Twenty-five seconds into the game, Will Wade knew.
Down only 2-0 to Stephen F. Austin, the LSU coach quickly surmised his basketball Tigers did not quite have the mercurial “it” Saturday, at least not the way they did in Wednesday’s promising and pulsating 80-77 victory over Houston. He fired off a quick timeout like a distress rocket.
“This is the second time we’ve done this,” Wade said before making an aside into LSU’s loss to Notre Dame in Maui last month the night after upsetting Michigan. “Two steps forward and one step back. We called the timeout because we couldn’t get the ball in bounds, but I could sense that (Saturday) was going to be a meat-grinder.”
What followed proved Wade a prophet. The Tigers committed 17 turnovers, were out-rebounded 32-30 and missed a month’s worth of point blanks around the basket, the last and most painful of them Aaron Epps’ rim-roller as the final seconds ticked off of LSU’s 83-82 loss to Stephen F. Austin.
The thousands who visited the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on a picturesque pre-Christmas afternoon filed out in stunned silence. At least it seemed like stunned silence beneath the jubilant uproar from the SFA bench and its nearby small band of supporters. It was the shock of seeing LSU, which appeared to have its act together after the Houston win, lose with its own petard of mistakes and missed opportunities.
Against Michigan and again against Houston, it seemed the Tigers were turning a corner faster than anyone could have envisioned in Wade's first year. Both were top-50 RPI victories, something that will play well with a postseason selection committee should the Tigers (6-3) win enough other games to merit that kind of consideration.
But then there was the slam-dunking by Notre Dame, 84-60, and the subsequent 97-84 loss in Lahaina to Marquette. Now this gut punch.
Wade is very good at what he does. In nine months on the job, he has proven to be an organizer, a promoter, a recruiter and perhaps most important, a tactician. Without Brandon Sampson — who has not played a second since a scary-looking ankle injury in the opening minute against Notre Dame — this isn’t a team whose balance sheet registers as significantly more talented than last year’s 10-21 bunch. But these Tigers run plays and dive on the floor and give great effort. Had Epps been able to finish off on a fast-break pass from Tremont Waters, it would have added weight to the notion that Wade is some sort of miracle-worker.
Wade rightly didn’t promise miracles when he arrived in March, just effort. It's not just this game; the whole season is going to be a meat-grinder for LSU, rife with surprising triumphs and unhappy results.
In other words, ESPN “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi is not listing the Tigers on his “first four out” of the NCAA tournament any time soon.
And that’s OK. This is a year for building both hope and momentum for 2018-19, when a highly decorated recruiting class comes riding over the hill. Until then, the plan is to get Sampson back as quickly as possible — Wade was vague on a timetable for getting his star guard on the court beyond, “We need him sooner rather than later” — while holding serve with what he has. Clearly, the hope is Sampson can be back in playing trim by the time LSU opens Southeastern Conference play Jan. 3 against an talented but gettable Kentucky team.
LSU can not trade its way out of any talent or depth deficits like an NBA team. The Tigers have to play with who they have and try for the best. The only variable is consistent effort, something LSU again found elusive Saturday compared with the way the Tigers played against Houston.
“We have to mature as a team,” said Epps, who to his credit faced the tough questions from reporters about his game-ending miss.
If LSU can manage to do that, there may be more steps forward than back for these Tigers.