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LSU recovered quickly from the end of the Johnny Jones era

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Now, the Tigers are starting over — albeit with some very talented newcomers.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

It’s easy to forget now, but it’s only been a dozen years since LSU basketball was nationally relevant. In 2006, a team led by Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Tyrus Thomas went all the way to the Final Four.

Since then, LSU has made the NCAA Tournament twice and hasn’t gotten out of the first weekend either time. After John Brady got fired midway through a 13-18 season — just two years removed from the Final Four — LSU hired what looked like a coup in then-Stanford coach Trent Johnson; Johnson won 67 games in four years. Then, LSU alum and North Texas head coach Johnny Jones came in, won 61 games in his first three seasons, and then brought in BEN SIMMONS (!) and... went 19-14. After Simmons left for the NBA, Jones went 10-21 and was dismissed.

Then, LSU hired ex-VCU coach Will Wade. Wade had only been a head coach for four years — two at Chattanooga and two at VCU — but had gone 91-45 and made back-to-back NCAA Tournaments at VCU. Wade signed four-star point guard Tremont Waters shortly after taking the job, patched up holes with transfers, and went 18-15 in his first year in Baton Rouge.

But all those transfers got out of the program in short order. LSU lost four seniors off the 2017-18 squad, including two starters, and also lost Brandon Sampson — who left for the NBA Draft after averaging 7.7 ppg. (Shockingly, he was not drafted.) In addition, LSU lost every member of last year’s freshman class save for Waters, and junior forward Wayde Sims was tragically shot to death in September. That leaves LSU with just three returning scholarship players from last year’s team; LSU returns just 45.4 percent of its possession-minutes.

The good news? While there’s a ton to replace, the replacements are talented. LSU welcomes the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class, including two five-star recruits and two four-star recruits. Oh yeah, and Tremont Waters is back. There’s a ton of upside here, although there are relatively few guys on the roster who are proven commodities — which means the floor is probably lower than you’d think for a preseason Top 25 team.

Backcourt

Even the most optimistic LSU fan probably would not have expected what the Tigers got from Tremont Waters as a freshman. Waters scored 27 points in his first college game against Alcorn State, and scored 39 points against Marquette in his fifth game. The bad news was that Waters’ best work came in November and December; though he averaged 17.2 ppg through LSU’s early schedule, that average dropped to 14.7 ppg in SEC play, and that came with lower shooting percentages (43.6 percent on twos, 29.7 percent on threes.) Those latter numbers aren’t going to cut it, though the additional talent on the roster might mean that Waters will have to do less to carry LSU in 2018-19.

Two other guards return from last year’s team, both with starting experience. Amazingly, in Will Wade’s second year, 6’4” junior guard Skylar Mays is the only remaining Johnny Jones recruit on the roster. A local product from Baton Rouge, Mays started 30 games last year and, like Waters, saw his production tail off in SEC play. He’s an excellent free throw shooter (82.5 percent career) and seemed more comfortable playing off the ball with Waters than he did playing the point as a freshman. 6’3” senior Daryl Edwards started 16 games as a JUCO transfer and averaged 6.8 ppg and 1.7 rpg and figures to be a nice option off the bench this year.

Four-star recruit Ja’vonte Smart is a 6’4” combo guard from Baton Rouge and could be a threat to start, though he’ll probably start the year behind Waters and Mays. Wade also added a couple of JUCO transfers for depth: 6’6” Marlon Taylor averaged 17.0 ppg and 9.5 rpg while shooting 44.1 percent from three at Panola Junior College in Texas, while 6’1” point guard Danya Kingsby averaged 13.3 ppg and 3.7 apg at the College of Southern Idaho.

Frontcourt

LSU will debut an entirely new frontcourt in 2018-19, but the good news here is that it’s talented. A pair of five-star recruits anchor the frontcourt haul: 6’10” Naz Reid was the 18th-ranked player nationally in the 247 Sports composite, and 6’7” Emmitt Williams ranked 26th. A third recruit, 6’7” Darius Days, ranked “only” 62nd but also has a lot of upside.

The bad news is that, well, everyone else is new, too, so LSU will probably lean on Reid, Williams, and Days more than they’d probably like to. They do have one player with Division I experience, however. 6’11” senior Kavell Bigby-Williams sat out last year after transferring from Oregon, where he played sparingly in 2016-17 (albeit for a Final Four team) and averaged 3.0 ppg and 2.8 rpg in limited minutes. Bigby-Williams did average 3.1 blocks per 40 minutes during his single year at Oregon and could be a defensive stopper for the Tigers.

LSU picked up a commitment from four-star recruit Aundre Hyatt in August, a 6’7” wing who reclassified from the 2019 class. Courtese Cooper averaged 10.0 ppg and 6.7 rpg as a freshman at Triton Junior College and will add depth.

Schedule

Schedule

Date Opponent
Date Opponent
11/6 SE Louisiana
11/9 UNC Greensboro
11/13 Memphis
11/16 Louisiana Tech
11/22 vs. Charleston
11/23 AdvoCare Invitational
11/25 AdvoCare Invitational
12/1 Grambling
12/9 Incarnate Word
12/12 at Houston
12/15 vs. St. Mary's (Las Vegas)
12/21 Furman
12/28 UL Monroe
1/8 Alabama
1/12 at Arkansas
1/15 at Ole Miss
1/19 South Carolina
1/23 Georgia
1/26 at Missouri
1/30 at Texas A&M
2/2 Arkansas
2/6 at Mississippi State
2/9 Auburn
2/12 at Kentucky
2/16 at Georgia
2/20 Florida
2/23 Tennessee
2/26 Texas A&M
3/2 at Alabama
3/6 at Florida
3/9 Vanderbilt

LSU’s nonconference schedule isn’t bad. They’ll play a road game at Houston and a neutral-court matchup against St. Mary’s. They’ll open the AdvoCare Invitational with a tricky matchup against Charleston, and that field also includes Villanova and Florida State. There are also some classic “work the RPI” matchups against the likes of Southeastern Louisiana and Grambling, both of which won their conferences in 2017-18.

In SEC play, LSU will play Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas A&M twice each. That’s not too demanding: Alabama and Florida project in the middle of the pack in the SEC, but Georgia has a new coach and Arkansas and Texas A&M were both gutted by losses to graduation and the NBA Draft.

Outlook

This feels like the classic kind of team that gets overrated in the preseason. LSU, thanks mostly to Tremont Waters and that recruiting class, is popping up in some preseason Top 25’s.

That seems like a best-case scenario. Waters is good, but he tailed off quite a bit in SEC play last year and he’s also one of just three returning players for LSU. The recruiting class is solid, to be sure, but the highest-rated player in the class — Naz Reid — was the #18 recruit nationally in the 247 Sports composite. What’s more, Will Wade is still relatively unproven as a head coach. He won for a couple of years at Chattanooga, and he didn’t let VCU fall off the map after Shaka Smart left, and he inspired a quick return to respectability at LSU. But this might be the first time he’s dealing with real expectations — his next team that is ranked in the preseason Top 25 will be his first.

In truth, this is probably a team that could be really good in 2019-20 if everyone returns. This year should bring a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015, and only the third time since 2006. But expecting much beyond that is probably a bit unfair.