This time next year, Will Wade would prefer to be coaching, rather than talking.
Wade wrapped up his first year as LSU’s head coach on Monday, talking for 30 minutes about the past, present, and future of LSU basketball. That future, he hopes and expects, will include more March Madness than the brief taste the Tigers experienced in year one of his watch.
‘We want to be playing this time of the year,” Wade said. “That’s what we want to be doing. We’ve got a plan of where we think our program is now and what we need to do to move it forward, both internally as a staff and externally with different things here.”
“Forward” was the theme of the session. Wade spoke the word 13 times in those 30 minutes, looking ahead to a 2018-19 season in which expectations will be much higher than they were in his debut campaign. LSU is set to return 66 percent of its minutes played from an 18-15 squad that won eight SEC games, quadruple the figure from the 2016-17 season, and picked up a postseason win – a first-round victory over UL-Lafayette in the NIT – for the first time since 2014. It will also supplement that returning veteran core with a 2018 recruiting class ranking fourth nationally in the 247Sports database.
Wade isn’t just embracing those expectations. He’s trumpeting them.
“You don’t want to be anywhere where there’s no expectations,” Wade said. “You gotta have high expectations. I promise you, whatever their expectations are, they’re not as high as mine. I’m disappointed we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament with this team. We were probably two games away. We had chances.”
Fixing Road Woes
The biggest chances LSU failed to take advantage of were road games, highly-valued in the new quadrant system that helps the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee sort through various at-large resumes. The Tigers won their first three road games of the season – at Memphis and at tournament teams Arkansas and Texas A&M – but lost their final eight, nine including a neutral site loss to Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament.
Wade says he plans to hit the road at the end of May to figure out how to get road wins next season.
“I always go and visit two or three people in the offseason, try to get better ideas,” he said. “I’m going to look at changing our road routine, look at some people who have had some success on the road, see if there’s something we can do to change that up, spice this up a little bit, give us a little bit better chance.”
LSU will spend the next couple of weeks going through “top-to-bottom” evaluations of everyone in the program, starting with Wade himself. He keeps copious notes throughout the season and revisits them all before analyzing where there’s room for improvement.
“I’m certainly more critical of myself than I am of anyone in the program,” he said. “When I look at things, I look at what I could’ve done better, and there’s a lot of areas where I could have done better. Prepared our team better, had a better pulse on some things. That’s certainly where you look first. I’m the head of the organization. I’m in charge of everything. You look at yourself first, then move forward from there.”
No More Departures Planned
He’ll do the same with his staff and players, too, all of whom – seniors excepted – he plans to bring back next season. That includes assistant coaches Bill Armstrong, Tony Benford, and Greg Heiar, who Wade hopes to keep intact, barring external poaching for head coaching jobs.
“I mean, as of now, I think so,” Wade said, asked if he expects to keep his staff intact, “but you never know what can happen with head coaching jobs and other opportunities. I certainly feel like my staff is very, very good. They play well off each other. They fit very well together. They play well off each other’s strengths. We’ll certainly do everything we can to keep them together.”
That goes for his players with eligibility remaining. Dismissed freshmen Mayan Kiir and Galen Alexander will not be back, but the squad that finished the season with NCAA eligibility left will likely be back, though Wade won’t know for sure until he meets with those players next week upon their return from spring break. Some could opt to transfer for more playing time elsewhere, but Wade disclosed he has no current plans to encourage such moves.
Pairing that experienced bunch with that elite recruiting class – plus two more signees – remains the plan in place.
“A lot of times people get caught up in who you have coming,” Wade said. “The guys we got coming back are pretty good, too. Those guys are going to be the ones that carry a bulk of the weight in terms of how we do things, how we go about things, teaching those freshmen what we do. I feel good about what we’ve got coming back and what we’ve got coming in as well.”
The work is not yet done. It’s only just beginning, in fact, as the Tigers get set for offseason workouts in just a couple of weeks. Wade still has to land two more players for the 2018-19 roster, likely from the junior college or graduate transfer ranks, while still developing the players set to return.
Their focus will be singular, however. It’s NCAA Tournament or bust. The plan is to play longer, and push the postseason press conferences back a couple of weeks in 2019.
“That’s our full expectation next year: to compete at the top of the SEC and make the NCAA Tournament,” Wade said. “When you get there, crazy stuff can happen, as you see, but that’s our expectation here moving forward.”