First-year LSU basketball head coach Will Wade isn’t used to three-game conference losing streaks.
In fact, the one LSU (11-7, 2-4 SEC) is currently enduring is his first as a head coach. The Tigers, heading into Tuesday’s 8 p.m. home rematch with full-strength Texas A&M (13-6, 2-5 SEC), have already lost four conference games, matching the most Wade’s ever lost in a single season after four seasons – two each – at Chattanooga and VCU
This LSU job isn’t like those others, a full rebuild on a 2-16 conference record in a high-major league. And in the thin margin separating defeat and victory – a margin that’s much thinner than it was a year ago – lay room for Wade’s optimism.
“In three of our four SEC losses, we have led with under two minutes left,” Wade said Monday. “The only game we didn’t was against Alabama. It’s not like we have been getting our doors blown. We have been right there. As you grow a program, the first step is not getting your doors blown off.”
LEARNING TO CLOSE
A year ago, LSU ranked last in the league in point differential, losing 16 of 18 in SEC play by an average margin of 12.7 points per game. Through six games this season, the Tigers have already matched last year’s in-league win total and are one of just six teams with a positive point differential in the league, outscoring their opponents by an average of 0.7 points per game. That number is buoyed, of course, by a 21-point win at Arkansas
Phase one of the rebuild – shrinking the gap from the cellar to the ceiling – is all but done. Phase two, as LSU has learned in its three-game skid, is even harder to complete.
“For the most part we have hung in there,” Wade said. “The first step is changing that part of it. The harder part is that you have to be able to close.”
Similar issues plagued LSU in its losses to Alabama, Georgia, and Vanderbilt. All featured slow starts in the second half. All featured poor shooting from deep – LSU has knocked down just 28 percent from three during the losing streak. In the latter two defeats, the Tigers missed rebound opportunities on missed free throws by the opponents – though the Vanderbilt missed rebound, Wade chalked up to bad luck.
“It has gotten to the point where I hope they make the second free throw, so we don’t have to block out,” he joked.
Youth also remains a reality Wade must cope with. LSU has experience down low, but its backcourt features a true freshman in Tremont Waters and a sophomore in Skylar Mays with little college experience closing out tight games. Each has a learning curve to navigate as the Tigers transition upward from the bottom of the conference.
The good news: neither Wade nor his squad is frustrated, despite the results.
“If you keep working hard, keep punching the clock, keep being about the right things, it turns. It always turns,” Wade said. “We will have something happen to us because we will make it happen, we will have earned it and we will have earned the right for it to have happened.
“What we do works. Our process works. It has put us in games, we just have to finish and close.”
Conference play has been a struggle for Waters, in particular, who has seen his field goal percentage dip from 48 percent to 38 percent and his three-point shooting drop from 45 percent to 28 percent. LSU’s offense is still very much reliant on his creativity: the Tigers’ scoring dips by 15 points per 100 possessions when he rests, per Open Look Analytics.
Wade says the key to righting his freshman point guard is to find him more space. Teams have begun crowding him in pick and rolls, doubling him and forcing LSU’s other players to make plays.
“When you are as good as he has been, you don’t experience a lot of adversity,” Wade said. “He is experiencing it. Most of the time what little adversity he has experience he has been able to overcome with raw talent. This is a little bit of a different deal. It has been a learning process for him. This is why you come to college. This is what it is about. It is our job as a staff to have to help him through that. It is my job as a head coach to help him through that.
“One thing we learned about him is that he is very resilient. He bounces back quickly. We certainly need him to play at a high level for us, but we have to do what we can to help him do that. We have certainly worked on that the last couple of days.”
Look for grad transfer Randy Onwuasor to see an enhanced role against the Aggies. Wade noted the senior leads LSU in plus-minus in SEC games at +26. Onwasuor has played just 14.2 minutes per game in the conference, but LSU is outscoring its opposition by 21 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, per OLA, and is getting beat by 7 points per 100 when he sits.
“I am the idiot for not playing him as much,” Wade said. “That is going to change.”
Onwuasor’s been particularly effective on defense. SEC teams score just 90 points per 100 possessions when he plays, the best figure on the team (for reference, LSU would rank 10th nationally in defense if it gave up 90 points per 100 possessions).
This isn’t the same A&M team LSU beat in College Station. Billy Kennedy’s men are back to full health, as Admon Gilder (12.3 Pts, 4.5 Reb, 3.1 Ast), Robert Williams (9.6 Pts, 9.5 Reb, 1.8 Ast), and Duane Wilson (10.6 Pts, 2.3 Reb, 4.4 As) all set to play after missing the first matchup.
Add in All-SEC big man Tyler Davis (14.4 Pts, 8.6 Reb, 1.6 Ast) and sharpshooter D.J. Hogg (2.9 Pts, 6.1 Reb, 2.6 Ast, 43.2% 3FG), and the Aggies, at 100 percent, are among the SEC’s most formidable foes.
“It will be a much different game than the first game at their place,” Wade said. “They are big, they are physical. They can start a lineup where their three man is bigger than our center. It puts us in some tough spots.”
LSU knocked off the Aggies on two miracle shots from Waters in the final 12 seconds. They’ll need an even better effort against a revitalized A&M squad that cracked the top 10 in the polls earlier this year and is still considered a Final Four-caliber corps.
“We are going to have to rebound the ball as best we can,” Wade said. “We kept it manageable at their place, of course they didn’t have one of their bigs. We have to rebound as best we can. We have to just keep them from barraging us in the paint and absolutely annihilating us down there. They are averaging 45 points a game in the paint. We have to try to keep that number a little bit lower than that.”
LSU’s had some success going small, particularly in the league, by playing Brandon Rachal, Wayde Sims, or even Onwuasor at the 4. Rachal, Wade noted, is +20 in the conference, but his lack of perimeter shooting means “you just have to change your entire game plan when he’s in there on offense.”
In fact, Sims (22 percent) and Rachal (20 percent) have given little shooting to the Tigers from beyond the arc all year.
“We’re like the only team in college basketball that has two small fours who can’t shoot,” Wade said. “Everybody has a small four, usually they can shoot. We’re the only team in college basketball that plays small fours who can’t make a shot. That puts some stress on us.”
“We can’t match people big for big, so we’ve got to do something a little bit different and maybe play a little smaller and make people adjust to us. If we line up with our two 6-10 guys and they’ve got four 6-10 guys, that’s probably not a real smart thing for us to do. We’ve got to compensate for that.”