LSU St. Bonaventure Basketball

LSU forward Darius Days (4) chases after a loose ball with St. Bonaventure guard Dominick Welch (1) during the first half of a first round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 20, 2021, at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

The clocks have switched back, the weather is cooling down, and it is officially college basketball season at LSU.

LSU men’s basketball enters the season with plenty of excitement after coming up just two points short of its first SEC Tournament Championship in 40 years. The Tigers enter the 2021-2022 with a rebuilt roster, but still plenty of talent. Bringing in the second-best recruiting class in the SEC alongside multiple big name transfers, Head Coach Will Wade has done a great job of rebuilding a roster that lost a lot after last season. 

After being a team that consistently scored in the 80's and played with a sense of flair and flash the last few years, this team will be much grittier, one that prides itself on defense and hustle. Despite the change in style, this doesn’t necessarily mean that this team will be any less successful — Some argue that this team can go even further than teams of the last few years.

LSU was picked to finish sixth in the SEC preseason poll, but there is plenty of belief that the ceiling is much higher than that. It is never easy to make long-term season predictions in November, but this team is fixated on its goals of winning the SEC and making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. While these things are never easy to do, with the pieces that are in place, this team is talented enough to reach those heights.

The Freshmen Class

The freshman class is headlined by five-star center Efton Reid out of the renowned IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Reid is a 6-foot, 11-inch center who is talented on the offensive end of the floor. He’s capable of scoring at every level and is skilled at creating offense for himself and his teammates.

“He plays kind of a European style,” Will Wade said of Reid’s game on offense. “He’s a player that relies on skill rather than athleticism.”

Alongside Reid, his high school teammate Brandon Murray is another freshman who is expected to make an immediate impact. Murray was the No. 85 ranked prospect in the country in the Class of 2021, and at 6-feet, 5-inches, 210 lbs, he is versatile. His size allows him to play inside out, but according to Wade, his best attribute is his work ethic. 

“Our fans are going to love him, he is a pitbull,” Wade said. “Everything he does, he does it extremely hard, he does it the right way, he is absolutely tenacious.”

Murray’s role will be especially important now that highly-touted transfer guard Adam Miller is out for the season with a leg injury. Miller suffered the injury in practice just weeks before the start of the season, and it was quickly confirmed that he would miss the entirety of the 2021-2022 season.

Miller came to LSU as a sophomore after playing one year at Illinois. During his freshman season he averaged 8.3 points per game and led all Big 10 freshmen in three-pointers made. Alongside Murray, sophomore Eric Gaines will be a key player asked to step up with Miller out. Despite not getting a lot of playing time during his freshman season, Ganies showed flashes of potential, wowing fans with his quickness and athleticism. He is expected to play a much bigger role this season and will likely get minutes at point guard as well.

“He’s going to play a huge role this season, even if we had Adam,” Wade said about Gaines. “He’s an unbelievable talent, he has elite speed, there aren’t ten players in college basketball quicker than him. He gets the ball from the other end of the court to the scoring area in about two and a half seconds, it’s really a sight to behold."

Gaines showed some of that talent and improvement in LSU’s exhibition against Nicholls State where he had 15 points and nine assists in 38 minutes. The biggest challenge for Gaines this season will be cutting down on the turnovers. He had eight turnovers in the game against Nicholls State, and Wade emphasized that this is an area where Gaines must improve.

“He’s going to make some unbelievable plays, but he’s going to turn the ball over some, he’s a high-risk, high-reward player,” Wade said. “We’ve got to try to cut that down a little bit. I’m all about seven assists, two turnovers rather than seven assists, four turnovers.”

The Transfer Class

Apart from just the talented freshman class coming in, LSU signed an talented group of transfers who will make an immediate impact. As mentioned earlier, Illinois transfer Adam Miller will miss the season with a leg injury, but Xavier Pinson and Tari Eason are both players who will make an immediate impact.

Pinson joins the Tigers from Missouri, where he played three successful seasons, headlined by an impressive junior season where he averaged 13.6 points per game. He will take over the role of starting point guard for LSU, and Wade has been very high on him since coming to LSU. 

“Xavier Pinson is better than I thought, he’s been a huge surprise,” Wade said at his first press conference of the season. “I knew he was a good basketball player, but just the way he’s able to play point guard and pass and see the floor, he’s as good as I’ve seen at getting down the seams and creating rotations and drives. He’s going to be a really good player for us.”

Pinson will fill in the role that Javonte Smart held for the last three years, but is expected to  play as more of a playmaking, pass-first guard. Though Pinson is more than capable as a scorer, his skillset as a playmaker will play a huge part in LSU shifting away from the isolation-based team that was seen last season.

LSU senior Forward Darius Days echoed this point and spoke highly of Pinson having played against him the last three years.

“With Xavier, he leads the team, he puts everyone in the right positions, he takes care of the ball and he’s not afraid to say anything to me. He holds me accountable,” Days said. “He’s a great player, and he’s going to bring some things we haven’t seen at LSU in the past few years.”

The other transfer expected to make a big impact this season is Tari Eason out of Cincinnati. Eason is a sophomore forward who earned Freshman All-AAC honors while at Cincinnati. He had a very impressive performance in the exhibition against Nicholls State, leading all scorers with 22 points while adding 15 rebounds to complete a double-double. Eason brings extra athleticism and grit to the Tigers’ roster that was badly needed after how much LSU struggled on the glass last season. Wade described him as a “rugged” player, which is exactly the kind of big LSU needed after last season. 

The Returners

Eason joins a talented frontcourt led by senior leader Days. Days enters his fourth year with the Tigers as a member of the All-SEC First Team, and will be the leader of this team.

It was no secret how important Days was to LSU’s success last season, and this year it will be no different. Days, Eason and Reid will all play major roles in the Tigers’ frontcourt, but Jerell Colbert and Shareef O’Neal will also play a role in providing depth to the frontcourt. Colbert is a freshman out of Memphis who at 6-feet, 10-inches has a long and wiry frame that allows him to provide extra help on defense and on the glass.

O’Neal, when healthy, is an athletic and talented big, but has struggled with injuries throughout his college career. Arguably LSU’s best rebounder when healthy, it will be interesting to see when O’Neal will be at full speed and how much of an impact he can make once he gets there.

Another player who doesn’t quite fit under the label of a guard or a forward is sophomore Mwani Wilkinson. Wilkinson started for much of the first half of last season, but did not see as much playing time down the stretch. He showed flashes of what kind of impact he can make last season, but Wade has been adamant that he is LSU’s most improved player coming into this year. His jump shot and overall scoring ability has improved, making him much more versatile on both ends. Wade’s biggest compliment of him, however, has been how hard he plays. That was on display in the exhibition.

“Wilkinson played as hard as I’ve seen a player play here in a long time,” Wade said. “He was all over the place and played extremely hard.”

Backing him up on the wing will likely be first-year player Alex Fudge who sat out last year as an early enrollee. Fudge is best known for his athleticism, drawing comparisons to former LSU player Marlon Taylor. Wade gave high praise to Fudge’s athleticism, emphasizing just how unique of a player he is.

“There’s one or two plays a game that he makes that only he can make,” Wade said of Fudge.

With all of these new pieces, Wade has put an emphasis on molding the style of play to the personnel. It’s been made no secret by both Wade and the players that this year’s team will be different, especially on the defensive end of the floor. Defense was LSU’s biggest struggle last season, and improving in that area has been the biggest point of emphasis during the offseason. The new personnel has played a big part in that shift, but it also just comes down to the new approach that Wade has taken with this year’s group: defense and toughness. 

Days summed up the philosophy candidly at the team’s media day.

"If you don’t play D," he said, "you’re not going to play."

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