If LSU wins in men’s basketball one day under Will Wade as expected, one can only hope the Tigers’ coach will be as plainspoken and open about his feelings as he is now.
There are no unrealistic expectations on Wade and LSU in Year One, other than the notion that the Tigers could be a darkhorse NCAA tournament team. At 14-10 and with the No. 79 RPI after Saturday’s 82-66 victory over Ole Miss, that isn’t going to happen.
Wade has a half-baked roster in terms of the players he wants and the players he inherited. He’s got the mother of all passes this year, a giant Monopoly get-out-of-jail-free card that could cover a wall of his office and doesn’t expire until at least November, when the players from LSU’s No. 3-ranked recruiting class take the floor.
But that doesn’t mean LSU’s young coach takes any comfort trafficking in moral victories, or even actual victories poorly played. The talent might be lacking, but the standards are not. And some of the elements he saw in Saturday’s win over the moribund Rebels, now 0-8 in true road games, didn’t exactly light his fire.
“It’s a good win,” said Wade as he opened his postgame news conference, sounding for all the world like a guy who knows what he’s supposed to say after a 16-point Southeastern Conference win but doesn’t really mean it. In large part, Wade was cross with his team blowing a 14-point first-half lead, with Ole Miss going up three in the final minute before the Tigers and Rebels settled on a 37-37 halftime tie.
“It’s hard to build a lead like that in the first half, so give our guys credit for that,” Wade said after LSU improved to 5-7 in SEC play. “We didn’t close the first half very well. Poor, poor job on the backboards as usual. We did win an SEC game by 16 points, so I guess that’s a good day.”
LSU regained its composure in the second half and resumed pounding the Rebels, leading by 20 with just over seven minutes left. But there were other issues, like turning a rebound into a turnover on a botched outlet pass, a recurring nightmare in the Will Wade gallery of gripes.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Wade said. “We can’t even outlet the ball.
“It’s embarrassing as the coach that one time a game we screw up the outlet pass.”
Another recurring theme: rebounding. LSU got beat on the boards 40-36 by Ole Miss. It’s the 11th time (ninth in SEC play) the Tigers have been outrebounded.
“We’re trying to correct it, but by this point you pretty much are who you are.” Wade said. “We’re not going to turn into some great rebounding team.
“What did we get beat tonight, four? If we can keep it minimal, you give yourselves a chance. We’re not going to become these rah-rah tough guys who can sky up there.”
Certainly all wasn't displeasing to Wade’s eye. LSU, which has been first or second in the SEC in field-goal percentage much of this season (currently second), shot a cool 50 percent from the field against the Rebels. It’s the ninth time the Tigers have shot 50 percent or better this season, thanks in large part to another large game from 6-foot-11 senior forward Duop Reath (26 points on 10-of-12 shooting).
“When we shoot it well, we’ve got a chance to win,” Wade said. “We’d like to shoot over 50 percent in the next six games. It would increase our odds of winning if we can do that.”
Six regular-season games left: three on the road, starting Tuesday at Alabama (8 p.m., SEC Network) followed by Georgia and South Carolina, and three at home against Missouri, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
It’s a tough stretch for LSU, which probably needs a split of those games, then a win in the SEC tournament to be in the conversation for an NIT berth. LSU is only a game out of a tie for sixth place, a final standing you figure the Tigers could reach if they finish 8-10 in the SEC.
You can’t figure on LSU getting there if Wade starts going soft on his team, not keeping expectations high, not demanding what maybe is realistically beyond their ability to give.
There doesn’t seem to be much chance of that.