After a rollercoaster early season and a strong start and finish in Southeastern Conference play, LSU’s No. 8 seed in the NCAA East Region heading into Saturday’s opening round game vs. No. 9 seed St. Bonaventure is reflective of the tournament selection committee’s assessment of the Tigers’ inconsistency.
Pair the selection committee’s seed and the fact LSU is one of the slightest favorites at 1½ points in the now 64-team field. It reads there’s not much faith outside the Purple and Gold circle that the Tigers (18-9) will advance beyond their battle with the Bonnies (16-4) that tips at 12:45 p.m. CT in University of Indiana’s Assembly Hall in Bloomington. The game is televised on TNT.
Will Wade’s Tigers have won seven of its last 10 games including two over higher-seeded NCAA tourney teams Tennessee and Arkansas and a one-point loss in the SEC tournament finals to league regular season champ and East Region No. 2 Alabama.
Maybe it’s the fact LSU relies so heavily on four players – freshman guard Cam Thomas (22.6 points per game), junior forward Trendon Watford (16.7), junior guard Javonte Smart (15.9) and junior forward Darius Days (11.7) – who account for 80 percent of the Tigers’ scoring that there is little margin of error for foul trouble or injuries. Or that three (Thomas, Watford, Smart) of LSU’s Fab Four average 33 or more minutes per game as fatigue becomes a factor in tourney play.
But the way the Tigers played down the stretch, it seems like they have renewed focus and a determination to reach as much of their potential as possible.
“All season we’ve been waiting to put it all together,” Smart said. “We didn’t play the way we wanted all year, so now is the time to put it together. I think all the guys have bought into it.”
Wade, in his fourth season at LSU, is coaching in his first NCAA tourney with the Tigers. He was suspended during LSU’s 2019 postseason run to Sweet 16 for his refusal to speak with the school about his voice being heard on an FBI surveillance tape strongly suggesting he bought recruits. Last year’s NCAA tourney was canceled by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced this 2021 tournament to all be played in Indianapolis and on nearby college campus arenas (Indiana, Purdue).
Ever since a pointed Wade postgame talk to his team following a 78-60 loss at Alabama on Feb. 3, LSU has picked up its pace.
“Everybody wants something to happen immediately,” Wade said. “But sometimes it just takes to settle into rotations and takes time to settle into responsibilities and what everybody needs to do and get comfortable with that.
“It’s a byproduct of us trudging through the season. It hasn’t been smooth the whole time. We found out a lot about the individual guys on the team and what fits the best. Our guys are also playing with heightened sense of urgency as we come down the stretch.”
Like LSU, St. Bonaventure enters the NCAA tournament on a roll.
The Bonnies, with five juniors in their starting lineup, have won six of their last seven games including a 74-65 win in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament finals over Wade’s previous employer VCU.
St. Bonaventure fans are familiar with Wade.
In a February 2017 game at St. Bonaventure against Wade’s VCU squad. St. Bonaventure’s Matt Mobley hit a game-winning shot in the final seconds. Students began running on court as VCU quickly inbounded the ball just before the final buzzer sounded.
Wade pointed out to the officiating crew a technical foul needed to be assessed against St. Bonaventure for its students running on the floor prior to the game ending.
The officials agreed, VCU hit the game-tying technical free throws and won in overtime.
“It wouldn’t have been a technical if our guy hadn’t inbounded the ball,” Wade said. “It was a one in 100 million thing that happened.”
Wade’s familiarity with St. Bonaventure and its coach Mark Schmidt, who is in his 14th season, made it easy this week for Wade to convey to his team what type of challenge they face.
The Bonnies are led by Kyle Lofton, a 6-3 two-time All-A10 first-team guard and Osun Osunniyi, a 6-10 center with a 7-foot 8-inch wingspan who’s the A10 tournament MVP and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Lofton averages 14.6 points and scored a team-high 23 in the A10 tourney final. Osunnyi, who had 14 points and 12 points, in the tournament championship game, shoots 56 percent from the field and has a team-high 57 blocked shots.
The challenge for LSU (ranked eighth nationally in scoring averaging 82.1 points) vs. the Bonnies is getting a lead so it can dictate pace of play.
St. Bonaventure is fifth nationally in scoring defense allowing just 60.4 points per game (LSU scored 60 points or less just once this season). Part of the reason for the Bonnies’ stinginess is they’re eighth nationally in field goal defensive percentage (38.9).
Another reason is St. Bonaventure’s offense, ranked 194th nationally in scoring averaging 70.5 points, is intent on helping its defense limit the number of opponent possessions.
“They are very deliberate,” Wade said. “He (Schmidt) is an excellent, excellent, excellent basketball coach. On his offensive sets, he stirs you up, stirs you up, stirs you up for about 10 or 12 seconds to get to actually what he wants to get to.
“We’ve got to defensive rebound. You can guard them for 24 or 26 seconds, they miss the shot, you’ve got to get that and go. If they get another (immediate possession), they may just kick it out and run clock again for another 20 seconds. If we’re not careful and disciplined, we could end up playing defense for 32 minutes and play offense for eight minutes.”
It’s the exact style of team that can drive LSU crazy because the Tigers thrive on number of possessions.
More often than not, LSU’s offense might pull the trigger on shots that make old-school basketball purists shake their heads. But then again, the Tigers create 13.4 turnovers per game with active defense that gets its hands in plenty of passing lanes.
“We take some tough shots,” Wade admitted. “But we give our guys a lot of confidence and a lot of freedom on the offensive end. We do that knowing we’re going to be playing 73, 75 possessions a game. We haven’t played a (sub) 70-possession game since early January. I track that (number of possessions) during a game and what we’re on pace for.”
Schmidt understands exactly what his team has to do to beat LSU.
“If we can keep the game in the 60s, we’re going to have a good chance to win,” Schmidt said earlier this week. “Yeah, it’s that simple, but it’s hard to do. If it gets in the 80s, then not as much. The question is how do you do that?
“We’ve got to control tempo. But it’s hard when they’re pressuring you, and they’re switching off screens. And we’ve got to be able to guard them. We’ve got to try to keep the game in the half court as much as we can against a team that really wants to push it.”