By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Will Wade’s first venture into his native state as LSU’s head coach ushers in a series of road games for a team yet to be tested in unfriendly confines.
Wade, a Nashville native, leads the Tigers (8-3) into Memphis for an 8 p.m. tipoff with Memphis (9-3) on Thursday (CBS Sports Network). It’s the one non-league road game for an LSU team that has played only home or neutral site games all season so far and the first of three in two weeks that includes stops at national title contenders Texas A&M and an Arkansas team that rarely loses in Bud Walton.
“You have to be tough on the road, tight on the road,” Wade said Tuesday. “You have to overwhelm the other team with your spirit. Your bench has to be good. Everyone has to be engaged. You have to scrape out two or three plays that are tough plays. Whether we can do that or not is to be determined.”
Developing a bench remains a priority for a Tiger team that has used 76 five-man lineups this season and ranks second in the SEC in bench minutes (38.3%). Adding to LSU’s depth is the return of wing Brandon Sampson, who scored 7 points in 10 minutes against North Florida and who is ready for a full game’s workload, both he and his coach said Tuesday. Sampson said he had no bruising after the game, with more mental hurdles to overcome than physical ones.
“I’m getting back to trusting and cutting,” he said. “It’s healing really well. Still got some bruises, but that’s something that will go away with time. It’s just me trusting. I really want to thank my trainer (Shawn Eddy). He had more faith in me than I did, when I was skeptical about cutting in practice. I had to trust it. He was completely right.”
Sampson’s been dynamic in limited action this season, with a stellar 149.3 offensive rating that would lead the nation, had he met the minutes requirement. He’s averaging 24.4 points per 40 minutes while shooting 43 percent from 3, and LSU is 26 points per 100 possessions better when he plays, according to Open Look Analytics, a number bested only by Tremont Waters‘ 30 points margin.
It’s the defensive area of the floor Sampson looks to help the most, though. He gives LSU unique length and athleticism on the perimeter, and opposing offenses score just 95 points per 100 possessions when he plays, per Open Look, the best figure of any player on the team. If he can recreate his dominant showing in his last full game, when he locked down Michigan sharpshooter Duncan Robinson to the tune of just three points – all of which came on a single transition 3 – he’ll prove a vital piece to LSU’s puzzle heading into the meat of its schedule.
“When we don’t have him, we don’t have another 6’6” wing running around on our team,” Wade said. “It is hard to shut down bigger wings. It is hard to shut down bigger guys when he is not out there. So we hope he can give us a spark.”
Defense has been one focal point for Sampson this offseason, second only to communication. Quiet and laid back by nature, Sampson has begun speaking up in practice and during games. Even while injured, he was often one of the loudest, most active players on the Tigers’ bench.
“The better guys have to step up and talk,” Sampson said. “It wouldn’t be right if they didn’t. It’s something I’ve personally challenged myself, just to be more vocal. When things aren’t going good, that’s when guys tend not to talk, so that’s when I try to boost my talk.”
Sampson’s game is electric by nature, featuring high-flying dunks and smoothly-stroked three-pointers. He entered the North Florida game ninth nationally in spot-up scoring per attempt, hitting 71.4% of his attempts on such plays. It’s the unquantifiable parts of his game, though, that have improved most, he says.
“I have a big contribution on this team with the energy part of it,” he said. “It’s almost like a chain reaction. If guys see me out there diving for loose balls, four guys will be right behind me doing it, too.”
LSU’s win over North Florida was one of its best all season, featuring its best defensive display (just 52 points allowed) and its second-highest offensive output (104 points). It was also the first time all season the Tigers eclipsed all five of Wade’s “game standards” – a handful of benchmarks the team must meet each game, or else pay the price.
Wade carried the game standards to LSU from his previous stops. The team must achieve at least three of the following five marks: fewer than 12 turnovers, win the rebounding battles, record five turkeys (three defensive stops in a row), tally 40 deflections, and a fifth rotating, opponent-speficic variable (against North Florida, get 60 paint touches on offense). LSU has gotten at least three in most games, said sophmore guard Skylar Mays, and four once, but never, until North Florida, all five.
“We’re good for three,” Mays said. “That’s become consistent: at least three. But when you get five, you’re not going to lose many games.”
North Florida was the first time LSU has acheived the most elusive goal: the 40 deflections. Mays said Waters leads the team in deflections – he had 17 alone in the second half against Stephen F. Austin – but Wade said the total was more evenly split among the entire team against the Ospreys. For Mays, getting hands into the opponents’ passes and dribbles is a vital piece of LSU’s defense.
“It’s just a matter of not letting them get comfortable,” he said. “At the Division 1 level, everybody is good when they’re comfortable. When they’re not comfortable, you make it a little harder than them.”
- Record: 9-3 overall, 9-0 at home
- Ranking: No. 163 in KenPom
- Best win: 76-74 at home over Northern Kentucky (No. 79 in KenPom)
- Best loss: 81-72 vs. Louisville (neutral site)
- Star: Jeremiah Martin – 18.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.9 apg, 44.6% FG, 35.5% 3FG, 80.2%FT, “He is the best point guard we played since (Matt) Farrell at Notre Dame,” Wade said. “He is a tremendous player.”
- Stat: 24.0% – Memphis gets nearly a quarter of its points at the free throw line, which ranks 14th nationally