-to-back.
Wade and his Tigers put the whole conference on notice after knocking down #11 Texas A&M and Arkansas on the road in back-to-back games. The Tigers absolutely obliterated Arkansas 75-54, one of only two home losses the Razorbacks would suffer for the entire season, but they’d need a miracle to take down Texas A&M. The Aggies and Tigers stayed neck-to-neck for the entire game in College Station, until the home team found itself leading by two points with only a few seconds remaining. It was at this moment Tremont Waters would become a star.
After those two big wins, the fans were excited to watch their newly-competitive basketball team, but were greeted by Alabama, another Tournament team, and laid an egg in front of a buzzing crowd looking for a reason to keep showing up. The Tigers dropped the next game to Georgia 61-60, and found themselves in a funk.
Through their first eleven SEC games, LSU could only defeat two opponents. Fortunately, they faced those two opponents twice each, soundly beating Texas A&M and Arkansas again in the PMAC. The PMAC became a safe haven for the Tigers, who still hold onto a seven game winning streak on their home court, including a 64-63 victory over ANOTHER Tournament team in the Missouri Tigers. If you don’t remember this game, you can probably still guess whose number was called to seal that win.
LSU finished 10th in the SEC standings with a 17-13 (8-10 SEC) record, and would be bounced in the second round of the SEC Tournament by Mississippi State. That kind of record will probably never get you a call from the NCAA Tournament, but the body of work with nine Quadrant 1 and 2 wins was good enough for a #3 seed in the National Invitation Tournament. They would host and defeat the #6 seed UL-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns, but more importantly Coach Wade would take that opportunity to remind the LSU faithful why they should be excited for the future. He cares about this program, and he is more than willing to fight for it...possibly literally.
Despite the lackluster loss to Utah in the second round of the NIT last night, it’s hard to look at the entire body of work from 3/20/17 to 3/20/18 and find many complaints. Could we have won more games with some different coaching decisions and game strategies? Maybe. Could we have won more games with a deeper roster than only nine scholarship players? I’d consider it. But winning 18 games with what Wade threw together in his first year is anything but a disappointment. Take this year’s performance and paste it together with our currently fourth-ranked 2018 recruiting class, I don’t know how you can’t be excited for the future of our damn strong basketball team.