SEC Summer Basketball Notebook: Will Wade eyes a culture change at LSU

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

Culture change.

It's an overused cliche in sports and sports writing, but in the case of LSU basketball not too many people would probably argue that the Tiger program isn't in need of a different culture.

Johnny Jones wasn't the first to prove you can recruit elite basketball talent to Baton Rouge, but he did prove that lots of high-level talent can miss out on the NCAA tournament in a more resounding way than many others before him.

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Enter Will Wade, the 34-year old coach who formerly headed a VCU program that has been a better-than-average stepping stone for those climbing the professional ladder.

Wade orchestrated a successful two-year stint at Chattanooga (2013-2015) and posted consecutive 14-4 conference marks with the Rams over the past two years, reaching consecutive NCAA tournaments in the process.

It's easy to understand why LSU's administration would have thought highly of Wade. He did a lot more than Jones, working with a lot less.

Wade hasn't yet coached a game in Baton Rouge. He and his coaching staff have led their inaugural Tiger team through half of their summer workouts. So far, Wade said this week in a conference call with reporters, the "vast majority" of their time has been directed towards "shoring up defensive issues and work on individual and team defense."

For context, LSU ranked 335th in the country last year -- yes, worst in the SEC -- allowing 83 points per game. Opponents shot 47.2-percent for the entire season against the Tigers, who were anything but stingy. Kentucky fans witnessed that first hand in a closer-than-expected seven-point home win against the Tigers last year. The Cats put up 92 points on Jones' last squad.

So Wade's staff is preaching defense.

"I think just changing the mindset," Wade said when asked for the biggest challenge on setting a new tone. "Changing the way we think. Changing the standards to which we do things, whether it be on the defensive end of the court, how we spring, how we touch lines, how we go to class..."

If that sounds like preaching the most fundamental basketball and life concepts, that's because that's exactly what Wade is doing.

"To our guys' credit they've responded very well thus far," he said, striking an encouraging tone.

Wade said the players have received him well thus far, but joked, "We haven't lost any games yet," in a "joking but not joking" reference to how little anyone really knows at this point in the year.

"They want to win bad," he said of his team. "They're open to some new ideas on maybe what it takes to be more competitive."

Gone is Antonio Blakeney, who averaged 17.2 points (45.8-percent FG, 35.8-percent 3pt) as a sophomore last year. He was the Tigers' best offensive player last year and was a potent threat with the ball at times in 2016-17, although he might have been best remembered as the most visible holdover of the short-lived Ben Simmons' era that had ended one year prior.

But Wade will benefit from a couple of returning scoring options in Duop Reath (12 PPG) and Brandon Sampson (11.6 PPG).

Reath could develop into one of the SEC's better big men and any defensive improvement for the team probably hinges on his development as a defensive presence. He'll need to cut down on his foul count to stay on the court for more minutes.

Sampson, meanwhile, was an efficient 6-foot-5 wing who could improve from beyond the arc. He made a big step forward offensively last year and will need to make similar improvements this season.

There's also Skyler Mays, a potential team leader who led the Tigers in assists last year.

LSU has a lot of room for improvement, but Wade is optimistic that Sampson and Mays in the backcourt give him some options and versatility with his lineup combinations and how to run things.

"Two very good players," Wade said of the two. "At VCU we played two point guards basically together. One was more of a combo guard, one was more of a scoring point guard."

Wade envisions the two alternating on and off the ball and "wheeling and dealing" off ball screens.

"I feel really good about how Skyler's progressed. He's shooting the ball well, he's an extremely hard working, he puts up things," Wade said. "I'm very pleased with Brandon as well. He's really buying in to what we're doing."

Part of that, Wade said, means getting stronger in the weight room. Sampson has made strides in that area.

But the biggest thing is "buying in." That's what Wade's looking for in his first year.

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