It’s been a bit of an uphill climb since LSU Basketball’s fizzling pre-conference start, in which the Tigers dropped three close games on the road to VCU (15-5, 5-2 in the Atlantic 10), Utah State (16-6, 5-4 in the Mountain West) and USC (16-4, 5-2 in the Pac-12) and then punctuated that hard luck by getting throttled at home by East Tennessee State (18-3, 7-1 in the Southern), but just like last season Will Wade has snapped the pieces firmly together after Christmas and has his team rolling. Wade’s guys are on an eight-game winning streak and now sit atop the SEC with a 6-0 mark.
And today, the AP’s poll voters noticed. LSU is now at No. 22 in the current AP poll, the third SEC team ranked this week behind No. 13 Kentucky and No. 17 Auburn.
On Wednesday the Tigers have a key matchup at home with Alabama in a game which might well decide whether they’ll stay ranked in next week’s AP poll. Alabama is tied with Florida, Auburn and Tennessee for third in the SEC, sitting at 4-2 in league play. The Tide is 12-7 overall, but next to LSU they might be the hottest team in the SEC having won four straight games.
That said, only one of those wins in the current streak was a road game, and that was a 77-62 victory over hapless Vanderbilt. For the season, Alabama is only 2-4 on the road. Their only other road win was at Samford; the four losses were a blowout at Rhode Island, a close loss at Penn State and six- and nine-point defeats to Florida and Kentucky.
Following the Bama game on Wednesday LSU gets a home game with Ole Miss Saturday. Wade’s Tigers earned a four-point win over the Rebels despite a monster game from Breein Tyree in Oxford two Saturdays ago.
Wade’s team is going to have to learn how to play with a lead if they’re going to keep winning. This eight-game win streak began with a 17-point win over Liberty (19-3, 5-2 in the Atlantic Sun) and a 14-point decision at Tennessee, but since then the Tigers are the Cardiac Kids – winning the last six games by two, one, four, four, two and two points, and in the majority of those games and especially the last two wins over Florida and Texas, they’ve blown double-digit leads they held well into the second half.
Why that’s happened might have to do with a bit of a short bench. LSU is regularly playing only seven players at present, with Marlon Taylor emerging as a highly productive sixth man (a role Charles Manning was nailing down before he injured a foot two weeks ago) and Aundre Hyatt continuing to improve as a versatile second guy off the bench. But what’s noticeable lately is that, especially after building big leads in the second half, LSU is running into mental mistakes and losing their edge.
Fatigue, particularly in the backcourt, might have something to do with it. Skylar Mays has played 38 and 39 minutes the past two games, while Je’Vonte Smart has played 39 and 31. That seems like too much, particularly when the opponents have pressed LSU for much or most of the second half of at least the past two games. LSU’s guards get tired, they’re not as explosive, there are more turnovers and the three-point defense isn’t as good, and a double-digit lead tends to evaporate.
The good news is that in both games the opponent seemed to wear themselves out at bit making their comebacks and made key mistakes late to lose the opportunity to finish the Tigers off.
Our suggestion is that Wade ought to look to the end of his bench, and particularly to James Bishop and Marshall Graves. He needs one or both to soak up eight or 10 minutes a game, particularly early, and keep Mays and Smart a little fresher. If the two starting guards could somehow be playing 32 or 33 minutes a game instead of 38 or 39, perhaps LSU might be better at finishing off those opponents.
Of course, that’s going to depend on Wade having confidence Bishop and/or Graves could give him solid minutes while in the game, something they haven’t quite proven yet. Graves is a quality outside shooter, which LSU can use, but while he’s a willing defender he isn’t the most athletic guy out on the perimeter. Bishop has lots of athleticism, but he’s made a lot of mental mistakes; he’d need to tighten up some.
And then there’s the potential return of Manning, who could give LSU easily 15-20 excellent minutes a game and fully flesh out the playing rotation to the point where nobody would need to play more than 30 minutes per game on this team.
It’s an LSU club with substantial holes. Mays and Smart are both more combo-guard than point guard, and LSU doesn’t really have a true point. Nor do they have an aircraft carrier-type player inside like last year’s team had with Kavell Bigby-Williams. But it nevertheless seems to work anyway for these guys. They’re far more athletic than almost everybody they play, and while they tend to get sloppy at times they routinely outhustle and outsmart their opponents.
That’s a testament to Wade’s coaching, which seems to produce win after win even when he isn’t supposed to. And while this doesn’t outwardly look like a Tiger team with a great chance to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament they certainly look like they’ll be dancing in late March. That would be an achievement in its own right. Would you like to know the last time LSU was in the tournament two years in a row?
2005 and 2006 under John Brady. Brady’s Final Four team was the 2006 team. So if LSU makes the NCAA dance, which they would in all likelihood lock up with six or seven more wins between now and the end of the SEC Tournament, it’ll be the first time in 14 years they’re gone to March Madness in back-to-back seasons.
If you want to know what a huge difference Wade’s presence, whatever rocky times in the past year that might have entailed, makes to this program, that’s all the information you need.
Wade’s Tigers are worth your support. Turn out to the PMAC on Wednesday night if you’re in or near Baton Rouge.