Two wins, a game postponed by COVID protocol and a rescheduled game postponed by snow and ice ago or about 2½ weeks ago in real time, LSU basketball coach Will Wade delivered a “my way or the highway” speech to his team.
The crux of his message was reiterating to his players their specific roles.
“I was very clear a couple of weeks ago about what everybody is going to do,” Wade said. “I couldn’t have been more clear. . .very, very clear. . .crystal clear. Everybody is well aware of what the expectations are and what happens if the expectations are not met.”
Since Wade’s sharply worded prose, the Tigers have responded with a 14-point SEC win at Mississippi State on Feb. 10 and a 13-point victory week ago in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center over then-16th ranked Tennessee. They were wins in which LSU shot better than 50 percent in consecutive league games for the first time this season.
After having a game canceled against Ole Miss Thursday which was supposedly a replacement game for one of LSU’s two previous COVID-19 postponed contests against Missouri and Florida, the Tigers (13-6 overall, 8-4 SEC) are well-rested and should be eager to continue their consistent play of late.
With just four games left in the regular season (discounting the possible re-scheduling of the Missouri and Florida matchups), LSU still needs all the wins it can gather for its NCAA tournament bid resume heading into Saturday’s 3 p.m. ESPN-televised home game vs. Auburn (11-11, 5-8 SEC).
LSU is now No. 27 in the NCAA NET rankings, up five spots from No. 32 where it sat before the Tennessee game.
“We talk about having huge Quad 1 wins to get in the tournament,” said LSU freshman guard Cam Thomas, the SEC’s leading scorer and fourth nationally averaging 22.6 points per game.
Thomas and the rest of the Tigers have played with a heightened sense of urgency since losing four of five games, prompting Wade to drop his verbal hammer.
“Coach Wade loves to win and he’s been on edge a little more,” LSU junior forward Darius Days said.
With about a month remaining before the start of the NCAA tourney, Wade has narrowed his rotation to eight players. LSU has four starters – Thomas, point guard Javonte Smart (16.1) and forwards Days (12.4) and Trendon Watford (16.2) – averaging in double figures.
The Tigers’ formula for winning hasn’t deviated much. At least three of their “big four” need to score their average or better and the one who doesn’t needs to contribute heavily in other facets such as defense and rebounding.
Some of LSU’s best offensive games have come from two sources – quick, unselfish ball movement and using active hands defensively creating turnovers and transition.
Scoring has rarely been a problem for Tigers, who are third in the SEC averaging 79.7 points in conference games. On the other hand, LSU is 10th in the league in scoring defense allowing 76.8 points.
But the Tigers played one of their most complete games of the season in last Saturday’s win and a major reason was LSU held the Vols to 35.5 percent from the field.
“Once everybody buys in and locks into guarding someone,” Smart said, “I think this team has a chance to do something great.”
Auburn’s offense will present a challenge since it is second in the SEC in league games (81.2 ppg) and second in 3-pointers made (9.4 pg).
For a large majority of time, the ball stays in the creative hands of freshman point guard Sharife Cooper, who sat out the first 12 games of the season while the NCAA investigated his eligibility.
He’s started in all 11 games he played, all against SEC opponents, and is averaging 19.6 points and a league-leading 8.6 assists.