LSU has established itself as a perennial SEC contender under Will Wade despite the specter of its ongoing NCAA entanglements, but that status appeared to be threatened this offseason by the sight of the Tigers' core four players trooping out the door early for pro basketball.
That was until one of those core four players, forward Darius Days, decided to return for his senior season.
And Wade restocked the roster with a talented blend of freshmen and transfers that even fills one of the Tigers' voids from last season's team that went 19-10 and 11-6 in SEC play: an imposing center presence.
So despite the loss of guards Cameron Thomas and Javonte Smart and forward Trendon Watford, the goal for LSU remains as it has been the past three seasons: to contend for the SEC regular-season and tournament titles (the Tigers finished third in the regular season and runner-up in the tournament, losing 80-79 to Alabama in the finals) and make a run in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers are the only team to finish in the top four in the SEC in each of the last three seasons.
"We have the pieces to be a contender and continue to be in that top four," Wade says. "That's what we set out to do from the time we set foot on campus. I think we've assembled another roster that can do that."
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Will Wade
2020-21 RECORD (SEC): 19-10 (11-6)
2020-21 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Michigan 86-78 in the second round
G Javonte Smart (16.0 ppg, 4.0 apg)
G Cameron Thomas (23.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg)
F Trendon Watford (16.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg)
The 6'7" Days entered his name in the NBA Draft but decided in June to put it back on the LSU roster. The Tigers' top returning scorer and rebounder with 11.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, Days gives LSU both veteran leadership and a potent inside-outside threat with a 40.0 shooting percentage beyond the arc.
Days will likely be joined by two newcomers in the starting lineup: 6'11" freshman center Efton Reid and 6'5" forward Alex Fudge, a freshman who enrolled in January and practiced with the team but was ineligible to play. Reid is LSU's first true center since Kavell Bigby-Williams in 2018-19, though Wade says they're not the same player.
"He doesn't quite have the same defensive prowess as Kavell, but he can make 3s," Wade says. "He has a great touch. He's a little more like Naz (Reid) than Kavell."
Mwani Wilkinson (6'5") and Tari Eason (6'8"), a transfer from Cincinnati, will also be in the mix. Wilkinson averaged 3.6 points and 2.7 rebounds last season, while Eason made the AAC All-Freshman team with 7.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.
Shareef O'Neal, son of LSU great Shaquille O'Neal, remains a wild card going into his second season at LSU after having the 2020-21 campaign cut short by a foot injury, although Wade says he is encouraged by the 6'10" forward's offseason progress.
Smart's steady leadership and Thomas' SEC-leading scoring (23.0 points per game) will be huge though not impossible voids for the Tigers to fill.
They will likely pin their hopes on two newcomers: Xavier Pinson, a 6'2" transfer from Missouri, and Adam Miller, a 6'3" transfer from Illinois. Both were starters last season, averaging 13.6 points and 8.3 points per game, respectively. They will be joined by returning LSU guard Eric Gaines, a 6'2" down-the-line reserve who averaged 2.5 points per game last season.
"Pinson, Gaines, Miller, all three can play point guard," Wade says. "Miller is more of a combo guard who can play off the ball, while Gaines is more on ball. Murray can play the 2 or the 3."
Replacing three core players is a heavy lift, but Days returning is an enormous plus. Meanwhile, the Tigers have checked just about every box and then some with the wave of talented new players Wade landed.
Chemistry is key and something last year's team often lacked. But if the Tigers can find that indefinable something, there is no reason LSU can't contend for the SEC title and make plans for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament once again.
Postseason Prediction: NCAA Tournament Round of 64
SEC Prediction: 7