Eight months ago, Will Wade and his 2019-2020 LSU squad had an unceremonious end to its season. The Tigers finished the regular season tied for second place in the SEC and had just gotten in some early Thursday morning work in ahead of its SEC Tournament quarterfinal matchup which was scheduled for the following day. That game would not be played. Not only that, the SEC Tournament would not be completed and the NCAA Tournament would not be held due to COVID-19.
Eight months later, we’re taking a shot at having a college basketball season. Of course there’s already been complications with this season. Several games have been called off already, teams are pulling out of marquee events left and right, coaches are testing positive for the virus and the season’s only a day old.
Which brings us back to LSU. The Tigers are one of several teams who have had their season altered. Game one of the 2020-2021 season was supposed to have been yesterday against San Francisco in the Golden Window Classic in Lincoln, Nebraska. Instead, LSU has pulled out of the event in Nebraska and will play two games in St. Louis, the first of which will be against SIU-Edwardsville.
If you’re looking for something compelling about this game well...it’ll be tough. The Cougars are one of the bottom feeders of the Ohio Valley Conference, going 8-23 last season. The OVC is one of the better mid-major conferences but SIU-Edwardsville ain’t a reason why.
Frankly the only reason to watch LSU play a bad OVC team in an empty arena on ESPN+ —on Thanksgiving no less—is if you’re a hoops junkie like me. But there are a few things I’m looking forward to seeing.
Javonte Smart is back for his third season with LSU and his second running point. Smart is either LSU’s best or second best returning player depending on how you feel about Trendon Watford.
Last year Smart averaged 12.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists. Good numbers overall, the problem was Smart’s decision making. Smart opened the year with 26 turnovers to 25 assists through LSU’s first six games. Fortunately after those six games, Smart was a better ball handler and had a near 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio (129 assists, 70 turnovers). Smart is up for the Bob Cousy Award (nation’s best point guard) the Naismith Award (nation’s best player) and is a preseason All-Conference selection. If Smart can perform to those expectations and play like one of the best point guards in the country, he could take LSU deep into March.
New Kids on the Block
LSU wasn’t nearly the defensive team in 2019-20 that they were in the 2018-19 season, thanks in large part (pun intended) to the departure of Kavell Bigby-Williams. Without that true center in the middle, opposing teams were able to keep pace with LSU and the Tiger defense ranked 179th in adjusted defense.
Kavell came to LSU after transferring from Oregon. That worked out so well, Will Wade added two former Pac-12 big men: Bryan Penn-Johnson, from Washington, and Shareef O’Neal, Shaq’s son, from UCLA.
Neither Penn-Johnson nor O’Neal come to LSU with a whole host of experience. Penn-Johnson only played in seven games while O’Neal played 13 after redshirting his freshman year. But both are true bigs, Penn-Johnson is a legit seven-feet tall and O’Neal is 6’10”. LSU has plenty of viable scoring options, they won’t need Penn-Johnson or O’Neal to give the Tigers 15-20 points a game; what LSU will need is for one of those two to use their imposing size to influence shots at the rim and make driving guards kick the ball out.
Allow Myself to Introduce...Myself
Will Wade: American Gangster, has brought in another stellar recruiting class highlighted by five-star shooting guard Cam Thomas. I’m high on Thomas, I think he’s going to be a prolific scorer and could very easily be a one-and-done type of player for LSU.
I’m also big on top-100 recruit MWani Wilkinson, who was considered the best defender in the 2020 recruiting class. Offense hasn’t been the problem for Will Wade’s team, it’s been on the defensive side of the ball; and if Wilkinson is as good as advertised he could be the piece that takes LSU from a good team to one that plays into the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend.
There probably won’t be many conclusions drawn from tonight’s game—unless of course the Tigers lose then I’m sure we’ll find plenty to talk about—but for now let’s enjoy having Tiger basketball back.