The times were far less tumultuous ...
It all started with a simple request.
In January, before a critical early conference road matchup against Mississippi, then LSU head coach Will Wade stood up in front of his players and delivered another round of motivational words.
They listened. They plotted. Then they spoke.
“Coach, will you dance?”
Wade responded pointedly, “Let’s win a game, and then I’ll dance.”
It was a pivotal contest for a Tigers team, though talented and flush with athletes, most pundits forecasted would finish anywhere from 4th-to-7th in the SEC.
At that juncture, LSU was staring squarely at a fork in the road. Like many properly equipped high-major teams, it coasted past inferior competition in non-conference play. However, in contests against much stiffer opponents (e.g. Houston and Florida St.), the Tigers displayed the hallmarks of a young, underdeveloped group — turnovers, questionable shot selection, accumulated fouls. How it performed against a quality Rebels team could hurtle it toward magnificence or mediocrity.
Sparked by the near impeccable guard play of Skyler Mays and Tremont Waters, who combined for 32 points and 13 assists, along with Kavell Bigby-Williams’ double-double, the Tigers impressively topped Ole Miss 83-69.
It was time for Wade to strut his stuff.
The jubilant coach, a wide smile adoring his face, entered the music-filled locker room with a rhythmless jaunt. Freshman Naz Reid captured the moment for Instagram. Mays jokingly summed up Wade’s moves as “awful.”
For the normally austere 36 year old, it was a moment to let his hair down, showcase a more playful side and build chemistry.
Since that night in Oxford, “connectedness” was a word Wade often used to describe his nascent bunch, one which has seized victory in 17 of their last 20 games and secured an outright regular season conference title. But with its head coach suspended indefinitely after damaging wiretap recordings surfaced earlier this month, “connectedness” has turned to “chaos.”
Under interim shot caller Tony Benford, the Tigers responded by promptly losing its opening matchup in the SEC Tournament to Florida. Will the hangover continue?
Overshadowed by headline grabbers Tennessee and Kentucky, who the Tigers knocked off Feb. 12 at Rupp on a controversial buzzer-beating tip in by Bigby-Williams, it’s still fathomable, despite all the controversy, the representatives from Baton Rouge represent the SEC in the Final Four.
Similar to Michigan last year, here is why LSU might be the most dangerous No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament:
1 - Second chances. Reid, Bigby-Williams and Emmitt Williams are the definition of “tenacious.” They have a knack to be in the right spot when shots carom off the rim. On the year, the Tigers snagged an offensive board on 37.3 percent of their possessions. Those rebounds not only frustrate, demoralize and tax defenses, many of those presented high-percentage scoring put backs. It’s no wonder why they convert on 53.4 percent of their two-point shots.
2 - Cleaner execution. Early in the season, LSU routinely suffered from self-inflicted wounds. Carelessness with the basketball torpedoed it in pivotal out-of-conference matchups against Florida St., Oklahoma St. and Houston. However, once it entered SEC play, it greatly improved in rock protection, coughing it up only 17 percent of the time.
3 - Cash in on freebies. Unsurprisingly, the Tigers’ aggressiveness around the tin and attacking nature off the bounce attract a steady stream of whistles. Among tournament teams, they get to the line at the 10th-highest clip. Most importantly, they take advantage of the charity work converting 75.4 percent. In fact, close to 22 percent of LSU’s points are scored on free throws.
4 - Guard play. It may sound cliche, but backcourts are invaluable in March. Look at the recent trend of national champions. Villanova, North Carolina, Duke, UConn — the commonality among the group was exceptional guard execution. LSU features one of the best ball-handing trios in the country. Point man Tremont Waters is a pesky defender, sensational distributor and consistent scorer. Skyler Mays is an excellent slasher who drains the occasional three. And backup Javonte Smart has elevated his game to another level over the past month averaging 18.6 points per contest. The group should make it far, especially if threes, an area LSU struggles in (32.5 3PT%), are falling.
5 - Rising defense. During a wide swath of February, LSU’s defense unraveled. Its prolific offensive production buried the issues, but game observers and box score watchers alike took notice. However, over the past five games, it made strides in challenging shots conceding 0.99 points per possession.
Dark clouds may be gathering above Baton Rouge, but the immediate horizon remains blindingly bright.
How LSU responds without Wade is anyone’s best guess, but with its dynamic backcourt, maulers in the middle and balance, immediately writing it off is an unwise decision.
What to dunk on Brad? Follow him on Twitter @YahooNoise