When Bruce Pearl was out of coaching and working as a college basketball analyst for ESPN, he went to observe one of Will Wade’s practices at Chattanooga.
“What are you doing here?” Wade asked. He was in his first head coaching job at a small program, and Pearl had been the coach at mighty Tennessee.
“I told him I was trying to get better,” Pearl said. “I was witnessing a really good young coach.”
For the second year in a row, the LSU men’s basketball team was hit by an early barrage of 3-point baskets in its game with Auburn.
Pearl may come off as a Tasmanian Devil in a tailored suit, a 78 rpm man in a 33⅓ rpm world. But his frenetic style gets imprinted on his teams, which play at a breakneck pace that looks like someone pressed the fast-forward button on the DVR.
The Pearl style looks out of control but is really more calculated. He knows how to coach, and he knows coaching, figuring he can get your team out of its comfort zone by making it go too quickly.
Pearl also knows when he has met his match in terms of wits. He knew it Saturday, when his Auburn Tigers rained a flurry of 3-pointers on Will Wade’s LSU team to take a 16-point first-half lead.
By halftime, that Auburn lead was down to three. In the second half, LSU started to choke off the Auburn perimeter game and countered with Wade’s own calculation that his Tigers’ size and strength inside would be the antidote to the unchecked virus of Auburn’s attack.
In the end, Auburn got its 16 3-pointers, a season high for any LSU opponent. But LSU outscored Auburn 38-18 in the paint, outrebounded Auburn 47-35 (with 22 offensive rebounds, no less) and held an astonishing 29-1 edge in second-chance points.
“You had to be entertained, I would think,” Pearl said, a measure of knowing dejection in his voice.
Indeed it was entertaining, with two brave teams never flinching. Not LSU when it got down 16 in the first half. Not Auburn when it trailed 77-67 with 2:40 to go.
“It was a game of could they make more 3s, or could we get more rebounds and points in the paint,” Wade said.
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Put all together, it was just enough for an 83-78 LSU victory, the final two points coming on two nearly meaningless Tremont Waters free throws with 0.5 seconds remaining. But good enough it was to pull LSU through the knothole of pressure-packed performance, to borrow a D-D Breaux phrase, and emerge on the other side 19-4 overall and 9-1 in conference play.
“He puts his guys in the right spots with their spacing,” Pearl said. “He has a great offensive mind. I think LSU’s staff and my staff are two of the best in the league.”
Saturday’s game was just the latest breathless chapter in a midseason LSU stretch filled with them. In their past five games the Tigers have:
• Rallied from 14 down in the final 2:14 of regulation to force overtime and win at Missouri 86-80.
• Broken out of a one-point halftime game at Texas A&M to win 72-57.
• Rallied from 18 down with 13:45 left to take the lead but lose 90-89 to Arkansas.
• Weathered a 17-0 first-half run by Mississippi State on the road to force overtime and win 92-88.
• What they did Saturday.
You could call LSU lucky. But it one of sports’ truisms that good teams and good athletes make their own luck. And if you leave them an opening, they will make you pay.
“I like that our team hangs in there,” Wade said. “Sometimes we’re hanging by a fingernail. (But) we hang in there, hang in there, hang in there.”
Wade’s second team already has one more win than it did in year one when the Tigers went 18-15 and reached the NIT quarterfinals. And they are in the thick of a lot of good stuff heading into a huge game Tuesday at Kentucky, tied for second in the SEC with LSU a game behind Tennessee.
It will be a tough for LSU to win at UK, the final act of a three-game stretch that it long appeared would define the Tigers’ season. LSU already has won two of those three games, which will for the Tigers hopefully transfer into a loose and confident attitude going into scary Rupp Arena.
Whether LSU springs the upset at UK or not, it appears these Tigers have staying power. They have all the pieces you want with size inside with Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams and a backcourt that had two point guards handling the Auburn press late with Tremont Waters and Javonte Smart.
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The NCAA selection committee Saturday morning revealed its top 16 tournament seeds as things stood going into this weekend’s play. LSU was not among those teams, but committee chairman Bernard Muir did mention the Tigers as one of the teams in the conversation for one of those lofty regional seeds.
“It’s fun,” Wade said. “Everyone likes to have a dog in the hunt. We have a dog in the hunt. That’s what you want.”
Now the question is rapidly becoming how much more can LSU get.