By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Will Wade gave his players 30 minutes.
After that, following LSU’s marquee win over Michigan last week in the opening round of the Maui Invitational, he’d confiscate their phones for the night, an attempt to curb their communication with the outside world and keep their minds focused on basketball over social media.
The effort proved futile, as the Tigers (3-2) fell the following night in blowout fashion to Notre Dame and in the third contest to Marquette in a closer affair. Back on the mainland, the players have their phones back, and after digging into film of his defense, Wade might want to figure out if he can sneak them onto the floor for Wednesday’s home slate with UT-Martin (7 p.m., SECN+, LSU Sports Radio Network).
Anything, to improve communication between the lines – particularly on ball screens.
“I would say the number one issue (on ball screen defense) is lack of communication,” Wade said of his defense that surrendered 50 percent shooting to both Notre Dame and Marquette, and to Michigan in the second half.
“It’s a matter of communicating,” echoed sophomore guard Skylar Mays. “Sometimes the guard has to know the screen is coming. That being said, all the guards have to do a better job of getting over screens and getting back into play rather than sitting on the screen and leaving the big man out to dry.”
Against Notre Dame, LSU gave up 34 points on 29 possessions ending with pick and rolls, per Synergy, a 1.17 point per possession clip that would rank dead last nationally if extrapolated to all defensive possessions. The Irish shot 13-of-24 from the field on such plays, including 7-of-16 from behind the arc. For the season, LSU ranks 318th among 351 Division 1 teams in pick and roll defense and 348th in halfcourt defense, per Synergy.
Wade also said he plans to simplify LSU’s approach to pick and roll defense. The plan against Marquette – switch everything 1 through 4 – was even simpler than the Notre Dame plan. The short turnaround and lack of preparation also hurt.
“I would say the number two issue is I have given them too many different coverages,” Wade said, “so we are going to simplify what we are doing so that way everybody knows what we are doing. Part of the reason we were better against Michigan is that we had two days to practice exactly what we were going to do before the game and everybody knew exactly where they were supposed to be and what was supposed to happen. I think if we simplify it that will hopefully alleviate some of those issues.”
There’s a new big man on campus, and he’s 5-foot-11 – maybe.
Tremont Waters is walking on water after setting an LSU record with 39 points in the Maui finale against Marquette. Through five games, the freshman point guard is leading the team in scoring at 20 points per game and is second nationally among high-usage players with a 130.9 offensive rating, sinking 50 percent of his 3s and 52 percent from the floor. He also sparked LSU’s comeback win over Michigan by outscoring the Wolverines 9-7 by himself over the final six minutes.
“It felt surreal,” he said. “Going into the tournament, we didn’t know what to expect. We knew we were going to be playing Michigan in the first game, it was a big feeling. Everyone had goosebumps going into that first game. We played hard, we played gritty. Going into the next game, we just didn’t follow up. The Michigan game, it felt different. I’ve never been a part of that type of experience. To be able to play that way, it felt good.”
Waters said he’s starting to get recognized on campus after his standout showings and said his proudest moment was showing up on SportsCenter’s Top 10 – in both the number two and number one spots – the next day. When Wade finally gave the players their phones back, he needed time to clear his many accumulated notifications.
“I had a few messages,” he laughed. “A few likes on Instagram. A few SnapChats. Stuff like that. It was just a scrolling sensation.”
The freshman sensation is a humble interview, careful to credit his teammates and coaches with every success he’s had and stumbling over questions that could cause him to issue self-praise (“I guess I’m breaking records, or whatever,” he sheepishly said, asked about making the all-tournament team and starting fast at LSU).
He also clarified that he didn’t steal any basketballs in Maui, as Wade said after the Michigan win. He merely borrowed one, slept with it to get a feel for it, and then proceeded to average 23 points over three games.
“I didn’t steal it,” he laughed. “I just borrowed it for the night so I would get a better feel for the basketball. I did not steal the basketball. I borrowed it and gave it back to the high school.”
Waters also picked up some new shades while in Hawaii, courtesy of the tournament sponsor Maui Jim. Hopefully, it will help with the spotlight now shining brightly on him.
“We got some Maui Jim sunglasses,” he said. “That was pretty cool. Just increase my swag.”
The two defeats revealed how much work LSU has to do moving forward, but the win over Michigan (6-1), a Big Ten Tournament Championship and NCAA Tournament team a year ago, shows how much potential the Tigers possess. Wade said the post-game locker room atmosphere was more jovial than some championship locker rooms he’s been in, because the win represented the payoff possible in all the work the program has put in during the offseason.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Skylar Mays, who had the game-winning dunk against the Wolverines. “You forget about all those tough summer days and see where it’s all worth it. We were down 8 or 10 with six minutes to go against a very quality team that had played in the NCAA Tournament with guys who know how to win games. Being able to pull that out, that says something about our team, the fight that we have.”
Wade said he’d been prepping his team for the Michigan game – LSU’s only known matchup for the tournament – for months. The Tigers outshot the Wolverines 58.7% to 45.8% and closed the game on an 18-7 run to win 77-75.
“I think the Michigan game was obviously very emotional,” he said. “We had been working on that all summer. We had worked on some of their stuff all summer. We put a lot of time into preparing for them…With where our team is now, where our program is now, Michigan is about as well as we could play up to this point in the season.
“We see what happens when we prepare the right way. I thought we prepared very well for Michigan. I told them afterwards, ‘You thought that you guys prepared unbelievably well, I would say it was about a B.’ They thought it was an A+. I thought we prepared very well. Better for Michigan than anyone else. When you prepare well, it helps you play well.”
Now, LSU has to learn how to handle success. Wade said he knew early Tuesday morning, the day LSU was set to take on Notre Dame, it could be a rough game.
“Certainly I don’t think we responded very well to the win,” he said. “I could tell Notre Dame was going to be a long afternoon when we had shootaround that day. That’s as mad as I’ve been since I’ve been here at the shootaround”
Injured junior guard Brandon Sampson remains out indefinitely after suffering a sprained ankle early against Notre Dame. He was, Wade said, coming off one of his best “floor games” against Michigan, despite scoring just 10 points in 18 minutes and fouling out with ample time on the clock.
“He was tremendous against Michigan,” Wade said. “The stats don’t show it, but he played phenomenal. Defensively he had Duncan Robinson the whole time. The one shot Robinson made was not on him. It was a transition three where we didn’t close out properly. He really did a nice job. I was very proud of him that game. We need him back sooner rather than later.”
The numbers support Wade’s assertion. Sampson has been vital to LSU’s success this season. When he’s on the floor, LSU is 33 points per 100 possessions better than its opponents, according to Open Look Analytics. When he doesn’t play, opponents outscore LSU by 10 points per 100 possessions. He’s been particularly impactful on defense, as LSU gives up a respectable 103 points per 100 possessions when he’s in the game and a dreadful 128 points per 100 when he’s out. As a primary defender, he’s allowed just 11 points all season, and he held Michigan’s primary scorer Robinson, to three points on just four shot attempts, smothering him with quickness, length and energy.
That’s not to demean his offense, either. He’s been a model of efficiency, posting a remarkable 154.2 offensive rating that would lead the nation, if he met the minutes requirement. He’s also leading the SEC in spot-up scoring (1.786 points per possession), feasting on the creative talents of Waters and Mays. He can also, of course, put it on the deck.
Brandon Sampson. ? pic.twitter.com/cgwbLlR2Gf
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) November 21, 2017
Getting him back as soon as possible is critical, but an accurate timetable for a return isn’t knowable, Wade said, until the swelling in his ankle subsides.
“He’s a big piece to our puzzle,” said Mays. “Having that experience, a guy who has played in big games before, not having that out there is a big loss. It’s going to happen. Guys get hurt. The next guy has to stand up.”