LSU basketball makes historic jump into Top 10

LSU guard Skylar Mays (4), coach Will Wade and guard Marlon Taylor (14) look on during a referee video review during a game against Alabama, Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Charles Dickens would have felt at home writing about the 2018-19 LSU basketball season.

The best of times and the worst of times? One basketball season couldn’t hold more wild pendulum swings of emotions, fortunes, tragedy, victory, punishment and redemption than last season did. A season that at times seemed more like a work of fiction than anything that could exist in reality.

It started with the death of junior forward Wayde Sims, and nothing could have been worse than that. The middle featured win after spine-tingling win, wrapped up in a cloud of speculation about LSU coach Will Wade. In the end, Wade emerged with his job still in his grasp and a championship ring on his finger while athletic director Joe Alleva, the much-vilified face of the five-game season-ending suspension that Wade served, was sent packing.

Talent abounds on this LSU basketball team again, especially in the backcourt. Despite the loss of wizard-like point guard Tremont Waters — his driving bank shot high off the glass to beat Maryland in the second round of the NCAA tournament was one of the greatest moments in program history — seasoned hands like Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart still control the ball. Plug in new five-star forward Trendon Watford to replace Naz Reid and the Tigers have a lot of the blocks you need to build a winner.

Still, it will be hard to replicate last year’s 28-7, Southeastern Conference-winning, NCAA Sweet 16-reaching achievements, amazingly conceived against the backdrop of tears and wiretaps. Not only did LSU win, it won the tough games, going 13-5 in contests decided by six points or less.

No one will say it, because if you’re a player or a coach you want to win every game every time out. But deep down, might not everyone associated with LSU basketball trade some wins for some stability? A trip to the Sweet 16 for the sweet sound of no national media voices baying for Wade to be fired?

Wade and LSU may or may not be out of the woods of NCAA enforcement. Imagine a shoe dropping to the floor of a darkened, empty basketball gym. But with each day that passes, the future looks brighter for the prospect of Wade and his program moving forward together.

Despite losing stars like Waters and Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams — the first two left early for the NBA, the latter exhausted his eligibility — this season’s prospect doesn’t look dark at all. And all those trials and tribulations from last season may have forged a tough and cohesive shell around LSU’s returning players that is hard to quantify from the outside.

“Things happen. It helped me be the man I am today,” said sophomore guard Javonte Smart, who takes over the bulk of the point guard duties from Waters.

“I know for sure I can (handle a lot) and the players on our team can.”

It is with respect, grudging respect perhaps but respect nonetheless, that LSU was picked to finish a commendable third in this season’s SEC race behind Kentucky and Florida. That’s ahead of teams like Tennessee and Auburn, the latter having reached the Final Four and coming within a controversial point of knocking off eventual champion Virginia in the national semifinals.

Could the Auburn Tigers and their once-troubled coach Bruce Pearl be a template for the LSU Tigers and Wade? Considering Wade’s coaching acumen, his everything matters attention to detail, it isn’t a stretch to picture LSU catching fire and riding a hot streak to next April’s Final Four in Atlanta like Auburn did last spring. The potential is there, even if the margin for error isn’t, Wade said.

“Last year if we made mistakes, we could erase those mistakes with some plays where we were the only team in the gym that could make those plays,” he said.

“Just because we won’t have the same margin of error it doesn’t mean we won’t have a very, very good year and could be just as good as last year and maybe better. We’re just going to have to be tighter in a lot of areas than last year. We’re going to have to really, really play to our strengths and minimize some of the high-risk stuff that we did last year. We’re just going to have to be a lot simpler and a lot steadier.”

This LSU basketball team can achieve a great deal. But it needs simple and steady, no tragedies, investigations or suspensions to get in the way. 

In other words, less winter of despair. More spring of hope.

Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com