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LSU Looks Good, But Can’t Look Ahead

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To make a deep run, LSU must first beat a dangerous Yale squad

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Louisiana State vs Florida
It’s go time
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Lost in all of the Will Wade mess is the fact LSU is a damn strong basketball team which won the SEC regular season title and profiles well for a team that can do some real damage in the tournament.

Since losing to Houston on December 12, LSU has gone 19-3 with seven wins over teams in the KenPom top 50. Aside from a seeming inability to beat Florida, LSU has just about everything you could want in a tournament team: a great ballhandler who can control the end of games, a legit eight-man rotation giving the coach matchup flexibility, and defensive stoppers (Kavell Bagby-Williams ranks 21st in the nation in block percentage and Tremont Waters ranks third in steal rate).

There’s simply not much LSU cannot do. Well, except shoot three-pointers. I think everybody has confidence in Waters to hit a clutch three, but otherwise, LSU is a miserable three-point shooting team at 32.3 percent, ranking 275th in the nation.

LSU mitigates this weakness by not taking a lot of three-pointers. Naz Reid can spot up and hit an open three, but LSU has a 3PA/FGA rate of 34.3 percent, ranking 287th in the nation. It’s like the doctor says, if your arm hurts when you do that, then don’t do that.

As far as weaknesses go, this is a pretty good one for a high-seed to have. A cold shooting night can knock even the best teams out of the tournament and LSU doesn’t fall into the temptation of needing a big shooting night. The Tigers relentlessly attack the basket, get a ton of boards, and simply bludgeon you to death. It’s ugly, but efficient. It also isn’t prone to slumps, though it does have the drawback of allowing teams to hang around.

LSU ranks 18th in the nation in the KenPom rankings, so LSU’s seed is a bit higher than its computer metrics. However, where LSU excels is in what Pomeroy calls the Four Factors: Effective FG%, Turnover Percentage, Offensive Rebounding Rate, and Free Throw Rate. LSU is on the right side of the national average in all of the Four Factors on offense.

Particularly, LSU dominates the boards with a 37.3 percent OR rate (5th in the nation) and gets to the rim with a 37.7 percent FTA/FGA rate (56th). LSU gets hurt in its eFG rate due to the paucity of three-pointers, but makes up for it by shooting a lot of two-pointers at a 53.4-percent rate (55th in the country). That’s because LSU shoots a lot of layups.

So what you get is a very difficult team to beat on offense. LSU doesn’t turn the ball over very much, shoots great inside the arc and adjusts its style accordingly, and they get a ton of boards. Every rebound is an extra possession.

Ironically, LSU’s defense is almost the inverse of its offense. LSU has a terrible defensive OR% and teams attack the rim against them as well. LSU responds by forcing a ton of turnovers (20.7 TO rate is 58th in the nation) fueled by a 12.0-percent Block Rate (48th in the nation) and 12.6 percent Steal Rate (5th).

Looking ahead, this is why Michigan State is such a terrifying matchup for LSU. They get a ton of offensive boards as well, and they attack the rim like LSU does on offense. They are a matchup nightmare for LSU, and literally the most unselfish team in the country, ranking first in assists per field goals made.

However, figuring out how to stop the Spartan offense is a problem LSU coaches would love to have. First things first, LSU has to make it through the first weekend. Yale has become a trendy upset pick, but a lot of that is fueled by the anti-LSU talking points. How much of a threat is Yale, really?

Yale is 82nd in the KenPom, which is sort of awesome for such a low seed. Five of the six teams ranked 75-80 made the NCAA field, and all are seeded higher than Yale (two 11 seeds and three 13 seeds). It’s safe to say LSU drew a team the usual quality of at least a 13-seed.

Much is being made of Yale’s defensive rebounding rate, ranking 24th in defensive OR percentage. However, they run into the thing that LSU is best at on offense: getting rebounds. When both teams have the same skill set, side with the team that has the talent advantage.

Yale does have the ability to lock down shooters, as teams shoot a 47.2 eFG percentage against them, the 30th best defensive rate in the nation. The thing is, they tend to lock down the three-point line and give up more two-pointers, which is the exact strategy LSU should be implementing on offense. Again, their defensive strength plays into LSU’s offensive strengths.

Yale likes to run, posting the 44th highest Tempo rate in the nation. This won’t make LSU uncomfortable at all, as LSU ranks 66th in tempo. Playing at a high pace is what LSU wants to do as well.

The danger for LSU is the thing every high seed fears in the first round: Yale can shoot you out of the gym. Every power program has the fear that Directional Podunk State U is going to have one of those nights from the field, and beat you with some unsustainable shooting percentage. Ask Virginia about it.

Yale’s 56.1 eFG rate ranks 11th in the country. Eleventh. This is the eleventh best shooting team in the country, and that’s on an average night. What happens if they get hot? Yale doesn’t shoot a lot of threes (they rank 278th in 3PA/FGA), but when they do, they hit those threes at a 37.4-percentclip (42nd in the nation). They shoot even better inside the arc, 56.1 percent (14th in the nation).

Every player in their rotation shoots at least a 50 eFG percentage. Two of them shoot over 60 percent. Yale boasts three players who shoot more than 40 percent from three and four players who best Naz Reid’s LSU-leading .370 rate. Miye Oni is a legit threat and Blake Reynolds is their best shooter, a guy who can get hot and ruin the tournament with one great performance.

The good news is that Yale doesn’t attack the rim like LSU does and it is below average at scoring offensive boards. Yale is going to be one-and-done most of the day and LSU should have some second chance points.

This isn’t the best matchup for Yale. They probably didn’t want to run into a team that thrives on turnovers like LSU and also is even better at cleaning out the boards than they are. But the big thing Yale has going for it is that a great shooting night from an underdog can send just about any favorite home, and there are few teams in the field who can shoot like Yale. A high-variance strategy like reliance on shooting percentage is a bad look for a favorite, but it’s a great one for an underdog.

LSU is clearly the better team, and they have a great tourney profile of a team that could make a deep run. But they should be very afraid of this opening round game. If Yale gets hot, which isn’t that big of a reach, they can beat anyone in the country.