Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Where there is a Will, is there a national championship?

     I have said this often, and written it a time or two: I want to see LSU win the national championship in men's basketball.
From LSU basketball's Twitter account.
      So there is your assignment, Will Wade, introduced today as the latest new LSU men's basketball head coach.
      Good luck to you.
      It is one of the few dreams I have not seen come true in a lifetime of rooting for my favorite teams, schools and countries.
      I am not the college basketball fan I once was (gee, I said that about the NBA a couple of weeks ago), and to be honest, I only really follow LSU and Louisiana Tech men's basketball. (In the rare instances when LSU and Tech teams play, in any sport, I root for ... the winner. So there.)
      The NCAA Tournament, and the Selection Sunday show, are only must-see for me if the Tigers and/or Bulldogs have a chance to be part of it. 
      Tech has not been in the NCAAs in 26 years and its only chance, most always, is to win its conference tournament because it is -- almost without exception -- in a one-bid league. Three consecutive conference regular-season titles and consistent high finishes have given us hope the last five years, but it hasn't happened.
      LSU was no factor the past two years, but someday -- soon, we hope -- it will be again, and the thought should be the first thought in this blog.
      Go ahead and laugh and say that's preposterous. It is not a joke to me.
      LSU's basketball history and tradition -- which some perceive as not very good, but they are wrong -- tells you this is not an impossible mission.
      Difficult, yes, but four Final Fours, 10 SEC regular-season championships, 21 NCAA Tournament appearances, 24 NCAA victories (and 24 losses), and a string of great players -- some of them among the greatest in the sport's history -- are proof this can be a big-time program. 
      I won't make you read through the list of great players. Just believe me. But most people know.
      I don't want to hear, as I am told by some of my friends, that basketball isn't important enough at LSU, that it is an exercise (often in futility) between football and baseball seasons.
      I don't agree. I don't agree at all. I never will.
      I wrote much about Dale Brown, Shaq, LSU's program and basketball history almost two years ago, if you care to go back and check on the consistency of my feelings: 
      True, LSU has never hired the proven big-time winning head coach at the top levels, or broken the budget to pay the coach as much as some other universities do.
      But Dale, in 25 years, proved you can take a middling, or mediocre, program and make it a consistent winner (NCAA Tournament 13 times in a 15-year period, including 10 in a row). John Brady, in 11 years, had two SEC champions -- one that made the NCAA Sweet Sixteen and  one exciting Final Four team. Trent Johnson's first LSU team, with mostly Brady-recruited talented, was an SEC champion.
      Six times LSU has been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by the eventual national champion.
      So it can be done. Winning fairly big consistently, though, year after year, only has happened in the middle portion of Brown's long, often wacky, tenure.
      Enter Will Wade.
      I really like the selection. He is -- to borrow from Hamilton -- "young, scrappy and hungry."  
      I like his youth (34, one of the youngest major-sport coaches LSU ever has hired) -- Dale was 37 in 1972 -- and his reputation as a tireless promoter of the game (like Dale was), and his short record of success as a head coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga and Virginia Commonwealth (two years each).
      He was a Virginia Commonwealth assistant to Shaka Smart when their 2011 team pulled a huge surprise, after a good-but-not-great regular season, to surge into the NCAA Final Four.
      At VCU, they became known for their "havoc" defense, the fullcourt, scrambling pressure that dictates to opponents.
      So he comes in as a defensive-minded coach. Good, because -- in my opinion, my observations -- that is what was lacking so often in Johnny Jones' five years as head coach.
      Wade's team beat LSU this season. But then, obviously, that was no great feat, considering the Tigers' 10-21 record.
      Some thoughts about Jones' tenure:
      (1) When he was hired, after 11 seasons as head coach at University of North Texas, I thought he was the right guy for the LSU job because of his long ties as player and assistant coach;
      (2) Few accused him of being a great coach, so as I watched his teams -- and talked with some friends -- I thought the Tigers lacked discipline on offense (especially in shot selection) and especially on defense. Patient teams could break down the LSU defenses inside, and the few games I watched, I thought the Tigers were often just outhustled. 
      At times, I did see great effort. Too often I didn't. And then it got to where I couldn't watch.
      (3) Johnny Jones, we were told, was a gentleman, a relatively calm sideline presence and good ambassador for LSU. (Same with Trent Johnson, we heard. Brady, again by hearsay, had an often profane sideline manner, to the dismay and concern of nearby spectators.)
      With two good inside players, NBA draft choices Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, Jones' third LSU team went 22-11 and made the NCAA Tournament. But -- an indication of how it went -- it lost a game it controlled most of the way and should have won, fading late and losing by a point to North Carolina State.
      One-and-done: Jones' NCAA record at LSU.
      And then there were such great hopes last season because the world's No. 1 recruit, wonderfully talented 6-foot-10 Ben Simmons (from Australia), chose to play at LSU.
      He proved he could play point guard because he is a great ballhandler -- maybe too great; he tended to try to do too much -- and a slashing forward with a strong inside game, but not a consistent mid- or long-range shooter, and because he was a freshman still learning, not able to carry his team to great heights.
      Early last season, after watching LSU a few times, I wrote an e-mail and Facebook post (not a blog post) criticizing LSU's defensive efforts and shot selection, and warning that if there wasn't improvement, the Tigers would not live up to expectations.
      Dale Brown -- defensive for the kid he recruited and coached out of DeRidder, La., the young man he then made a longtime top assistant, and the older coach he so eagerly lobbied for to return as head coach -- sent me an e-mail saying it was easy to be critical and that he was confident Johnny would bring his team around.
       I have not written another word publicly about LSU basketball since then ... until now.
      Simmons -- my opinion -- "used" LSU, knowing he would be a "one-and-done" player en route to the pros and just waiting his time for the NBA Draft (and he was the No. 1 pick). I don't know how badly he cared about LSU.
       The season was a disappointment, the final loss to Texas A&M by 33 points an embarrassment.
       In Jones' defense, the top true guard off that team was injured and then this season he had to boot one of his top players from the squad. But it was obvious, too, that this team lacked enough talent, discipline and -- maybe -- grit to compete.
       When you lose by at least 15 points 10 times, and by 30-plus four times, when you lose 17 of the final 18 games and go 2-16 in the SEC, longtime LSU ties aren't enough.
       Will Wade will have to see if his defensive style will work with the returning players and will have to recruit the talent to fit that style or whatever he needs to compete in the SEC and nationally.
        I have always considered Louisiana a talent-rich basketball state. Think about the talent that's come out of there. The best LSU teams, too, have had their share of players from Baton Rouge, New Orleans and all over the state. Dale Brown had great players from points east and west, north and south, but he did strong work in-state, too.
        Maybe Jones and his staff didn't dig deep enough. One example: Robert Williams was a 6-9 forward at North Caddo High School, just above Shreveport, a year ago, a strong prospect.
        He wound up going to Texas A&M, where he was one of its top players this season and a projected NBA lottery pick. (He just announced that he will return to college ball another year.) It is hard to imagine that he would not have been interested in playing for LSU. But the word was that the LSU staff did not put a fullcourt press on him; that they had questions about his style of play.
        If LSU had been more dogged and signed him, perhaps Johnny Jones might still be the coach. Moot point.
        It's up to Will Wade now. He loves fullcourt presses. He can take the beloved gold ties he always wear wherever needed.
        We'll see where this takes us -- hopefully to the NCAA championship. Dream on.     


  1. From Stan Tiner: Great column on LSU basketball. As usual I agree with most of what you say. One point of departure on this one involves your thoughts re the non-recruitment of Robert Williams. As proven by Ben Simmons, CJJ (Coach Johnny Jones) is unable to coach elite talent, nor to employ in-game adjustments or strategies that are successful. I loved the guy as a player and pulled for him and the Tigers through his coaching career. Alas, his years at the helm, coupled with the Trent Johnson era, have been a time of decline, and on too many occasions, embarrassment.

  2. From Tommy Henry: I just have to believe that if LSU is ever going to be "big time" in men's basketball again like it was in the days of Dale Brown, it has to starting playing a big-time schedule.
    It needs to stop stuffing its schedule with a bundle of "sure wins" and play some big-time schools like Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina, UCLA, etc. I realize your entire nonconference schedule cannot be against all Top 25 teams -- but you have to play some of the "big boys" each year, win or lose. I believe that over the long haul, this is the only way you're ever going to attract and land big-time recruits.
    The LSU women's team does this and is almost always in the NCAA Tournament.
    Dale Brown would have his team play against the best. He would have even scheduled the Boston Celtics or you name it (or the UConn women today!).
    The last three LSU men's coaches padded their teams' schedules with weak teams and look where that got LSU and them.
    Hopefully, the new hire can put the Tigers in the big time; he's certainly going to get his chance.

  3. From Jimmy Russell: Think under the circumstances, this is a good choice. Young coach with a track record in a short time. He has his work cut out for him but then again all new coaches have the same mission. I hope part of his mission is to beat Kentucky on a consistent basis after getting his program established. Still a number of jobs open and looks like a good choice.

  4. From Warren Massia: Great blog on LSU basketball program. Like you I just couldn't bring myself to watch their games.
    One of LSU's recruits for next year is Brandon Rachal from Natchitoches Central. He is without a doubt one of the top defenders in the state as coach Micah Coleman always assigned the other teams' top offensive player to him. He is exciting to watch. He can score if needed, but defense is what he is best at. Gonna have to watch those Tigers next year.

  5. From Brian McNicoll: Good piece. And I agree -- the goal should be national championships.

  6. Dr. Leonard Ponder: I did read your piece about the new LSU basketball coach. It looks like they have a good one. You can ignore people when they criticize LSU for not hiring big-name successful basketball coaches. Those guys hardly ever move unless they are fired or retire. They aren't fired because they are successful. So the only place to go is to the middle-tier schools who have winning coaches.
    Billy Kennedy (at Texas A&M) started recruiting Robert Williams very early, maybe even as a freshman. I don't know how he found him, but remember Kennedy is also from Louisiana. I can see why LSU could have overlooked Williams because he was very raw when he arrived at TAMU. He made unbelievable strides during the season.
    Kennedy has proven to be a great developer of talent, but just as importantly were the players Williams had around him. They all embraced him as an equal when he wasn't their equal and now he apparently is embracing them as his equal when they probably no longer are.
    Most thought Williams would bolt for the NBA. Most kids like him think zero versus 2 or 2 million dollars immediately is more attractive than 2 or 3 million dollars versus 8 or 10 million in another year. If he improves as much next year as he did this year (he needs to develop a mid-range shot, especially from the high post area, and better post moves) he could easily be the No. 1 draft pick next year. He is highly "coachable" and is not full of himself. Those traits will serve him well. We will see.