If there’s anything LSU basketball coach Will Wade has learned in the COVID-19 pandemic that ended the Tigers 2019-20 season and has filled the 2020-21 schedule with twists and turns, it’s stay ready for change.
Like losing an SEC road opponent the day before the scheduled game and then finding another.
Wade went to bed Thursday night having completed prep work on Missouri, which LSU (7-2, 2-1) was supposed to play at 7:30 Saturday night in Columbia, Mo.
By breakfast on Friday, a combination of positive tests, contact tracing and subsequent quarantining of individuals with the Missouri program did not meet the SEC COVID-19 management requirements. The game was postponed.
But since Saturday’s South Carolina at Ole Miss game was also postponed because of South Carolina COVID problems, Ole Miss had an opening for a home game which LSU filled. The Tigers will now travel to Oxford to play the Rebels (6-3, 1-1) at 7:30 p.m. on the SEC Network in a game originally scheduled for Feb. 17.
“We were moving on the fly pretty quick,” Wade said. “We had to get in there and start some film on Mississippi. We had to quickly pivot. We got in the gym at 11 this (Friday) morning. We didn’t have an official word (that the opponent had switched) when we started practice.”
For the fourth consecutive game, the Tigers won’t have the services of reserve sophomore Shareef O’ Neal. He’s recovering from an ankle injury and won’t be available until midweek with a chance to play in next Saturday’s home game vs. South Carolina.
Wade also confirmed two players on the roster at the start of the year – senior guard Charles Manning Jr. and sophomore Bryan Penn-Johnson -are no longer with the team.
Penn-Johnson, a 7-foot transfer from Washington, played sparingly in the Tigers’ first five games, averaging 3.4 minutes per contest with no starts. He had two points and three rebounds total.
Penn-Johnson went home to California at Christmas break and didn’t return. Wade said after the Dec. 26 win over Nicholls State that Penn-Johnson “was a little homesick and has some family issues he’s working through.”
But Wade said Friday that Penn-Johnson isn’t returning to LSU and neither is Manning Jr., one of the Tigers’ best players off the bench, who entered the NCAA transfer portal
Last season, Manning averaged 7.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.1 blocks. He played in 19 games and broke the same bone in each foot weeks apart, causing him to miss a large chunk of the SEC schedule.
In the last few games, Manning has started to look like the player he was a year ago before he got hurt. He had 9 points and 4 rebounds in LSU’s SEC-opening 77-54 win vs. Texas A&M on Dec. 29.
On Thursday, Wade met Manning, who was displeased with his lack of playing time (18.2 minutes per game, the most of any bench player).
When Wade was asked if it was all about minutes or if Manning wasn’t happy or if Manning felt he was better off playing elsewhere.
“I can make decisions, too,” Wade said tersely of Manning entering the transfer portal. “Our semester starts Monday and he was going to transfer anyway. He needs to go somewhere where he can (begin to) workout with their team and put himself in the best position to have a good season next season. That’s what’s best for Charles.”
Wade said though he’d like to eventually expand to an 8-man playing rotation, maybe stretch to nine players depending on the matchup, he is comfortable with a seven-man rotation.
The Tigers start junior Javonte Smart and freshman Cam Thomas at guards with junior Darius Days, sophomore Trendon Watford and freshman Mwani Wilkerson at the forwards.
Now that Manning has exited, LSU’s top two bench players are junior transfer forward Josh LeBlanc and freshman guard Eric Gaines. Freshman point guard Jalen Cook also makes appearances as a defensive disruptor.
Scoring hasn’t been a problem for LSU, second in league in that category averaging 86.8 points. The Tigers lead the SEC in field goal percentage (49.2 percent) and free throw percentage (77.6 percent).
LSU has four of the SEC’s top 18 leading scorers with Thomas at No. 1 averaging 24.8 points, Watford at No. 6 averaging 17.4, Smart at No. 9 averaging 15.3 and Days at No. 18 averaging 13.3.
Also, Thomas leads the league in free throw percentage (62 of 68 for 91.2 percent) and Smart tops the SEC in 3-point percentage (22 of 46 for 47.8 percent).
“They’ve got four elite scorers,” Ole Miss head coach and former LSU assistant Kermit Davis said. “The freshman, Cam Thomas, is doing things as a freshman people can’t always do in this league. He’s getting to the line a ton of times. Against all LSU teams, you’ve got to get back defensively (and) play without fouling. Really good rebounding team.”
Ole Miss’ forte is defense. The Rebels are ranked second in the SEC in scoring defense (60.2 points allowed) and lead the league in field goal percentage defense (38.4 percent).
Guard Devontae Shuler averages 13.8 points and 4.1 assists while forward Luis Rodriguez averages 7.7 rebounds and is second in the SEC in steals (2.1).
”They’re physical, they play extremely hard,” Wade said of Ole Miss. “They’re top 10 in the country in a lot of defensive categories. They change those defenses up so we’ve got to be ready for that.”