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No Will Wade, No Problem

LSU has the talent to make a run

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Arkansas vs LSU
It helps having Tari Eason
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

LSU basketball begins this year’s tournament in turmoil. The school has unceremoniously fired the head coach and the NCAA sent the school of its notice of allegations, primarily concerning potential payments sent to Javonte Smart to play for the team.

Smart is long gone, but the NCAA ain’t. And LSU hasn’t been in a situation like this since… 2019, when the Tigers entered the tournament with Wade suspended for…. /check notes… potential payments sent to Javonte Smart to play for the team.

2019 was LSU’s best tournament run since the Final Four team, so maybe some controversy and losing Wade isn’t that big of a deal. Why can’t we find lightning in a bottle twice?

Look, Wade is a really good coach. He breathed life into a stagnant program and didn’t just win, he made LSU basketball fun again. He’s a terrific recruiter, bringing in more talented players than his predecessors, but also getting them to actually play hard when they get here. (Obligatory swipe at Ben Simmons? Check.)

He markets the team well and gets the fan base engaged. He also is good at addressing the flaws of is team, as LSU went from an indifferent defensive squad to one of the best defensive teams in the nation, ranking 4th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency. Wade does all of the things you want a big time coach to do except… well, actually coaching in the games.

LSU limped down the stretch to a 3-4 finish, and in each of those games, Wade’s lack of adjustments cost LSU dearly. LSU held a 6 point halftime lead over South Carolina, and had built a lead as large as 14 in the first half and 11 in the second. LSU fell apart in the stretch and lost by 2.

An 11-point lead against Kentucky, 8 at the half, quickly disappeared once Calipari had a chance to make halftime adjustments. The Cats blew LSU’s doors off in the second and won by 5 after building a 15-point lead. LSU didn’t build a huge lead over Arkansas in the first and the teams were tied at the half. LSU built a 7-point lead with 6:30 to go… and lost by a point. Come the SEC tournament, LSU got its collapse out of the way early, allowing a massive Hogs run to start the second to effectively end the game.

Over and over, LSU blew big leads under Wade this season. Now, part of that is basketball. It’s a more volatile sport than football, but also it seems that LSU has no answers once a team has made adjustments to the game. Wade has not proven himself to be a gifted in-game tactician, so losing him on the sideline isn’t the biggest of deals in the short term (it is huge in the long term, he’s great at too many other things).

Tari Eason won the SEC Sixth Man of the Year Award this year, which sounds great, but it is also a bit of an indictment of Wade. Eason ranks 8th in KenPom’s player of the year ratings and projects as a mid to late first round pick. So.. why is he coming off of the bench? Why is the player getting the most minutes on the team Brandon Murray, who is a good contributor, but not the difference maker Eason or Xavier Pinson is?

It’s too late to bemoan what this team is or isn’t, but it feels like this team will go as far as Pinson can take them with the wild care being Efton Reid, an immensely talented post player who simply disappears for long periods. If he plays like he is capable, LSU can dominate with a terrific inside-outside combo and a slashing Eason creating plays in the space they create. If his mind wanders, well, you get LSU blowing double digit leads.

The good news is that the committee gave LSU a pretty decent draw for a six-seed. Iowa State is a dangerous team with a long list of scalps under its belt, but they also profile very similar to LSU. If matchup make games, ISU is the shadow of LSU. For whatever it’s worth, our friends at Draft Kings have LSU as a four-point favorite.

Both teams are elite defensively. They force tons of turnovers, particularly on steals, turning those steals into easy buckets on the other end. On the other hand, both teams struggle in the half court set and can be downright dismal shooting the ball. Each team plays terrific perimeter defense and not so terrific perimeter offense. It will be like playing yourself, right down to the knowledge that this team has enough talent to have done more than they did this season.

Waiting potentially in the second round is a Wisconsin team that also is challenged at shooting the ball. The Badgers rank 33rd in the KenPom, which is incredibly low for a three seed. The next lowest ranked three-seed this year is Purdue at #14. LSU ranks 19th.

There is a clear path to the Sweet Sixteen here, LSU just has to go out and grab it. They also need to show the sort of consistent play they haven’t been able to manage all year. The Tigers have the talent to do it, they simply need a coach who can help them put it together.

Maybe that guy wasn’t Will Wade.