When LSU opens its 2020-21 basketball season Thursday with two games in three days in St. Louis, it will more just more than 8½ months since the Tigers and all college teams had last season cut short by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, fourth-year LSU coach Will Wade has welcomed back starters Javonte Smart, Darius Days and Trendon Watford who tested the NBA Draft waters and has revamped his roster with five freshmen signees and three transfers.
After more than a month of preseason practice, Wade is ready to see his creation take the floor against faces besides the ones he has seen daily.
“I like our versatility, I like the way we shoot the ball extremely well, we share the ball on offense, our turnovers are down in practice and our defense is improving,” Wade said in a Thursday media Zoom video conference. “Add all that together and we’ve got a good-looking squad.”
LSU has been picked to finish third in the SEC Coaches poll, the same spot it was tabbed last year when the Tigers were 21-10 overall and finished in tie for second in the league with Auburn. LSU was primed for a second straight NCAA tourney bid when the coronavirus outbreak ended the year.
On the surface, a 20-win season for the Tigers, who had virtually no depth and limited long, big bodies, appeared to be Wade’s best coaching performance to date.
Except, according to him, it wasn’t.
“I did a poor job last year,” Wade said. “When you have players go through the draft process (as underclassmen who return to school), you learn some stuff as the head coach, too. You learn what’s the perception of your program.
“I had exit interviews (after last season) with every person in our program and I had to come to grips with some things I wasn’t doing very well.
“We’d gotten off track. Our first two years, we were on track. We totally slid off track. It’s very difficult to get back. But because of those guys (Smart, Days, Wadford and the graduated Skylar Mays), their honesty and forthrightness, we’re able to get back on track. That’s why I’m so confident with this team. We got stuff fixed and we’re poised to take off. Everybody – players, coaches and managers, are on the same page. That wasn’t always the case last year.”
Wade said he’s glad to have Smart, Days and Wadford back for one more season, but added, “In some ways, I failed those kids. . .Trendon should have been one-and-done. . .some of the stuff I did contributed to him being back and that ain’t a very good thing to have on your heart as a coach.”
Wade declined to specifically say what his shortcomings were last season and how they’ve been corrected, but said he has turned over team leadership to the players. He also emphasized his voice is the only coaching staff one the players will hear.
“We had too many people with their hands in too many different jars,” Wade said, “and there was not enough structure. It’s been a wholesale change across the board. There’s more upstream thinking, rather than downstream thinking which is reactionary.”
Not just with their leadership, but Wade has built his team around the on-the-court skills and experience of Smart, Mays and Wadford, who have started a collective 111 games for the Tigers.
Smart had a shaky transition from shooting guard to point guard early last season, but by season’s end he led the SEC in assists to turnover ratio (in conference games only).
“He has such a better command, he runs our offense,” Wade said of Smart. “We watched film all summer. He told me after the first week, `Coach, I’ve learned more watching film with you this week than I probably learned in two years here.’
“He’s just the total package with his play, his leadership, his efficiency. . .I wouldn’t trade him for any point guard in the country.”
Smart said he’s much more comfortable than last season.
“I think I will take a big jump this year,” Smart said.
The biggest change in Days is he’s in the best shape of his life.
“Some of (NBA) teams told me to get in elite shape, some teams told me to get my shooting percentage up,” Days said.
Wadford said he’s worked diligently on his outside shooting in the off-season. Last year when he averaged 13.6 points and 7.2 rebounds, his 48.9 field goal percentage would have been well over 50 percent had he not shot a chilly 26.9 percent from three-point range.
“I’m a better three-point shooter than what I showed last year,” Wadford said.
Heading into the opening week of the regular season, Wade said he has 10 players he can put in games that he “feels good about.”
That includes 6-4 freshman guard Cam Thomas and 7-foot sophomore transfer center Bryan-Penn Johnson, who are likely the other two starters, as well as top reserves freshman guards Jalen Cook and Eric Gaines, swingmen redshirt sophomore Aundre Hyatt and senior Charles Manning, freshman small forward Mwani Wilkerson, redshirt sophomore transfer forward Shareef O’Neal and junior transfer forward Josh LeBlanc Sr.
Smart, who has more career starts (48) than anyone else on the LSU roster, has noticed the increase in talent around him.
“We’ve got more athletes, guys who can do more, a lot of guys who can score,” Smart said. “If I get in the paint, we have so many guys who can hit shots I feel like I have a walking assist next to me.
“I’m ready to play. I’m ready to see someone else in front of us. I know everybody on this team is ready to play.”
LSU was originally scheduled three games starting Wednesday in a coronavirus-safe bubble named the Golden Window Classic in Lincoln, Nebraska.
But several teams pulled out because of COVID-19 concerns, so LSU will head to St. Louis to play Southern Illinois-Edwardsville on Thursday and St. Louis on Saturday.