The wish for LSU this season will be for more stability, even if it means fewer wins and cutting down fewer nets.
The 2018-19 Tigers went 28–7 (tying for the second-most wins in school history), won the program’s first SEC regular-season title in a decade and reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since making the 2006 Final Four.
But the entire season was played under a cloud, from the tragic shooting death in September of forward Wayde Sims to allegations of recruiting improprieties against coach Will Wade that led to his being suspended for all of LSU’s postseason play.
Wade is back for his third season at LSU after going a combined 43–20 (not counting the Tigers’ 3–2 record when Tony Benford was interim coach), the fastest start for any LSU coach ever. Now the goal is to stay as LSU’s coach despite the lingering concern that more allegations could be on the way.
On the other hand, LSU’s cloud definitely has a silver lining. While the Tigers lost three starters, including forward Naz Reid and point guard Tremont Waters (who both left early for the NBA), LSU does return five of its top eight, led by guards Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Will Wade
2018-19 RECORD (SEC): 28-7 (16-2)
2018-19 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Michigan State 80-63 in the Sweet 16
F Kavell Bigby-Williams (7.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg)
G Daryl Edwards (4.4 ppg, 1.2 apg)
F Naz Reid (13.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg)
G Tremont Waters (15.3 ppg, 5.8 apg)
Reid averaged 13.6 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds in his one season at LSU. His departure to the NBA — he signed a free agent contract with Minnesota after going undrafted — no doubt dealt the Tigers a big blow. But Wade isn’t too concerned, thanks to the arrival of five-star freshman Trendon Watford, a spring signee.
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“He’s just phenomenal,” Wade said of Watford in the midst of summer workouts. “An extremely hard worker. He makes the right play every time. I try to judge it not whether the play is completed or finished, but does he make the right read and the right play.”
Given that Watford looks like a virtual cut-and-paste replacement for Reid, the Tigers’ biggest concern in the frontcourt could be the lack of a rim protector now that 6'11" Kavell Bigby-Williams is gone after his one season at LSU. Athletic sophomores Darius Days and Emmitt Williams are candidates to replace Bigby-Williams, but both are only 6'6" and will not provide much shot blocking.
Smart started only 18 games as a freshman, but the Baton Rouge native was one of the team’s most important players. The 6'4" point guard averaged 20 points in his last four SEC regular-season games — he was held out of the finale while LSU sorted through his eligibility issues — and is back for his sophomore season after he flirted with a move to the NBA. With Waters gone, Smart will take over as the Tigers’ primary ball handler.
Mays, who also tested his pro stock, returns for his senior season. He’s the emotional leader of the Tigers and averaged 13.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per contest. Marlon Taylor, a 6'5" swingman who started 24 games last season, is back after also considering a move to the NBA. Charles Manning Jr., a junior college transfer, is a big guard who can score.
LSU’s departed players will be difficult to replace, making another 28-win season and SEC regular-season title appear to be unreachable goals. That said, there’s still plenty of talent, especially if Watford can adequately fill Reid’s shoes and the Tigers can successfully make the transition to a more perimeter-oriented team. Yes, there are still concerns that more allegations could surface against Wade, to whom new athletic director Scott Woodward has given solid but qualified support. And a new contract Wade signed in the offseason gives the school more latitude to fire him for cause if necessary. But barring that, a repeat 20-win season and a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, something LSU hasn’t done since 2006, should be the expectation.
Postseason Prediction: Round of 32
SEC Prediction: 3rd