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2017-18 SEC Basketball Season Preview: LSU Tigers

The new coach brings enthusiasm, but this team looks too inexperienced to compete just yet.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State Press Conference Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

LSU Tigers 2017-18 Basketball Season Preview

  • Head Coach: Will Wade (first year at LSU; 91-45 overall, four years)
  • Last year: 10-21 (2-16 SEC), KenPom rating: 172
  • Returning starters: 4
  • Returning possession-minutes: 57.7%
  • Recruiting class ranking: #16 nationally, #4 in SEC

How Did We Get Here?

In 2013, LSU signed the country’s #6 recruiting class in the 247 Sports composite. In 2015, it signed the #10 recruiting class in the country, and that included the best recruit in the class (Ben Simmons.)

Johnny Jones’ SEC record in five years: 42-48.

In some ways, Jones was a victim of his own success on the recruiting trail. Expectations got so high because the team looked so good on paper, and Jones couldn’t deliver on that. He made the NCAA Tournament just once in five years, in 2015, and watched a 14-point halftime lead evaporate in an opening-round loss to NC State.

His 2015-16 team, which included Simmons, went 19-14 and managed to score 38 points in a loss to Texas A&M that ended the season. Excellent performances against good teams were canceled out by head-scratching losses. Jones’ 2014-15 team took Kentucky to the wire in Baton Rouge, and also managed to lose to Missouri, Auburn, and Mississippi State — the three worst teams in the conference that year.

And when the talent was gone, the bottom fell out. Jones’ final performance was a 10-21 season that included an ugly 15-game losing streak through January and February that ended with a 2-16 SEC record, tied with Missouri for 13th place. In a 79-52 loss to Mississippi State in the first round of the SEC Tournament, LSU just seemed like they wanted to get it over with.

Perhaps the worst part of all this is that LSU was actually decent on the offensive end. In SEC play, the Tigers averaged 1.03 points per possession, good for sixth in the conference.

The defense, on the other hand, was a disaster. The Tigers allowed 1.20 points per possession in SEC play; to put that number in perspective, the SEC’s best offense -- Kentucky — averaged 1.13 points per possession in conference play. LSU opponents scored 90 points on ten different occasions and two opponents hit the century mark.

Against LSU’s defense, average offenses looked like good offenses; good offenses basically scored at will. I generally hate questioning the effort of college players, but it’s actually difficult to imagine that a team putting forth any real effort on the defensive end could be this bad at it.

If I haven’t run you off by making you read all that, there’s at least some good news. LSU scored a minor coup by hiring Will Wade to replace Jones. Wade, who turns 35 next month, is one of the youngest coaches in Division I but already has four years as a head coach under his belt — and those four years have been pretty successful. Wade went 40-25 in two years in Chattanooga, then 51-20 in two years at VCU.

While winning percentage at a couple of mid-majors isn’t entirely predictive of how you’ll do at a bigger job — coaching at that level can mask some flaws. It’s possible to simply out-talent the rest of your conference in a way you’re really not going to do in the SEC. All else being equal, you’d rather have a guy who’s won 67 percent of his career games at that level than a guy with a much lower winning percentage who just had a Sweet 16 run.

Wade had a pretty immediate impact on the recruiting trail, too. It’s nowhere on the level of Cuonzo Martin’s at Missouri (but then Michael Porter Jr. isn’t from Baton Rouge), but Wade held onto a pair of Jones recruits and signed a Top 50 recruit. He also brought in a couple of transfers who should contribute immediately.

As far as what’s returning, LSU does return four starters — though they lost last year’s leading scorer, Antonio Blakeney, who declared for the NBA Draft (and went undrafted). On the flipside, basically everyone else is gone, and LSU’s roster features seven newcomers plus Oregon transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams, who will sit out this year.

Of course, after the way last season ended, blowing everything up and starting over might not be the worst thing in the world. 2017-18 feels destined to be a transition year for the LSU program; there are some intriguing pieces for the future on the roster, but this doesn’t feel at all like a team that will threaten a NCAA Tournament berth.

Backcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
0 Brandon Sampson 6'5" Jr. 11.6 ppg/3.1 rpg
2 Brandon Rachal 6'5" Fr. #123 recruit
3 Tremont Waters 5'11" Fr. #43 recruit
4 Skylar Mays 6'4" So. 8.3 ppg/3.6 apg
5 Daryl Edwards 6'3" Jr. #21 JC recruit
12 Marshall Graves 6'2" So. walk-on
14 Randy Onwuasor 6'3" Sr. 23.6 ppg/6.6 rpg (SUU)
15 Reed Vial 6'3" Jr. walk-on

LSU returns two starters in the backcourt in Skylar Mays and Brandon Sampson — though Blakeney and his 17.2 points per game will have to be replaced. So, too will Jalyn Patterson, who started 36 games over the past three years, though he’d clearly fallen out of favor in Baton Rouge. Patterson actually elected to finish his degree at LSU and transfer elsewhere for a graduate year, which is certainly an odd path.

Sampson is the closest thing to a proven commodity on LSU’s roster. He was the Tigers’ third-leading scorer as a sophomore at 11.6 points per game and last season was actually one of the SEC’s most efficient guards at scoring inside the arc. His 58.6 percent shooting on twos ranked 8th among qualified players in the SEC, and second among players under 6-foot-9.

Outside the arc was a different matter: Sampson shot 34 percent, decent but not great. That said, the lack of any other real scoring threats may force Sampson into a bigger role. That transition sometimes goes well, but frequently doesn’t.

Mays worked his way into the starting point guard role early in the season as a freshman, but struggled with the transition to the college game. He posted one of the worst turnover rates in the SEC and also struggled with his jump shot, shooting 41 percent from the floor and 33 percent on threes.

But the arrival of four-star point guard Tremont Waters may push Mays off the ball more. Where Mays is more of a combo guard, Waters is a pure point guard — and also a guy who picked up scholarship offers from some heavy hitters like Duke and Kentucky. LSU’s offense lacked a real facilitator for much of last season, and given that reality, odds are that Waters will start from day one. Of course — well, we saw how playing a true freshman point guard went last year.

While Waters signed very late, Brandon Rachal signed early -- and stuck with LSU after Johnny Jones was fired. That’s probably not a huge surprise — he’s from Louisiana, after all — but keeping him in the fold was another nice get for Will Wade. Rachal has a 6’9” wingspan and was a good enough athlete to pick up a few scholarship offers to play football, as well, but basketball is his sport now. That length and athleticism on the wing should help shore up a perimeter defense that was ... not good, to say the least.

With little experience in the backcourt, Wade added a couple of transfers to the mix who could contribute right away. Randy Onwuasor was the fifth-leading scorer in Division I last year, averaging 23.6 ppg for Southern Utah. Of course ... Southern Utah went 6-27, and Onwuasor’s effective field goal percentage was a pedestrian 45.6 percent. I get the sense that Onwuasor was a “numbers guy” on a bad team, but then LSU probably won’t be asking him to take 19 shots per game as he did at Southern Utah.

But at the very least, he’ll provide depth at both guard spots and in the best case will be an instant offense guy off the bench. Daryl Edwards arrives from Northwest Florida State College, where he averaged 13.6 ppg and shot an eye-popping 46.6 percent from three — though his 74 percent free throw shooting suggests he’s not that good of a shooter.

Frontcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
1 Duop Reath 6'11" Sr. 12.0 ppg/6.2 rpg
10 Galen Alexander 6'6" Fr. #134 recruit
11 Kavell Bigby-Williams 6'11" Sr. sitting out 2017-18
13 Jeremy Combs 6'7" Sr. 10.2 ppg/6.4 rpg (UNT)
21 Aaron Epps 6'10" Sr. 6.2 ppg/4.4 rpg
35 Mayan Kiir 6'9" Fr. #158 recruit
44 Wayde Sims 6'6" So. 6.5 ppg/3.8 rpg

LSU struggled to defend the paint last year — opponents shot 55.7 percent inside the arc in SEC play, which was the worst mark in the conference — and that issue might not have been addressed in the offseason.

Duop Reath, a 6’11” senior from Australia, started 30 games last year and averaged 12.0 ppg and 6.2 rpg. Those are solid numbers. He also shot 53.5 percent inside the arc — decent, but not great. He averaged 1.5 blocks per game, which isn’t bad but isn’t anything special, either. Still, regardless of what Reath did, it’s hard to get past the fact that LSU just couldn’t defend the basket as a team and wasn’t a very good rebounding team, either.

6’10” fellow senior Aaron Epps, who started 19 games a year ago, posted strong rebounding rates and can step back and hit jump shots, but isn’t much of a rim protector -- he averaged 0.4 blocks per game while playing 17.2 mpg. The real help in the paint will have to wait until 2018-19, when Oregon transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams becomes eligible.

6’9” freshman Mayan Kiir, who initially signed with VCU but followed Will Wade to LSU, has plenty of upside but needs to add strength (he’s listed at 201) and work on his offensive game before he’s ready to be much more than a bench player.

Another graduate transfer, 6’7” senior Jeremy Combs, should help on the glass -- Combs averaged a double-double (14.9 ppg/10.5 rpg) as a sophomore at North Texas, but injuries limited him to 14 games last season. He also could provide some scoring punch down low; he shot 59.2 percent from the floor (while not attempting a three-pointer all season) in 2015-16. That said, at 6’7” and 215 lbs., he’s undersized for an SEC big man. And North Texas managed to finish 294th and 312th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency the last two years.

On the wing, 6’6” sophomore Wayde Sims had a solid freshman year in a bench role, averaging 6.5 ppg (in just 19 minutes a game) and making five starts while shooting 41.2 percent from three. 6’6” freshman Galen Alexander, a four-star in-state recruit who signed last November, should also get playing time on the wing.

Schedule

Date Opponent
11/10 Alcorn State
11/16 Samford
11/20 vs. Michigan
11/21 Maui Invitational
11/22 Maui Invitational
11/29 Tennessee-Martin
12/10 UNC Wilmington
12/13 Houston
12/16 Stephen F. Austin
12/19 Sam Houston State
12/22 North Florida
12/28 at Memphis
1/3 Kentucky
1/6 at Texas A&M
1/10 at Arkansas
1/13 Alabama
1/16 Georgia
1/20 at Vanderbilt
1/23 Texas A&M
1/27 at Auburn
1/31 at Tennessee
2/3 Arkansas
2/7 at Florida
2/10 Ole Miss
2/13 at Alabama
2/17 Missouri
2/20 Vanderbilt
2/24 at Georgia
2/28 at South Carolina
3/3 Mississippi State

LSU’s nonconference schedule looks pretty soft at first glance. There’s only one true road game (a late December trip to Memphis) and aside from the Maui Invitational, the Tigers won’t leave Baton Rouge otherwise. Five opponents ranked outside the KenPom top 200 last year, and while none of those are abjectly terrible (Alcorn State may be a SWAC team, but at least they finished second in the conference), when Houston is arguably the best opponent on your nonconference schedule (outside of Maui, anyway) it’s probably pretty soft.

The SEC slate should be reasonably tough, though. LSU draws two of the league’s NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago (Arkansas and Vanderbilt) twice, as well as what should be improved outfits from Alabama and Texas A&M. Georgia is the fifth team that’s on the schedule twice.

Outlook

It’s hard to imagine how LSU could have made a better hire than Wade. While his head coaching resume is short, it’s pretty impressive, with a .669 winning percentage — and a 55-15 (.786) record in conference games. He revived a flailing Chattanooga program, which hadn’t had a winning record in five years before he took over, and he more or less maintained what Shaka Smart had built at VCU — a harder job than it sounds like.

There’s some risk here, as there always is when you’re hiring somebody who isn’t an established name, but there’s also a ton of upside. Wade has already made an impact on the recruiting trail, too, adding Tremont Waters to the mix while keeping Johnny Jones’ final recruits in the fold, and scoring a commitment from 2018 five-star Naz Reid.

But Wade is going to have an uphill battle to maintain that sterling conference record this year. Under Johnny Jones, LSU almost always managed to field talented teams — and, well, made one NCAA Tournament appearance in five years. And when Jones didn’t have a talented roster in 2016-17, the bottom really fell out.

There are some nice pieces on the offensive end here. Brandon Sampson can score at the basket, Wayde Sims is capable of knocking down jumpers, Tremont Waters has potential at the point, Duop Reath is a decent scorer inside. Jeremy Combs and Randy Onwuasor were big fish in small ponds at North Texas and Southern Utah, respectively.

That said, those last two are telling, and not in a good way. Bruce Pearl’s first team at Auburn three years ago included a couple of graduate transfers from mid-majors, a juco, and some four-star freshmen as part of a massive roster overhaul and that team went 4-14 in the SEC. Going the transfer route is a nice way of announcing that you have major holes on your roster, and it’s not difficult to imagine some guys who did well at smaller schools having games that don’t really translate to the SEC.

And, well, the elephant in the room is the defense. LSU couldn’t stop anybody from scoring last year and while at least some of that was probably just a lack of effort, there also isn’t anyone on this team that looks like a lockdown defender. Mayan Kiir might be able to defend the rim, but he’s probably too much of a liability on the offensive end to see significant minutes just yet.

This looks to me like a team that will put up a nice record against a soft nonconference schedule — and then reality will set in once SEC play starts. There’s some upside, and maybe this team pushes for a .500 record in conference play, but I’m just not seeing this team as a NCAA Tournament contender this year. But next year they should be in good shape.