The season of basketball is over for LSU.
The season of change now begins.
How much change is in store for the Tigers is one of the biggest questions on an LSU campus filled with them these days amid the ongoing aftershocks of the school’s sexual misconduct scandal.
In a large sense, what happens to Will Wade and whether he will remain as LSU’s coach for next season and the foreseeable future is smaller potatoes. But ultimately, there are big NCAA and personnel issues that will have major implications on the program. Issues that are going to start coming rather quickly.
We’ll start with the starters. LSU’s four most key players — juniors Javonte Smart and Darius Days, sophomore Trendon Watford and freshman Cam Thomas — could all decide to leave for the NBA. Or, more specifically, for professional basketball.
INDIANAPOLIS — LSU couldn’t have picked a more inopportune time to lose its shooting eye Monday night.
Let us take a moment to handicap the quartet:
• Smart: If he’s done at LSU, he finished bravely, pouring heart and soul into a 27-point effort in the Tigers’ 86-78 NCAA second-round loss to Michigan. Smart’s creativity around the basket could blossom even more with another year, but he seems ready for the next. Prediction: gone.
• Days: A spark-plug player with a great motor and quality inside-outside game. But at 6-foot-6, Days doesn’t have an NBA forward’s height and he can’t help you as a ball handler. If he goes, the G League or some foreign basketball league beckons. But maybe not yet. Prediction: return.
• Watford: There were times it seemed he was auditioning more for NBA scouts than anything else, eager to show off his ball handling and perimeter shooting skills. If Naz Reid didn’t get drafted I doubt Watford will either, but he has an enticing suite of talents. Prediction: gone.
• Thomas: His shot selection is questionable at times. So is his rank as a teammate after Smart in Monday’s postgame presser candidly described him as not the friendliest fellow. But the great players in every sport have a degree of “me first” in them. The next time you see Thomas it will be when his name is called in the first round of the NBA draft. Prediction: gone.
A bonus prediction is on Wade himself. If there is a silver lining to LSU’s being eliminated from the NCAA tournament, it is that no one will be subjected to the cacophony of national columnists and pundits clicking their tongues about Wade and his NCAA troubles.
It is true that Wade and LSU basketball have occupied an NCAA infractions purgatory for more than two years now. But no one, certainly not Dick Vitale, have been able to accurately predict when, where and if Wade might finally meet his judgment day. Critics have factually pointed to the tape of Wade discussing a “strong-ass offer” for Smart. But those critics also ignore the fact that Smart was reinstated after being held out of the 2019 regular-season finale against Vanderbilt in time for that year’s Southeastern Conference tournament. He has been allowed to play ever since.
Everyone, including Wade, I suspect, wants to know whether or not he will still be LSU’s coach for the 2021-22 season. At this point, given the continued glacial pace of the NCAA proceedings regarding LSU basketball, the best guess is yes. Whether he has to keep coaching and LSU has to keep playing under a cloud of suspicion is another matter. But the man and his program have managed to thrive under such conditions to this point.
Four years in under Wade, LSU has made three postseason appearances (two NCAA, one NIT). The Tigers would have been a lock for an NCAA bid in the Covid-canceled 2019-20 postseason. No one has won more SEC games than LSU the past three seasons, which includes the 2018-19 SEC regular-season title. The Tigers were a tip-in away from this year’s SEC tournament crown.
INDIANAPOLIS — When Will Wade puts a discerning eye on this unconventional season, he will have more than a few areas to look for answers.
Before Wade arrived, LSU fans pined for the Tigers to simply be competitive in basketball again. Be consistent. Be relevant. They are that. While there is likely much to replace next season — outside of LSU’s regular five starters the Tigers’ reserves accounted for just 15.8% of their scoring and 28.9% of their rebounding — Wade’s track record says don’t bet against an NCAA bid.
Can the program take the next step? The kind of step Alabama took this year? Former LSU football coach Gerry DiNardo got a lot of accolades in 1995 for ending LSU’s six-year losing skid with a 7-4-1 season that wrapped on a win over Nick Saban and Michigan State in the Independence Bowl.
But at the time DiNardo basically said having a winning season and getting to a bowl wasn’t the hard part. The hard part would be getting the added two or three wins a year to be a perennial power again.
That’s the challenge for LSU basketball in these uncertain times. It will be one of the most fascinating stories to watch play out, to see if they can win more titles and get back to the Final Four again in the next handful of seasons — and who will be leading them there if they do.