Soon after the abrupt end to his third season as LSU’s basketball coach in March, Will Wade came to the realization that his team’s defense wasn’t the only thing that needed fixing.
Even though the Tigers went 21-10 and tied for second in the Southeastern Conference race, which had them well-positioned to earn a second consecutive NCAA tournament bid, Wade knew something was off.
Actually, he knew earlier, but reality came calling when he met with the three veteran players who will serve as the core of this year’s squad — Trendon Watford, Javonte Smart and Darius Days.
All three applied for the NBA draft last spring, but each withdrew their name and returned to school armed, Wade said, with important feedback from front office execs and scouts they had spoken with.
By then, there was no question what had to be done.
“I didn’t do a very good job last year with our group,” Wade said in a Zoom call last week. “I did a poor job. I know that sounds crazy because we came in second place and what-not, but I didn’t do a good job.
“Sometimes, when you go through that draft process, the head coach learns some stuff, too. He learns what the perception of the program is; he gets feedback from the players.”
Out of the meetings with Watford, Smart and Days — and a lengthy exit interview with All-SEC guard Skylar Mays, a second-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks last week, came a leadership council that Wade believes will help the program operate more smoothly.
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“I talked to every player in our program and I had to come to grips with some things I wasn’t doing very well,” Wade readily admitted. “We’d gotten off track. Our first two years, we were on track. But we totally slid off track.”
The preseason results have certainly been positive, he said, with Watford, Smart and Days in new leadership roles that have each of them holding four teammates accountable for their actions off the court.
Their leadership gives Wade confidence that it will continue when LSU, which is picked to finish third in the SEC race, opens the season with a Thanksgiving Day matchup against Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville in the Billiken Classic in St. Louis.
The Tigers are also scheduled to take on host Saint Louis on Saturday.
Wade said he saw the beginnings of some problems during a Spain tour before last season, taking the blame for letting things slide until the 18th-ranked Tigers, who were 17-4 and sitting atop the SEC with an 8-0 mark on Feb. 3, lost six of their final 10 games.
“It’s my fault … I screwed it up,” he said. “I let some things slip, I let some things slide. I rationalized a few things that I shouldn’t have done. We call it like it was, at the end of the season we were leaking oil and just trying to get to the finish line.”
That, along with the feedback he got from the players who had eyes on the NBA, led him to form the leadership council.
The bottom line, Wade said, is he gave more control off the court to the players while he took “firm control” on the court with the structure of the program.
While declining to identify exactly where he personally went wrong, Wade noted he failed the players — particularly Watford, a five-star prospect who Wade said should have been a one-and-done college player.
The LSU basketball team won’t be opening its season in Nebraska after all.
He credited Mays and his top three returnees with helping him see where it went awry.
“It’s because of those guys, their honesty and their forthrightnees, that we were able to get back on track,” Wade said. “Some of the stuff I did contributed to (Watford) being back, and that isn’t a very good thing to have on your heart as a coach.
“That’s why I’m so confident with this year’s team. We’ve got a great team, we’ve got great talent a lot of the time. We had great talent last year, but we didn’t have all of the other stuff.”
With his leadership council in place, combined with a switch to a 2-3 matchup zone defense, Wade is expecting big things for his team.
He likes that Watford, Smart and Days have logged significant minutes in combining for 111 starts in 162 career games.
Wade also returns seniors Charles Manning and Aundre Hyatt to go with the nation’s No. 6 recruiting class topped by five-star prospect Cam Thomas and four-stars Mwani Wilkerson and Eric Gaines. Transfers Bryan Penn-Johnson, Josh LeBlanc and Shareef O’Neal are other important pieces to the puzzle.
Wade is hoping the philosophical change in defense on the court and leadership on and off the floor will pay off with a deep NCAA run after last season’s tournament was canceled.
“I like our versatility, I like the way we shoot the ball,” he said. “We shoot the ball extremely well, we share the ball on offense. Our turnovers are way down in practice, I'm hopeful about that.
“Our defense is improving, so we add all that together and we have a good-looking squad. We’ve got 10 guys that we can put in the game and I feel very good about them. So I feel very, very good about the team, and I think the biggest difference is our leadership.”