By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
That’s how long Will Wade has said, on multiple occasions, it would take to get LSU basketball back into title contention in the SEC. How long it would take to stack elite recruiting classes, implement a full conditioning regimen, re-establish a winning foundation.
That timeframe, optimistic as it might’ve seen to fans still reeling from a last-place finish in 2016-17, may hold true. In fact, at this point, it seems downright likely that the Tigers will be in the mix for the 2019 SEC championship. Wade’s 2018 recruiting class is currently No. 8 in the country and could jump to No. 3 – within a horse’s hair of No. 1 – should the Crystal Balls on five-star Emmitt Williams hold true. Put that group around freshman sensation Tremont Waters for a season of growth, and 2019 seems a reasonable estimate for when the Tigers might return to the SEC hunt.
But after LSU’s 69-68 win at No. 11 Texas A&M on Saturday, it’s understandable to think Wade might’ve sold himself short.
No, the Tigers (10-4, 1-1 SEC) won’t, by most experts’ opinions, compete for that title in year one, despite knocking off a preseason conference favorite and Final Four contender on the road in the first SEC road game of Wade’s career. KenPom, college basketball’s Nostradamus, projects LSU to finish 8-10 in the league. TeamRankings.net projects the same. The Tigers needed two low-percentage threes from Tremont Waters in the final 12 seconds to beat an A&M team short three key players, including projected lottery pick Robert Williams, and winless in three conference games.
Now that the facts have been stated, forget them – or, at least, set them aside for the next few paragraphs. That was a good win. A great one, in fact – LSU’s best SEC road win since 1992, when no one on the current roster was yet born, when this writer was all of three years old, and when Wade himself was just nine. And while the future of LSU basketball remains bright under Wade’s watch, all of a sudden, the present looks pretty damn good, too.
— Todd Politz (@tpolitz) January 6, 2018
The Tigers have already matched last year’s win total – in 17 fewer games. LSU now has three victories over teams ranked in the top 42 of KenPom, tied with Florida for the most in the SEC. After starting the season with a defense all too reminiscent of its predecessor, Wade’s first team has clamped down in its last five games, giving up just 62.8 points per. With an adjusted offensive efficiency of 114.2, per KenPom, the 2017-18 Tigers have the program’s best offense since 2002, which is as far back as KenPom’s numbers go.
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) January 8, 2018
Then there are the elements that are not quantifiable but are easily seen with the eye: toughness, intelligence, fortitude. The degree of those traits varies with any given game, but the arc is trending upward, particularly compared with teams of the recent past. There is, under Wade, an air of accountability around the program, rather than a documentary crew.
The only evidence I can offer to support the claims of the above paragraph is anecdotal, what I’ve seen with my own eyes and what I’ve been told by people with basketball minds I trust: high school coaches, former college teammates, even an NBA general manager, who told me recently how impressed he was with both the degree and the rate of LSU’s turnaround under Wade.
Wade isn’t the only person who deserves credit for Baton Rouge’s budding basketball optimism. Joe Alleva, beleaguered by fans for his hires, wasted no time and spared no expense to land Wade this spring. Third time’s the charm, it seems. Wade’s staff, from the highest-paid assistant to the unpaid managers behind the bench, has also been hard at work behind the scenes, re-laying a cracked foundation brick by brick.
Then there are the players. Waters, with his flashy talents and late-game heroics, has earned every headline he’s received. He’s a singular talent who former LSU head coach Dale Brown recently told me already ranks in the top five all-time among LSU point guards, alongside Pete Maravich, Chris Jackson, Ethan Martin, and Derrick Taylor. He may not surpass the statistical output of the first two, but he’s got a chance to win at levels comparable to the latter pair. He’s already provided glimpses of a knack for big plays, with critical winning moments against Michigan, Houston, and A&M.
Players like Skylar Mays, Duop Reath, and the rest of the returnees from Johnny Jones’ final squad also deserve credit. Anyone who’s ever had a coach fired on their watch knows how painful it can be. Anyone could understand underlying resentment at his replacement, or at least initial reticence to dive in, but if there was any hesitation from this crew, it’s a distant memory.
To be sure, the path to championship contention may seem more direct than before the season, but there are bumps ahead. Players will get injured. Opponents will get hot. Thirty-footers on the road with less than 12 seconds to go will miss – at least one of them. Someone in my mentions will call for Wade’s firing – even if that someone is a VCU fan.
But Wade, through 14 games at LSU, has shown himself more than capable of navigating those bumps, all with a roster cobbled together quickly in a spring from last season’s remains, junior college and grad transfers, and the post-termination blue chip scrap heap, and with an infrastructure still being overhauled. His 2017-18 team may not win the SEC – it may not finish .500, given the league’s difficulty – but it seems destined to exceed its preseason expected destination at the league’s cellar.
Three years may very well turn out to be an accurate estimate of championship aspirations. Perhaps LSU will be among the SEC favorites in 2019, defending its home court against the next up-and-comer in the league. If you feel like it could be even sooner than that, though – well, you may not be correct, but you’re definitely not alone.