Since juniors Javonte Smart and Darius Days are the only players on LSU’s current basketball roster who have played in college postseason games, Tigers’ coach Will Wade and the NCAA want to make sure his team gets the full March Madness experience.
And then some.
LSU left Baton Rouge on Wednesday, bound for Nashville to play in Friday’s SEC tournament quarterfinals at 8:15 p.m. (at the earliest) in Bridgestone Arena vs. Ole Miss, which beat South Carolina 76-59 in Thursday night’s second-round game.
No matter what happens to the Tigers in the SEC tourney, they aren’t coming home until they are eliminated from the NCAA tournament which starts a three-weekend run next week being played only in Indianapolis and a couple of outlying areas to create a COVID-19 safety bubble.
LSU (16-8 overall, 11-6 SEC), a lock to receive its second NCAA tourney invite in three postseasons under Wade, is due in Indianapolis on Monday as is every squad in the field. There’s mandatory COVID-19 quarantine before the tourney gets fully underway Thursday and Friday after Tuesday’s First Four games.
“It may be good, it may eliminate some distractions that you can have,” Wade said of what could be the longest road trip in terms of time away from Baton Rouge in LSU history. “We can stay together and really be isolated.”
The first item on the Tigers’ agenda is the SEC tourney, something in which LSU has been traditionally lousy since the league re-started the tournament in 1979 after a 26-season hiatus.
The last and only time the Tigers have won the league tournament in the 41 tourneys since the re-start (not counting last year when the tournament was canceled after the first round because of the start of the coronavirus pandemic) was 1980. That was before the 38-year-old Nashville-native Wade was even born.
LSU has only advanced past the quarterfinals 15 times, going 3-12 in the semis and 1-2 in the finals. Since the re-start, LSU’s tourney winning percentage of 39.4 percent (26-40) ranks as the 13th worst in the 14-team league.
“We’ve done a lot of good things the last four years,” Wade said. “But one of our biggest issues is we haven’t been very good in this tournament historically, we haven’t been very good in it since we’ve been here. So, it’s the last frontier for us.”
The Tigers have received a double bye to the quarterfinals for the last three seasons, something no other SEC team has done.
Two years ago after LSU won the SEC regular championship, the top-seeded Tigers lost their opening SEC tourney game on a last-second shot to Florida and then went on to advance to NCAA Sweet 16 where they lost to Michigan State.
Wade was suspended for that postseason by the LSU administration 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, LSU was 21-10 overall and 12-6 in the SEC in the regular season finishing in a tie for second place and with a probable NCAA tourney invite almost in hand. The Tigers were on-site in Nashville set to play in the quarterfinals when the tournament was COVID-cancelled just before the start of the second round. The NCAA tournament was also called off just hours later.
For LSU freshmen on last year’s team who never had a chance to play in the postseason, like starting sophomore forward Trendon Watford, not much motivation is required for this weekend and the NCAA tourney.
“One of the main reasons I wanted to come back is to play in the postseason,” said Watford, one of three returning starters along with Smart and Day who declared after last season for the NBA draft and eventually withdrew after being evaluated. “I wanted to play with my team in March Madness. It’s always been a dream of mine to play in these big games. Players’ lives change in March.”
LSU enters the postseason having won five of its last seven regular season games, yet is still chasing that elusive 40-minute opening tap to final-buzzer complete performance.
“None of us have seen that yet,” Smart said. “We just want to put it together in the upcoming stretch. If we do that, we’re going to make some noise. I don’t think anybody can stop us once we lock in.”
Especially the Tigers “Big Four” of Smart, Watford, Days and freshman guard Cam Thomas, the SEC’s leading scorer averaging 23.1 points.
Each player in that foursome is ranked in the top 10 of multiple SEC stat categories. Thomas was a first-team All-SEC choice by the Associated Press and SEC coaches, Watford was first-team All-SEC AP and second-team coaches and Smart was second-team coaches. Days might have collected honors had he stayed out of foul trouble and LSU is a much better team when he’s on the floor fully engaged.
Few, if any SEC teams, rely on just four players as heavily as the Tigers do. Smart, Watford, Days and Thomas have combined to score 78.6 percent of LSU’s points, have made 77 percent of the team’s field goals and have accounted for 87.6 percent of the Tigers’ 3-pointers.
LSU has a win its SEC quarterfinal opponent, winning Jan. 9 at Ole Miss, 75-61. Rebels’ head coach and former LSU assistant Kermit Davis Jr. said after his team’s Thursday second round victory his team needs to fight back better vs. the Tigers better than it did in January’s loss.
“They (LSU) just smacked us in the face the first four or five minutes and we never responded,” Davis said. “They play a lot of switching defenses and we’ve got get the game going more downhill. We’ve got to go right at them and we’ve got to get paint touches. And we’ve got to be able to guard. Everybody’s got their hands full against LSU. I know we’re a different team now, they’re a different team now and this is a game our players are looking forward to.”
While most of the Tigers really didn’t have a preference on who they would play Friday, Thomas might have a bit more motivation that it’s Ole Miss. He played just the first 100 seconds in the January game when on his first shot attempt of the game he sprained an ankle after his foot landed on the foot of an Ole Miss defender.
To the amazement of Wade and his teammates, Thomas didn’t miss a game. He was back in the lineup four days later in a home win over Arkansas and scored 17 points.
Thomas enters post-season on a tear, having scored 25 or more points in seven of his last 10 games.
“He hasn’t had a lot of huge highs or huge lows,” Wade said of Thomas. “He stays pretty consistent. Usually freshmen go up and down, but he’s been very, very consistent.”
Since he’s just one year out of high school and the off-season circuit of AAU tournaments, Thomas feels he’s prepared for the grind of the postseason including the SEC tourney in which teams advance and play on consecutive days.
“I’m used to playing these three games in three days,” Thomas said. “In AAU, sometimes you played two games in one day. AAU prepared me for tournaments like this.”