LSU's first-round performance proved me (and others) wrong, but proceed with caution
I was wrong. I’ll own it.
I was one of the people who bought into the belief that LSU not having Will Wade would ultimately result in a first-round letdown against hot-shooting Yale. I saw flashbacks of Arizona last year, which collapsed against Buffalo amidst the FBI wiretap cloud that hung over Sean Miller.
Well, I was wrong on both accounts. The Tigers did indeed survive the first round, and contrary to what the Bulldogs did in the regular season, they were about as reliable from the outside as the cable guy showing up “between 12-5.” Yale’s offense didn’t show up until it was too late. LSU’s lead was too massive for coaching to throw another game away like it did against Florida in the SEC Tournament.
That’s not a knock on interim coach Tony Benford. But let’s be honest here. It’s not like LSU is a Fortune 500 company that can essentially run itself. Before Thursday, the Tigers hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in a decade. It didn’t matter that they had a No. 1 overall pick in Ben Simmons, or that they had solid teams like that 2014-15 squad.
That’s a testament to the job that Wade did before he was suspended. The guy led LSU to an SEC regular season title and ultimately a No. 3 seed while garnering national coach of the year consideration. That ain’t easy.
So yes, while LSU was still healthy and talented, I questioned how that would translate in the NCAA Tournament. In fact, I still question that.
Why? Um, the Tigers won by 5 points against an Ivy League school that was 4-for-30 from 3-point range in the first 39 minutes of the game. They nearly coughed up an 18-point lead despite those shooting issues from Yale.
That happened even though LSU looked like its old self for the majority of that game. Tremont Waters knocked down tough buckets at the end of the shot clock, Kavell Bigby-Williams swatted basically everything Yale put up in the first half and Naz Reid annihilated this poor rim.
Naz Reid and the rim are not friends. pic.twitter.com/KhVbDGY4Nr
— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) March 21, 2019
It was almost like Reid took 3 weeks of anger out on that dunk. For a good amount of that game, it felt like that’s what LSU was doing.
But we saw the lack of adjustments down the stretch hurt LSU. Like, when Bigby-Williams was out of the game in foul trouble, the Tigers couldn’t figure out how to keep Yale out of the paint. That’s why the Bulldogs crawled back into the game in spite of their outside shooting woes. Against a better team, that would have been a fatal failed adjustment.
Now that’s not my way of saying Wade absolutely would have made the right tweak and LSU would have dominated the second half. Bigby-Williams getting in foul trouble still happened, and it’s not like the Tigers are particularly deep with rim protectors.
Still, though. That game didn’t exactly sell me on the belief that LSU is in line for a deep March run. It wasn’t like the Tigers kept their foot on the gas and put it on cruise control late. They had so many things working in their favor, and it took everything they had just to avoid the upset.
There was one moment that I thought was so crucial for LSU if it is going to continue to prove doubters like me wrong. With 7.9 seconds left, LSU led by 3 after Yale hit a deep 3-pointer to keep its hopes alive. Skylar Mays was quickly fouled, forcing him to attempt 2 free throws to put the game away. As he made his way down the court, the TV cameras caught him signaling to the LSU bench.
Mays then drained both free throws to put the game on ice. That’s what your veterans are supposed to do. No moment is supposed to be too big, and no off-court issue is supposed to be too big of a distraction. Thursday, it wasn’t. Announcer Ian Eagle closed the broadcast by saying “if there were distractions, there were no signs of it today.”
The final result supported that notion. Credit LSU for doing something that many believed it couldn’t do. At the very least, the “us against the world” mindset has a little juice behind it now. It’ll take more than that to continue to beat quality teams and live up to that top-10 ranking at the end of the regular season.
It’ll take quality late-game decisions, half-court execution and Reid destroying some more rims probably wouldn’t hurt. The Tigers won’t always have 18-point cushions against lesser-talented teams.
And if they do, well then I’m about to be really wrong.