By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Will Wade wasn’t “bugging out.” Nor was he “tripping.” His players will tell you as much.
The day before LSU was set to take on 8-1 Houston in Baton Rouge, his team practiced poorly enough that not only did Wade recognize it, but his players also sensed their slipping effort.
“We knew as a team: Coach wasn’t just tripping, bugging out,” said freshman guard Tremont Waters. “He wasn’t flipping for no reason. We knew we did something wrong.”
That failure was one of finishing. Wade said the team’s conclusion to the practice preceding the contest with the Cougars was insufficient. And in Wade’s world, insufficiency requires sufficient response.
In this case, an extra practice. On game day.
“I wasn’t real pleased with how practice ended (Tuesday),” he said. “When you play a tough, physical team like that, you have to practice tough and physical. We got up a little early this morning since we had a long day. We taped up and went good on good for about an hour, an hour and 15 minutes. We came back and did our normal shoot around this afternoon.”
The extra work paid off. In a game that required every ounce of energy the Tigers had, LSU finished Wednesday far better than they did Tuesday, with hustle plays, second-chance points, loose ball recoveries, and defensive stops keying them to an 80-77 win.
LSU dominated in the “hustle stat” categories, beating Houston – known for its rugged play under Kelvin Sampson – in second-chance points (19 to 7), rebounding (38 to 33, including 20 to 13 in the second half), and points in the paint (38 to 18).
“I tell our guys preparation breeds confidence,” Wade said. “Confidence builds toughness. We have to prepare the right way so that we are confident. When we are confident, we will just fly around and play tough. I felt that’s what our team needed, and that’s what we did. I think we played a little bit tougher because we had that mindset.”
Wade singled out plays from Wayde Sims, who scooped up a critical loose ball late, and Aaron Epps, who had 11 of LSU’s second-chance points, including nine in the second half, as well as Daryl Edwards, who harried normally efficient Cougar playmaker Rob Gray into 7-of-16 shooting and 1-of-6 from deep.
“I thought we won the game on toughness,” Wade said. “We out-toughed them. We were really gritty down the stretch. (Houston is) one of the toughest teams in the country. To be the first team to out-rebound them all year, it shows our guys were locked in, tough and ready to play.”
ELATED FOR EPPS
Epps picked a good night to have a career game. Scouts from at least four NBA teams, including one general manager, were present for his 26 point, 16 rebound effort, both of which surpassed his previous highs as a Tiger.
After the game, Epps sported a heavyweight championship belt in the LSU locker room, before attending postgame media sessions in his normal, subdued, soft-spoken manner.
He said his team’s plan was to “just to keep on fighting. Make sure we crash the glass hard and just make sure we got our hands up on every shot.”
His teammates and head coach were happy to brag on him, though.
“That man is a GOAT,” Waters said. “Epps is going to the league.”
Wade got emotional talking about the senior, whom he’s praised for his work all offseason. The man he calls “Everyday Epps” for his consistent, daily work habits had a day to remember.
“He’s worked so hard,” Wade said. “He deserves to have a really good senior year. Just proud of him. He has it in him. He just needs a little confidence jolt.”
To get him that jolt, Wade decided, after much in-staff debate, to call the first play of the game for Epps, a high ball-screen and re-screen for Waters. Wade’s inclination is to pound the paint early, but he knew the play would get Epps and open look, and it did.
Said Wade: “I just told him, after we decided to run the play, ‘Just shoot it the right way.’ I didn’t say, ‘You gotta make it.’ I said, ‘Just shoot that thing the right way. I’ll live with whatever the result is.’”
The result was a make, but Epps’ impact was most felt on the glass. He grabbed 16 rebounds, including eight on the offensive glass, and he now leads the country in offensive rebounding percentage (20.1).
“He was huge tonight,” said Wade. “We needed him to be big, and he was huge.”
Skylar Mays loves pick and rolls. He’s just used to using them, not setting them.
Against Houston, however, Mays flipped the script, setting several ball screens for Waters, as did three-man Brandon Rachal, in a tactical move designed by Wade to get mismatches.
“I like it,” said Mays, who finished with 18 points. “I like setting screens. We were just trying to get Tre to where Gray was guarding him and have him make a play, because we were confident with that matchup.”
The small-on-small ball screen worked early. Waters hit a 3 and found Sims open in the corner for a missed 3 in the 13 pick and roll – a screen for the 1 (Waters) by the 3 (Rachal). Then, LSU went at Wes Van Beck, guarding Mays, running a 12 pick and roll, which landed Waters a layup and Epps a 3.
The mismatches went Mays’ way in the second half. Houston pressed into Waters, offering no help off of him, so Wade dialed up Mays’ number, particularly as a slasher. All of his 14 second half points came at the line or in the paint.
This is one of Wade’s go-to isolation sets. Mays misses the layup, but notice how the double-cutter action frees up Mays to drive right into the now-open gap. Waters’ man is hugged up in no-help, and Sims sets a sort of brush screen as he cuts weakside, giving Mays the necessary step to get to the rim.
Nice double-gap iso from LSU's Will Wade pic.twitter.com/h33RvAmd3Z
— PickandPop (@PickAndPopNet) December 14, 2017
Wade did fall on the sword for LSU’s failure to execute on its last offensive possession. He drew up a Waters-Epps pick and roll, but Waters turned the ball over before his game-saving block on the other end.
“Turnover’s my fault,” Wade said. “I didn’t give us enough movement on offense. We were trying to isolate Tre and Epps on a side, and there was an option to get it to the backside where Skylar could come off a quick handoff. I did a poor job, because we didn’t have very good movement.”
LSU’s win over Houston is their second over a top-50 team in the KenPom ratings. That’s among the highest numbers in the SEC and more than preseason title favorites Kentucky, which has zero such wins.
SEC teams wins over top 50 in KenPom
Mississippi State: 0
South Carolina: 0
Ole Miss: 0
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) December 14, 2017