The LSU basketball team may be firing on all cylinders heading into its matchup with South Carolina on Saturday at 5 p.m. in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, but the season definitely didn’t start that way.
The Tigers (13-3, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) had some ups and down during the nonconference schedule that had Will Wade wondering how to get the most out of his team.
Things came to a head after LSU’s 82-76 loss to Houston in which the Tigers’ blew a double-digit second half lead, their second time to do so against a Top 25 team this season.
He knew the start-studded but young group of players had everything they needed to put things together and be a great team. He just didn’t know why they were struggling to put it together or what he could do to get them there.
So he asked them.
“Before the Saint Mary’s game, I met with the team the night before at the hotel,” Wade said. “It was just me and the team. I didn’t have the assistants, I had nobody else in there. It was just me and the players. We just kind of, I told them what I thought and they told me what they thought.”
Wade said the meeting was revelatory for him. It allowed him to take a step back and re-evaluate how he approaches coaching this group.
Every team is different, and what worked with one year’s group won’t necessarily work with the next.
What he learned in that hotel in Las Vegas was that he needed to change his approach.
“It’s not what I want to do, it’s what gets the most out of our team. It’s not necessarily how I want to do things, but it’s what they respond to the best and what works the best with these guys. They told me some things and the staff and I, we adjusted. I think that’s part of the reason we’ve won. We’ve come closer as a team.”
Since that meeting, LSU has won six consecutive games, including a game against then-No. 24 Furman and three conference games, their latest a statement 82-69 victory against No. 18 Ole Miss.
So what’s different?
Well, he’s still definitely tough on the Tigers, and he expects just as much out of them.
But he and the coaching staff have become more understanding of when they make mistakes.
“You want to be judged on your intent, but most people judge you on your actions,” Wade said. “Your actions don’t necessarily meet your intent all the time. I think we’re just trying to be a little more understanding of the intent as opposed to the actions. I think most people would like that. They’d rather be judged on their intent than maybe how it comes off and how their actions are. We try to look at the intent a lot more than we look at the actions.”
The Tigers now intend to take down another steaming hot SEC team in South Carolina (9-7, 4-0 SEC) who struggled in nonconference play but have gritted their way to a perfect start in lead play through four games.
The Gamecocks’ latest win came in a team-defining 74-71 victory against Vanderbilt in which they trailed by double-digits for much of the second half.
Freshman swing guard A.J. Lawson stands out as a key playmaker, leading the Gamecocks in scoring with 13.3 points per game and assists with 49 on the season.
South Carolina also has an All-SEC big man in forward Chris Silva who averages 12.2 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds per game.
Coach Frank Martin has a reputation for courting tough and gritty teams that find a way to win, something that the Tigers are preparing for.
“They play really, really hard,” said junior guard Skylar Mays. “You’re going to have to play hard for 40 minutes. They’re not going to beat themselves. They’re physical and well-coached.”
Since that Houston game the Tigers lost, Tremont Waters has seemingly become more comfortable with playing his game while finding ways to distribute the basketball. He now leads the team with 13.6 points per game while also contributing 99 dimes and nabbing 48 steals on the season.
“I’m growing up in a sense where I’m starting to understand that I have to be the one that wants it the most,’ Waters said. “I can’t let my parents, my coaches, my girlfriend, I can’t let anyone else dictate what I want to do and what I need to do. I have to be the one that wants to get in the gym and take shots, that wants to get in the hotel to recover.”
Mays also continues to be one of LSU’s most consistent players on both sides of the ball, averaging 13.3 points and nearly two steals per game with just 21 turnovers to his name. He’s shooting .490 from the field as well, making him of the he Tigers’ most efficient scorers.
Forward and freshman sensation Naz Reid also continues to play well when staying out of foul trouble, averaging 12.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game while shooting .523 from the field and 39 percent from the 3-point line.