Former LSU guard Skylar Mays, waiting for the NBA Draft after his decorated four-year career last season, decided to stop by a Tigers’ practice last week.
What he saw was what LSU didn’t have last season and even two seasons ago when the then-SEC champions advanced to NCAA Sweet 16.
A 2020-21 roster full of talent taking competition to a new high.
“After practice Skylar said, `Golly Coach, you’ve got five people above the rim on every shot’,” LSU coach Will Wade said Tuesday on his preseason press conference. “Sometimes, it takes some perspective from somebody else to see the difference in our depth and athleticism.”
Preseason college basketball practice in the COVID-19 era officially starts Wednesday with Division I programs able to have a maximum of 30 practices in 42 days leading to an official start date of games on Nov. 25.
Wade, starting his fourth season as the Tigers’ head coach, has his most talented and versatile team to date.
Five returning players of note, a five-man recruiting class ranked No. 6 nationally by 247 Sports and three Division 1 transfers have Wade excited.
“If we played today, I’ve got nine guys I feel like we can put in an SEC game and I’d be comfortable with them,” Wade said. “We’ve got a roster of 13 guys that can all play. You’ve got great competitiveness in practice, and that’s where depth really pays off. You can’t take off a day in practice.”
Junior guard Javonte Smart, junior forward Darius Days and sophomore Trendon Watford are returning starters from last season’s team that produced a 21-10 record (12-6 tied Auburn for second place in the SEC) despite having basically no depth and the two tallest players measuring 6-9.
Smart, Days and Watford entered the NBA draft process after the college season was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. They eventually withdrew their names and returned to a team suddenly brimming with athleticism and length.
The most noted freshman signee is 6-4 guard Cam Thomas, rated by ESPN as the 23rd best high school prospect last season when he averaged 31.5 points for Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va.
“He’s the real deal,” Wade said of Thomas. “He’s able to score in a lot of different ways.”
LSU’s defense should be vastly improved, especially adding two attack dog freshmen defenders such as guard Jalen Cook from nearby Walker High and forward Mwani Wilkerson of Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman High.
“Jalen Cook may be the best on-ball defender I’ve seen since we had Briante’ Weber at VCU who’s the second all-time NCAA steals leader,” Wade said. “Cook is as good as I’ve seen at hounding the ball. And you watch a full hour of practice, Mwani may make two or three mistakes the entire practice defensively. It’s uncanny how sharp he is defensively.”
The Tigers are getting a length injection from three transfers – 7-foot center Bryan Penn-Johnson from the University of Washington, 6-10 forward Shareef O’ Neal (son of former LSU great Shaquille O’Neal) from UCLA, 6-7 forward former Madison Prep star Josh LeBlanc from Georgetown – as well as 6-11 freshman center Josh Gray of Brooklyn (N.Y.) Putnam Science Academy.
Penn-Johnson has been given an NCAA waiver of immediate eligibility, O’Neal is waiting on a decision and LeBlanc will miss just the first two games of the season even if he doesn’t get a waiver.
Because LSU suddenly has more talent, depth and length, Wade said he’s changing his defensive philosophy.
“It will be very noticeable when you watch us play what we’re doing and how we’ve changed,” Wade said. “A little bit more aggressive in some areas and a little bit smarter in other areas in what we’re going to give up and what we’re going to take away
“We’re playing a lot harder defensively, but part of that is we’ve got other guys who can come in. If you’re not doing your job and you’ve missed too many assignments in a row, we’ve got somebody to come else you can come and replace you and do just as good a job.”
LSU’s COVID-19 re-arranged schedule hasn’t been announced yet, but Wade said his team would play in two bubble locations with three non-conference games in Lincoln, Neb. and two games in Atlanta. Louisiana Tech is set as LSU’s home opener and the first SEC game is Dec. 29 or 30.
“This is the closest-knit team we’ve had,” Wade said. “We’ve got a lot of good people who enjoy being around each other. They enjoy working, they are a blue-collar group, which is more my type crew.”
Here’s Wade on other topics:
On recruiting while under cloud of unofficial allegations
“There’s a lot of questions that come up in recruiting. We tackle them head on and answer them all honestly with the best information that we have at the time. It would be naïve to say what’s going on hadn’t affected anything in recruiting. We’re still plugging along, recruiting well and filling our needs. Hopefully, we can add another guy or two before the signing period ends. We feel really good about what we’ve done in recruiting. Our staff has done a great job, they’ve worked hard and built great relationships. A lot of times when you have those relationships, it’s easy to answer any questions. Our administration has been very good about that as well.”
On COVID-19 testing
“We’re not in the SEC in-season testing protocol right now. We are testing multiple times per week. Our guys have done a nice job so far. We haven’t had any major, major issues. It’s going to be a challenge throughout the season. It’s another opponent, we’ve got to stay disciplined and have great attention to detail.
On his team’s newfound lineup flexibility
“We can big, we can play small, there’s a lot of different ways we can play. Have a lot of different lineup. Offensively and defensively, we’ve got one way to play when we’re big we’ve got Penn-Johnson or Josh Gray or one of those other big kids in there. We’ve got another way when we play small when we have Darius Days or Josh LeBlanc playing one of the biggest spots. We can play multiple different styles in multiple different ways, just something we haven’t been able to do.”
On putting together the 2020-21 schedule
“They should make a reality show out of scheduling this year. . . there’s no need to complain because I’d rather be scheduling games than not scheduling games and not playing.
“We’ll go to a bubble to start the season, probably in Lincoln, Nebraska, we don’t know the teams yet, but we’ll play three games there. Part of the reason we’re going to Nebraska is they have one of the most comprehensive (COVID-19) testing plans I’ve seen. We’ll get tested 5½ hours before the game and an hour and 15 minutes later we’ll know the roster we’ll have available.
“We’ll come back and play Louisiana Tech at home. Then we’ll go to Atlanta and play a couple of games (one against South Florida, the other to be announced). We’ll stay in the Omni (Hotel), which is connected to State Farm where we can create kind of bubble.
“Then we’ll come back and play a couple of home games before Christmas on Dec. 19 and Dec. 22. And we’ve got our SEC-Big 12 Challenge.
“It will be as challenging a non-conference schedule as we’ve played since we’ve been here. If we had everything scheduled today how we think it’s going to end, we’ll have just one Quad 4 opponent (the lowest rated in strength of schedule), we’ll have 18 or 19 Quad 1 or Quad 2 opportunities out of 27 games, which is just tremendous. I’m projecting a little bit. The average team will have 4 to 5 Quad 4s. If we do what need to do and win some games, it’s going to prepare us well for a very good NCAA tournament seed.”