By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Two days before his first game in charge at LSU, Will Wade was thinking about mountains.
Makes sense, considering he inherits a team picked to finish 14th in the SEC by the media and that won just two conferences games all of last season. Much of his debut season projects to be an uphill battle. That’s why he hopes to get a running start with Friday’s 7 p.m. home tip against Alcorn State.
“If you’re going to go climb Mt. Everest, your first step has to be the biggest and the boldest,” he said. “You can’t be tiptoeing up the mountain to start, right? Your first step has to be big, bold, out there, ready to go. Your first game, you’ve got to take a bold step and make progress.”
Wade heads into the game confident in three of his five starting spots: Tremont Waters at the 1, Skylar Mays at the 2, and Duop Reath at the 5. Mays, who scored 19 points in LSU’s 84-74 loss to Tulane in last week’s exhibition tune up, is eager to showcase a team he feels will be much improved from the 10-21 (2-16 SEC) squad from 2016-17.
“We’re going to be more disciplined,” said Mays. “That’s going to be the big difference. We’re going to be held more accountable. You’re going to see that in the way we play.”
On Tuesday, Wade had four starters he was confident in heading into Friday’s season-opening contest against Alcorn State. On Wednesday, that number dropped by one. No one was injured in the 24 hours in between, but with the season tipoff just around the corner, Wade doesn’t have time for inconsistency.
“Bad practice yesterday,” Wade said Wednesday. “Four man’s back open. I thought we had four settled. I love (Wayde) Sims, but when Sims gets comfortable, it just gets bad. We need (Aaron) Epps back so we have someone to push Sims.”
Epps, a likely starter at full health, is still not cleared for full practice while battling a foot injury, so Sims has stepped in as a starter, registering a double-double in LSU’s 84-74 exhibition loss to Tulane. But Sims faces the same problem projected starter Brandon Sampson faces at the 3: anomalous day-to-day performances.
“Sims has done good this year,” Wade said. “He’s been good. He’s done a nice job. But he’s just got to be more consistent. He was for a while, but the last three or four days. He played well against Tulane, and since then, we haven’t gotten much. He’s a good player, and a good kid. But we need it now. We play Friday. We don’t have time to wait around.”
An option to step into Sims shoes could be North Texas graduate transfer Jeremy Combs. Combs, who averaged a double-double at North Texas in 2015-16 with 14.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, missed much of the preseason after undergoing ankle surgery in August. The same injury plagued him last year in Denton, when he managed just 13 games, and he was cleared just last week for full practice. In the time since, he’s made quite the impression on Wade.
“He’s good, now,” Wade said. “He knows how to play. The first time I ever saw him in live practice was 10 days ago. I’d watch tape on him, but he was like an apparition – he was around, but you didn’t know where he was, what he could do. He’s smart. He’s older. He knows where to move on the court. He’s got very, very good feel.
“He’s definitely a value added to what we’re doing from what we were expecting. We went from two months ago thinking he was hardly going to be able to play at all to now, I’m sitting here, he’s going to play, significantly.”
Combs says he’s at about 90 percent, but that he can do everything needed to play: cutting, jumping, posting up – all feel fine on his repaired ankle. He says he has no minutes restriction, and even while he was out of practice, he remained as engaged as possible with the program.
“It’s been night and day,” he says. “I’ve been watching film. I’ve been getting endless rehab, just paying attention on the sidelines, just so I can be ready when my opportunity came. When my opportunity comes, I’m gonna be ready to show people. ”
He’s already showed his coach. Before the team scrimmaged Texas this weekend, Wade asked Combs to give him a list of the plays he knew. Combs replied that he knew them all. Skeptical, Wade asked him to draw “Hook One Out Spread,” and Combs nailed it, much to his coach’s surprise and delight.
Said Wade: “He said, ‘Coach, I’ve been sitting out the whole time. I was going to learn the plays so when I came back, you didn’t have an excuse not to play me.’ He was paying attention. He knows all our plays from the 4 and 5. If you do that, that increases your chances to play. There’s 40 minutes at the 40 and 40 minutes at the 5. There’s 80 minutes if you combine them. He’s got a chance to earn a fair share of those.”
- Duop Reath apparently had another big scrimmage against Texas on Saturday. Facing potential lottery pick Mo Bamba, Reath, according to Mays, was dominant. “They had a great front line, and Duop carried us,” said Mays.
- Wade said he feels more comfortable with the pairing of Mays and Waters in the backcourt than he does any other on the court. On Mays, he said: “We’re not the same team when Skylar’s not on the court. He brings an IQ to us, he’s a cerebral player…He’s critical for Tre, being able to help Tre on nights when things aren’t going perfect. I’m banking on it working extremely, extremely well. ” And, on Waters, who also had a monster outing at Texas after a poor showing against Tulane, he said, “We may get seasick sometimes. It’s going to be rocky. He’s a freshman point guard. He’s going to make mistakes. But he’s going to have some phenomenal games…He’s quite frankly our best option.”
- Epps could be cleared later this week and available in “an emergency capacity” on Friday, Wade said.
- Offensively, Wade said he scripts two plays out of every time out for the entire game. “We run stuff early to set up stuff late.”
On finding balance at the 3 and 4…
“We’ve got guys that can only do certain things. Maybe our best offensive player at the 4 is our worst defensive option at the 4. Our best offensive option at the 3 is our worst defensive option at the 3. Are you going to play two defensive guys at the 3 and 4 knowing Alcorn State is going to play 38 minutes worth of matchup zone defense? To have basically two non-shooters at those spots…we’ve got to balance all that out.”
On starting the season well…
“If you’re going to go climb Mt. Everest, your first step has to be the biggest and the boldest. You can’t be tiptoeing up the mountain to start, right? Your first step has to be big, bold, out there, ready to go. Your first game, you’ve got to take a bold step and make progress.”
On Alcorn State…
“It will be a good challenge for us, they are a good team. They have (Regional) Johnson, their big kid, who is from Monroe. He has been picked as the pre-season player of the year in the SWAC. They have another play from Louisiana who has been picked as the defensive player of the year in their league. They have a guard (James Stokes), who is a very good player. He had a great year last year. He is a good player as well. They like to control tempo. They are very good on the offensive glass. They are going to challenge us to block out and defensive rebound. They play at a slow pace so we need to value the ball, value each possession and not give them extra opportunities on the offensive end.”
- Friday, 7 p.m., Pete Maravich Assembly Center vs. Alcorn State
- $1 admission
- TV: SEC Network +
- Radio: 98.1 FM in Baton Rouge, LSU Sports Radio Network Statewide, LSUSports.net/live