The bright, sparkling rings presented last week to returning members of the LSU basketball team that won the Southeastern Conference regular-season title last winter came with a cautionary tale.
For the players who received rings, and for several newcomers who aspire to get one of their own, coach Will Wade had an important message: “They don’t put championships rings on smooth fingers.”
In other words, he said, players must be willing to do all kinds of work over the course of a long season to be in that position.
“You have to get your hands in the mud, get gritty and grimy,” Wade said he told his team. “You have to be able to work a little bit.
"We worked really hard for that," he added. "There’s a lot of stuff you didn’t see that went into that. Don’t get mesmerized by the ring.”
With that still fresh in their minds, the chase for another ring begins for LSU when it hosts Bowling Green at 7 p.m. Friday in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
While the bid for back-to-back conference titles won't officially begin until the SEC opener Jan. 4 at Tennessee, a different team with a new-look offense will take the floor.
The team that won 28 games and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament despite the tragic loss of team member Wayde Sims in preseason and the 37-day suspension of Wade at the end of the season, is gone.
So getting eight returnees to blend in with six newcomers to a team ranked 22nd in The Associated Press preseason poll is the challenge for Wade and his coaching staff to start the season.
As can be expected with a detail-oriented coach like Wade, his sole focus in on what’s ahead.
“We don’t talk about last year. ... I’ll talk about certain games or certain situations, but that’s about it,” he said. “We have a new team, and the challenge is about moving this team forward and being great with this team.
“No one around here cares about last year. It’s time to move forward and win again.”
That hasn’t changed since Wade, who’s going into his third season, arrived at LSU in March 2017.
So, what is new?
For starters, there’s a new motion-oriented offense Wade decided to turn to after his first two LSU teams relied mainly on ball screens to break down defenses and get open looks at the basket.
There’s also a new point guard in sophomore Javonte Smart, who takes over for All-SEC performer Tremont Waters, two redshirts who sat out last season and four signees.
The newcomers are led by five-star power forward Trendon Watford, the leading rebounder in Alabama high school basketball history, and shooting guard Charles Manning, a third-team junior-college All-American.
They join a solid nucleus from last season that includes Smart; fellow guards Skylar Mays, Marlon Taylor and Marshall Graves; and forwards Emmitt Williams and Darius Days.
Still, the loss of Waters and 6-foot-10 forward Naz Reid to the NBA and 6-11 forward Kavell Bigby-Williams to graduation means this team will look a lot different.
At 6-4, Smart give the Tigers a taller point guard, but Wade won’t have as much height in the front court as he did a year ago. Watford and former junior-college players Courtese Cooper and Deshawn Thomas are the tallest players at 6-9.
“We’ll be different,” Wade said. “You certainly have to play to your strengths.”
While he won’t have as much length and the rim-protectors he had in Reid and Bigby-Williams, Wade said this year’s team looks more like the ones he had in his previous coaching stops at Chattanooga and VCU.
“Everybody's talking about the adjustment, but I’m actually much more used to coaching a team like we’ve got now,” he said. “Last year was much more of an adjustment for me. We never had two or three big kids.
"I’ve always had smaller and quicker teams, so this team is much more normal to what I feel very, very comfortable coaching."
That's not necessarily a bad thing, he said.
“We had to change two or three times (last year) how we played because I just screwed it up a couple of times," Wade said. "Then, we finally got into a groove and figured it out. I’m a little more used to playing with a roster that looks like this.”
Besides Watford, Wade’s other top forwards — Williams and Days — both stand 6-6.
So, with the prospects of having a smaller, quicker team on the floor most of the time, Wade decided he needed to be more up-tempo than even last season when LSU was second in the SEC in scoring at 80.4 points per game.
Despite the loss of his top two scorers in Waters and Reid, who combined for 28.9 points per game, and Bigby-Williams, who chipped in with 7.9, Wade believes the Tigers will be productive on the offensive end again.
Mays scored 13.4 points a game and Smart added 11.1, but Taylor, Williams and Days could contribute more as will Watford, who led the team on a four-game exhibition tour in Spain this summer at just under 18 points per game.
Manning and freshman combo guard James Bishop should also figure prominently on the offensive end.
“I think certainly we’ll be able to take advantage of our strengths,” Wade said. “I know the strengths and weakness when you have a roster like this ... we’ve just got to play to our strengths.
“The reality is we have a very good team and we’ve got very talented players, but we don’t quite have the margin for error as last year."
Wade went on to note that Reid and Bigby-Williams, who combined for 13.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks a game, used their height to erase mistakes that were made defensively.
“Just because we won’t have the same margin of error, it doesn’t mean we won’t have a very, very good year,” he said. “We 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 we did last year. We’re just going to have to be a lot simpler and a lot steadier.”
0 • Darius Days • F • 6-6 • 240 • So. • Raleigh, Fla.
Shot 48.5% from the field in averaging 5.3 ppg as a freshman.
1 • Javonte Smart • G • 6-4 • 205 • So. • Baton Rouge
Takes over at point guard after averaging 11.1 points, 2.4 assists.
2 • Trendon Watford • F • 6-9 • 235 • Fr. • Birmingham, Ala.
Five-star set Alabama high school record with 1,909 rebounds.
3 • Parker Edwards • G • 6-3 • 190 • So. • Mandeville
Southeastern transfer averaged 23.6 ppg as a senior at St. Paul’s.
4 • Skylar Mays •G • 6-4 • 205 • Sr. • Baton Rouge
Averaged career-high 13.4 ppg with 2.1 assists per game in ’19.
5 • Emmitt Williams • F • 6-6 • 230 • So. • Fort Myers, Fla.
Shot 61.4% in netting 7.0 points a game; also averaged 5.4 rpg.
10 • James Bishop • G • 6-2 • 190 • Fr. • Baltimore, Md.
Combo guard had 25-plus points 15 times as a senior in 2019.
11 • Charles Manning • G • 6-5 • 200 • Jr. • Riverhead, N.Y.
Third-team NJCAA All-American averaged 16.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg.
12 • Marshall Graves • G • 6-4 • 195 • Sr. • Ponchatoula
Former walk-on came off bench to average 2.5 ppg as a junior.
14 • Marlon Taylor • G • 6-5 • 210 • Sr. • Mount Vernon, N.Y.
Wowed fans with high-flying dunks and averaged 6.7 ppg in 2019.
15 • Aundre Hyatt • G • 6-5 • 225 • Fr. • Bronx, N.Y.
Late signee last August impressed with shooting during redshirt year.
20 • Caleb Starks • G • 6-3 • 205 • Jr. • Lafayette
Averaged 13.1 points for LSU-Eunice in school’s inaugural season.
21 • Courtese Cooper • F • 6-9 • 220 • So. • Elgin, Ill.
Former junior-college standout could help fill height void down low.
24 • Deshawn Thomas • C • 6-9 • 250 • Jr. • Dentsville, S.C.
Shot 65.2% in two junior-college seasons, including 66.2% last year.