Will Wade says his 2020-21 Tigers might be a major national contender

LSU men’s basketball coach Will Wade doesn’t know if and when the 2020-21 season will start because of the unpredictability of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m optimistic but I’m realistic,” Wade said in a Thursday afternoon Zoom media teleconference. “In reality, the virus and the health experts are going to control that timeline. People a lot smarter than us are going to figure that out. I’m optimistic by November we’ll have a lot of numbers we don’t have today, and it will get us closer to getting back on the court.”

He also isn’t totally sure yet how his fluctuating roster will land on the maximum number of 13 scholarship players allowed by the NCAA, but it will happen.

“We’ll be at 13 scholarship players by the day classes start, which is ultimately where we’ll have to be,” Wade said. “We’ll get at that number when we need to be at that number.”

The only thing Wade feels solid about is if LSU returns three of its four underclassmen who declared for the NBA draft, he has an idea of what his team could be in his fourth season guiding the Tigers.

“It would look like a major contender on a national scale,” Wade said. “That’s what we’re after and that’s what we’re very close to doing. We’re close to having a great, great team that will compete at the top of the SEC and compete in the top 10 to 15 nationally and be one of those teams in the hunt.

“You’ve got to have a really good mix of talented newcomers to blend in with proven veterans. If things break the right way, we could have three double-digit SEC scorers back.”

Add those to his seven (and possibly eight) new incoming players, including two transfers who will become eligible at the latest after the end of the first semester in early December, and Wade’s squad suddenly has the depth and the height this past season’s 21-10 SEC runners-up (tied with Auburn) didn’t possess.

“You’re in real business now,” Wade said. “You’ve got that perfect blend to contend nationally. If it all comes together like we hope with all the pieces in place, we’d be a major, major player on the national scene. . .if we get our defense better.”

It’s nothing short of astonishing that Wade’s 2020 signing class, which is ranked fifth nationally by 247sports, was gathered under the worst of circumstances.

He’s had a dark cloud hanging over him for more than a year since reports emerged of him on an FBI wiretap with a street agent referencing possible illegal recruiting inducements.

How did Wade survive such a smothering national blanket of bad publicity and social media flogging to sign a premier class topped by Cameron Thomas, one of nation’s best high school scorers this past season?

“We address all that head-on (with prospects and their families) and people appreciate that,” Wade said of his off-the-court problems that led to his suspension by school officials in the last five games of the 2018-19 SEC champions Tigers’ run to the Sweet 16. “We don’t hide from it. We’re honest about, `Hey, this is what we know, here’s what we don’t know, here’s where things stand, here’s where we think they’re going.’

“Contrary to what everybody thinks, we do develop good relationships with kids. There are a lot of people who trust us. We treat their kids well, we put them in a good system, and we give them an opportunity to move forward at a high level.”

Four members of LSU’s starting lineup from last season – sophomores JaVonte Smart, Darius Days and Emmitt Williams and true freshman Trendon Watford – decided to enter the NBA draft process. All may return to LSU if they don’t hire an agent or if they hire an NBA-approved agent.

Only Williams said he planned to hire a non-NBA approved agent, which would make him ineligible to return.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic that shut down the NBA in mid-March, no one is sure if the NBA season will restart or when a draft will be held (maybe late August or early September, according to Wade). The normal drafting process of staging the annual predraft combine in Chicago and individual workouts with teams are off the boards.

Wade revealed that NBA teams are adapting to the situation by extensively conducting Zoom teleconferences where teams review a draft prospect’s game film with him.

“They show you some film,” Wade said, “and say `What are you doing? You look lazy here. You don’t look in shape here. Why are you tired here?’

“That can be jarring for some players when they hear that and see what the people at that level are looking at and see attention to detail that those folks comb through all their film.”

Here’s Wade on other subjects:

On wanting his team back on campus: “I’m somewhat anxious to get our guys back, even if we can’t work them out. I feel like we can better serve them from a nutrition and a mental health standpoint. We have a lot of resources here at LSU that can better help some of our guys than they are (getting) at home. Adding a sense of normalcy will help our guys.”

His expectation for transfers Shareef O’Neal from UCLA and former Madison Prep star Josh LeBlanc from Georgetown who enrolled last January at LSU and practiced with team in the second semester:

“The NCAA is going through the legislative process with the transfer rule. It sounds like the transfer rule is going to stay in effect right now, which puts us in a waiver situation which is what we’ve been preparing for from the get-go. We’re counting on those guys this season.”

On signee Cameron Thomas: “He’s just a tremendous player and scorer. Talk about somebody who’s working hard. I talk to him every day. He goes at 7:30 in the morning and does all his conditioning workouts on a track and runs a hill. At night, he’s got a little access to a gym and he goes through an extensive shooting and ball-handling workout.

“He’s working four to five hours a day, he’s totally into it. I sent him a 30-minute podcast. Forty minutes after I sent it to him, he sent me back a summary of everything. He’s just a basketball junkie. He’s not one of these guys making excuses right now. He’s finding a way.

“We’ll put him in the role Skylar (Mays) had and he’ll certainly have a huge impact on our team early.”

On LSU football coach Ed Orgeron: “In the past, there were a lot of kids who left early (for the NFL) who probably shouldn’t have left early who didn’t get drafted or who didn’t get drafted as high as they could have. What really gets overlooked on this team the past year is Coach O has overhauled the culture in terms of `You’re going to go (to the NFL) when you’re ready and we’ve got the resources to make sure you’re prepared.’

“Some of those key contributors, especially from the leadership perspective, were guys that maybe in the past would have gone pro. But they came back and helped LSU win and probably ended up in a better (draft) situation.

“That’s something that I really respect that he (Orgeron) has done and he’s put a lot of time into that to reverse that culture to make sure everybody is ready to be successful.”

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