WASHINGTON — When LSU suspended basketball coach Will Wade on March 8, the remaining members of the staff had to take on more duties and responsibilities than ever.
So did sophomore point guard Tremont Waters.
LSU's Tremont Waters isn't just one of the best players in the Southeastern Conference but the entire NCAA, according to one ESPN analyst.
If the Tigers were to keep their thrilling season going, if they were to go on a deep postseason run, Waters had to serve as a coach on the court. And on the bench. And in the locker room.
Which is why interim coach Tony Benford didn’t hesitate last week when asked how much harder his job would be without a dynamic player like Waters.
“That’s a really good question,” a smiling Benford said. “It would be a lot more difficult. The thing with Tremont is, as a coach, sometimes you get in your players’ way — and some coaches do that.
"The better your players, the less sets you have to run offensively.”
The Tigers have made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament at Capital One Arena, where No. 3-seeded LSU (28-6) goes against second-seeded Michigan State (30-6) at 6:09 p.m. Friday. To say that Waters has been a big help in the team’s run would be a major understatement.
Benford said Waters, who leads the Tigers in scoring and assists as well as steals, has been the classic "extension of the coaching staff."
“You’ve got to trust him because he can go make plays,” Benford said. “Sometimes he throws the ball where you didn’t want it to go. But he’s going to be aggressive and he’s going to make the right decision the majority of the time. So he makes it a lot easier.”
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That’s why Waters, whose driving layup with 1.6 seconds left gave LSU a 69-67 second-round win over Maryland and punched the Tigers’ ticket to the Sweet 16, will be a key in their bid to march deeper into the tournament.
It’s easy to see why 12th-ranked LSU has a chance to do that — even though they’re a decided underdog against No. 5 Michigan State, which has been ranked no lower than 11th in The Associated Press poll this season.
As Waters goes, so go the Tigers.
In the 26 wins he’s has been part of — Waters missed two games with an undisclosed illness — the All-Southeastern Conference first-team pick has averaged 16.2 points and 6.3 assists a game. In LSU’s six losses, those numbers fall off sharply to 10.0 points and 4.5 assists.
Even though he’s been the Tigers’ main facilitator for two seasons, Waters seems to have taken on more of a floor general role lately.
“In the huddle, coach Benford and the coaching staff are giving us plays to run, basically, on the fly,” Waters said. “Either I’ll call the play or (guard) Skylar (Mays) will call a set based on what we see.
“It’s just a read that we make pretty much throughout the game,” he said. “If things break down, coach Benford calls a play.”
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Still, Benford said the work Waters has done recently, along with Mays, has been invaluable to the coaching staff.
“Players like Tremont and Skylar and (forward) Naz Reid — they’ve taken ownership of the team,” Benford said. “They’ve helped keep one another accountable, too. On the floor during the in-game, guys like Tremont and Sky … they’re really good.
“They’re like coaches out on the floor. They help myself and other coaches, making adjustments and everything.”
That entails everything on both ends of the floor, Benford said.
He said Waters and Mays are in constant communication with assistant coaches Greg Heiar and Bill Armstrong, especially on the defensive end.
“Coach Armstrong will call our defenses out, so (Waters) has to have constant contact with him about what are we in,” Benford explained. “Are we picking up full=court? Are we calling fist? Are we in 1-3-1 (zone)? So he gets defensive calls from coach all the time.”
Offensively, Waters and Mays also have the freedom to push the ball in transition, Benford said.
If they don’t have anything, they have the option to pull the ball back out and call a set play instead.
With that in mind, Benford was asked how long Waters’ leash is.
“It’s pretty long … it’s pretty long,” Benford said. “On the bench sometimes and when he’s on the floor, he’s communicating with coach Heiar and coach Armstrong — sometimes myself.”
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Waters smiled when told that Benford called him an extension of the coaching staff and that his leash is long.
“I would say my leash is pretty long,” Waters said, noting he heard Benford’s comments while waiting just off the podium. “They allow me to play my game, obviously, and run the team. They trust me with the ball in late-game situations, and they trust I'm going to make the right reads for my teammates as well.
“So just knowing my teammates have confidence in me and my coaching staff has a ton of confidence in me, it makes me play a lot more relaxed. I'm able to play off instinct, make reads and pretty much run the show. So it's a very free-flowing offense.”
Mays, sitting to Waters’ left, laughed when asked about how much freedom he gets.
“I think my leash is pretty long as well. Probably not as long as Tremont's,” Mays said. “But Tremont runs the show for us; he done a tremendous job all season. He's what makes us go on the offensive and defensive end."
Added Mays: “We've got his back. So pretty much everything he does and every shot he takes we think he's going to make. We think he's going to make the right play all the time.
"So we go as he goes, and it's been working for us.”
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