We haven’t done a whole lot on LSU Basketball since the changeover from Will Wade to Matt McMahon. We’re going to address that issue now.
After all, McMahon deserves some love from us.
The last Hayride post on the subject of LSU hoops was, to be honest, a little cranky. We thought the way Wade was dispatched as the head coach was less-than-optimal. Sure, he had the NCAA wolves at his, and LSU’s, door, and by the end it seemed obvious his contract wasn’t going to be renewed and even that he was going to lose his job. Still, we thought Athletic Director Scott Woodward would have done better by the kids in the program and the fans who’d supported them to at least let Wade coach the postseason.
That he was bounced out of a job probably cost LSU that first-round game against Iowa State.
That was water under the bridge, but given the state of the program after the firing and the likelihood the roster and recruiting class would disintegrate particularly given the NCAA sanctions folks think are coming, what we said was Woodward would need to spend big and hire a monster name.
We said that because we didn’t think a mid-major coach, even a really good one, would have enough of a brand to overcome the stink of the prospective sanctions and Wade’s firing. And that would be a problem for recruiting – perhaps a persistent problem that would haunt the new coach and hamstring his efforts to rebuild. The danger you run into is that if you don’t win early, the perception then takes hold that you’ll never win, and then you can’t recruit enough talent to gain traction.
That was our concern with McMahon when he was hired. There was never a doubt he was a good coach – his record at Murray State is breathtaking. But Murray State recruits a different kind of player than LSU does.
Or so we thought.
McMahon came to LSU and found every single member of the recruiting class taking flight. And every single member of the roster either off to the NBA or in the transfer portal. We’ve never seen anything like it. There was a time he didn’t have a single scholarship player on his roster. Literally starting from scratch.
Now, less than two months later, he has a full 13 players on his roster. And amazingly, you could make the argument that what McMahon put together is better than what Wade had this past year and maybe even better than the roster Wade expected to have this winter if he and his players and recruits had stuck around.
If you haven’t seen a deep dive into what this new coaching staff did, we’ll take you through one.
McMahon managed to hold onto three of the 11 players from the 2021-22 roster who had entered the transfer portal. They aren’t the best three, but they might be the three best fits for what he’s doing.
The best of the three is sophomore guard Adam Miller, who came to LSU last year as a transfer from Illinois, where he’d started as a freshman on a No. 1 seed team that won the Big 10 regular season title. Miller was expected to be the best player on this past year’s LSU club, but he tore his ACL in the preseason and didn’t play a single game. There was the prospect of having this super-talented guard but never actually seeing him on the floor at LSU, but then McMahon went to work on Miller and managed to pull him back in. Here’s film of him starring on Team USA’s U19 team last summer.
Miller is going to start at the shooting guard spot, but he’ll also play a bit of point guard here and there. If he’s not a 15-18 points per game scorer he’ll be close.
Mwani Wilkinson will also be back. Wilkinson started most of last year at the small forward spot, and even though he only averaged four points a game he was efficient offensively. He developed into a pretty good 3-and-D player, shooting better than 40 percent from behind the arc and playing perhaps the best defense on LSU’s team – which is saying something, because this past year LSU had one of the best defenses in the country. Wilkinson may or may not start again at the “3” position; he’s going to have some competition there. But he’s going to be something of a veteran leader in the program as the only third-year guy LSU has, and there is the sense his offensive game will really come into its own this year after a couple of seasons in which Wilkinson has just been too passive.
Also returning is Justice Williams, who was supposed to redshirt last year but ended up playing in 20 games off the bench at guard. Williams was an early departure out of high school and not quite ready for SEC ball, but he showed flashes as a highly athletic combo guard. It’ll be fun to see what McMahon, who after all was the coach Ja Morant developed under at Murray State, can do with Williams. Athletically they’re somewhat similar. Williams is likely not a starter, but he’ll be in a fairly deep guard rotation.
THE MURRAY STATE TRIO
McMahon brought three of the top four players off his 31-3 Murray State team last year with him to LSU. We’ll find out whether the step up in competition is too much for these guys; we don’t think so.
Two of them will be starters at LSU, barring something unforeseen.
The most celebrated of the three is KJ Williams, a 6-10, 240-pound behemoth who was the Ohio Valley Conference MVP last year and a three-time all-league selection. Williams was good for 18 points and eight rebounds a game, and he’s got a smooth stroke from all over the floor, can handle the ball, runs the court very well for a big man, has great low post moves and is an active defender and rebounder. We’d be very surprised if he’s not one of the SEC’s best big men; he’s just been too good a player for too long not to believe he’ll excel even against better competition.
Getting Williams might have been the biggest recruiting coup for McMahon, and that’s saying something because there have been a lot of big coups as he’s built his roster.
But as big a deal as Williams is, the most important piece to the roster coming from Murray State might be Justice Hill. Hill was the point guard on that 31-3 Murray team, and McMahon has likened his contribution to that of Morant. He might not quite be the player Morant is, but he’s a terrific college point guard. He’s quick, he’s a great penetrator, he averaged five assists per game last year, he can drain outside shots with regularity (when Hill gets hot, as you’ll see in the clip below, it’s almost like watching Chris Paul or Steph Curry), and he’s a master at running McMahon’s offense.
We’re looking forward to a Hill/Miller backcourt. We think that’ll rival what Tremont Waters and Skylar Mays gave Wade his first couple of years.
McMahon also brought Trae Hannibal with him. Hannibal averaged nine points and five rebounds a game as the “2” guard for Murray State last year, and he’s a glue guy who plays a lot bigger than his 6-2 height because he’s built like a linebacker at 217 pounds. Hannibal’s game is pretty basic – he’s a hustler who gets loose balls in bunches, and he goes to the basket with alacrity. Hannibal drives the lane and gets fouled, all game long, and he drives other teams nuts. He spent two years at South Carolina before transferring to Murray State, so he’s got some SEC experience. He’ll be a rotation guy in the LSU backcourt.
THE OTHER TRANSFERS
McMahon also camped out in the transfer portal to pick up a trio of veteran role players who fit this roster very well even if none are starters.
The first of them to commit is an in-state pickup – 6-8 post player Kendal Coleman, a Shreveport product who comes from Northwestern State. Coleman was far and away the best player on an atrocious team last year, averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds a game. He’s a high-effort guy who’s good around the basket, though there is some question whether he can duplicate those numbers against higher-level competition. That said, when he did play against good teams and good post players Coleman performed well.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Coleman began the season as McMahon’s starting center even though he’s a little undersized for that role. Williams’ game likely translates better to the next level as a “4,” and one surmises that McMahon might have promised him the opportunity to play the power forward spot at LSU. That would mean McMahon will need a guy to be his garbage man inside, getting rebounds and bodying people up in the paint. Coleman does those things, even if at 6-8, 225 he might be on the small side. Either way, he’ll factor into the post rotation because he’s a productive player and a nice get.
McMahon also grabbed another 6-8 player with a bit different skill set in Derek Fountain, who’s transferring from Mississippi State. Fountain is more of a “stretch 4” or maybe a tall small forward at 6-8 and 205 pounds. He’s something of an enigma, in that he showed a lot of promise at Mississippi State as a freshman including a good outside shot and a willingness to fight under the boards. But his playing time and production took a nose dive this past year as it seemed like he became a forgotten man in State’s playing rotation, and he’s something of a reclamation project. Given what McMahon needs from him, though, Fountain is worth the risk. He’s athletic, he can play any of the frontcourt positions particularly if LSU is going to go up-tempo, and if his shooting stroke returns he could be a guy who comes off the bench and breaks apart a zone by drilling threes from the wing.
Then there’s Cam Hayes, who like Fountain is a bit of a reclamation project. Hayes, a 6-3 combo guard, was one of the better freshmen in the ACC at North Carolina State two years ago, but his personal fortunes mirrored those of his team this past year. NC State was a mess of a team and Hayes was similarly a mess – shooting under 40 percent from the floor and just 25 percent from the three-point line after almost 40 percent from the arc as a freshman. He also was something of a turnover machine as well.
But here’s the thing – Hayes is quick as can be. He’s a good defender. And though he’s inconsistent, at times he’s a brilliant playmaker. On a better team, and with a little momentum and confidence to his outside shot, there’s plenty of reason to believe he can bounce back and become a very good college combo guard. The fact is, with Hill and Miller starting and Hannibal and Justice Williams also in the guard rotation, there is some margin of error here with Hayes. LSU is deep in the backcourt.
THE HIGH SCHOOL RECRUITS
Wade had assembled a phenomenal foursome of high school recruits for this coming season, and all four melted away after he was fired. Nobody really thought McMahon was going to be able to do much with what was still available in the 2022 recruiting class.
And when his first high school recruit was 6-10, 200-pound post player Corneilous Williams, a three-star recruit out of North Carolina who’d been a Murray State commitment, the thinking was that McMahon would be filling out what part of his roster that he couldn’t get in the transfer portal with developmental-type players.
Williams is a perfectly good take, and McMahon identified him early as a longer-term project he could develop along the lines of what he did with KJ Williams at Murray State. He’s unlikely to factor much on this year’s team and will likely redshirt. That’s OK; you always want to keep a roster spot for a project player with great size. Post players are generally made, not born, particularly at the college level. And Williams is a down-the-road investment, even though his raw physicality could put him further along than people think early in his career.
But once things got going, it became obvious that Matt McMahon at LSU is going to recruit a different level of prospect than Matt McMahon at Murray State.
6-10 Jalen Reed, a Mississippi prospect ranked just outside the Top 50, had been a Florida signee but he shook loose after Mike White left for Georgia. McMahon went out and got him. Reed compares similarly to Justin Phillips, a McDonald’s All-American who’d been a Wade signee; Phillips ended up at Tennessee. With Reed, LSU is getting a player somewhat similar to KJ Williams; he’s tall but has a good inside-outside game, he’s highly athletic and really just needs to fill out a little before he starts knocking on the door of an NBA career. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Reed was the starting center on this team; it would be a surprise if he’s not a significant contributor.
A few clips from the Legends Of The Sipp All Star game! My kid is underrated and I am ready 4 people 2 actually see what he is really made of! 🙌🏽 I saw a post where someone said his father was a loud dog and would bite, J is a quiet dog! 😎 pic.twitter.com/C5SG3AVcAf
— Falena Hughes (@falenamichelle) March 18, 2022
Then McMahon made a huge splash by getting 6-7 five-star small forward Tyrell Ward out of famed DeMatha High School in Maryland. Ward had been a Xavier commitment but shook loose, and he picked LSU over Georgetown in a bit of an upset. He’s silky-smooth and could probably play shooting guard if he had to; he’s got the outside shooting and can really handle the ball. If Ward doesn’t beat out Wilkinson for the small forward job he’ll be the sixth man on this team, and he might be the instant-offense guy off the bench. Either way, he’s going to be a big star at LSU no later than his sophomore year.
And then this week McMahon finished his recruiting class by adding the one piece he was missing on the roster. He needed a rim protector and he got one with 6-11, 250-pound Shawn Phillips, nicknamed “Baby Shaq” for his physical likeness to the great Shaquille O’Neal at a similar age, committing to the program. Phillips is similar to O’Neal from the standpoint of his game as well; he’s not a shooter, he’s a dunker. What he offers is shotblocking, rebounding, physical play inside and garbage points at the rim from putbacks and jams off a drive-and-dish. He’s probably going to be a guy setting crunching screens in McMahon’s offense which runs heavily off them; if he can manage not to be a fouling machine, which is often the case with young big men, he might even wedge his way into a starting job.
Phillips was an NC State commitment before he shook loose.
To have assembled this cast of characters – one of the most complete rosters in memory for an LSU hoops team – in so short a time is amazing. Incredible. And to think that recruiting was the real question mark with McMahon’s hiring, only to get this level of activity, is encouraging in the extreme.
We were sorry to see Wade go. But if you’re an LSU fan, what McMahon has done has to have you excited about the future. If the NCAA doesn’t impose a postseason ban, something most think is unlikely with so few returning people in the program, LSU has a chance to stay relevant in the SEC race and the NCAA Tournament picture even this year.