Dig Baton Rouge

Will Wade: On a mission at LSU

Will Wade was hired to be LSU’s men’s basketball coach on March 21. The Tigers played their first game under their new coach on November 10.

Man, oh man have things changed for LSU basketball in the eight months since Wade took the job.

Regarded around coaching circles as a future college basketball coaching superstar, Wade’s hire earned LSU high marks this past spring—especially considering that the Tigers’ program sunk significantly under former coach Johnny Jones.

Since taking over, Wade’s energy has breathed a new life into the program—both on the court and also in recruiting where the Tigers are snagging top-flight prospects with ease. To some, the moves are alarming, given the lack of prestige around Tigers’ basketball.

But to Wade, there’s no such thing as a surprise. The first-year LSU coach said you earn successes with hard work, dedication and passion— three things currently oozing out of the Tigers’ locker room.

To Wade, LSU basketball isn’t that thing we do to pass the time between football and baseball. To him, LSU basketball is a monster that’s been in a slumber but is now ready to be awoken.

“You’re always looking for spots,” Wade said. “Why haven’t they been able to do things consistently there? Why are things a certain way? Long ago, I identified LSU as somewhere that was just an absolute sleeping giant. LSU has everything it needs to be successful. If we could just get it all going in the right direction, we could make it work. Yes, we could make it work. And that was kind of my thought process going in.”

TIRELESS RECRUITER

Before Wade ever coached a game or led a practice, he’d already won several battles for LSU. From the second he was hired in March to the first day of classes in August, Wade hit the road and recruited tirelessly—leaving no stone unturned in his search for immediate help.

LSU’s basketball roster is talent-depleted and Wade refused to accept that his first season in Baton Rouge might be a difficult one.

In his inaugural class, he helped sign Tremont Waters—a four-star guard from Connecticut, who is arguably LSU’s best player in 2017-18. He also got graduate transfers Randy Onwuasor and Jeremy Combs, as well as high school signee Mayan Kiir.

In addition to the short-term relief, Wade has also made huge waves for the 2018 recruiting class. The Tigers have locked up Ja’Vonte Smart, Darius Days and Naz Reid—all bluechip prospects.

According to recruiting service 247 Sports, the Tigers have the fifth best recruiting class in America for the 2018 class. They trail only Kansas, Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina—four of the bell cow programs in college basketball.

“We are going to be aggressive in recruiting,” Wade said. “We are going to recruit student-athletes to come play for us. We are going to recruit fans. We are going to recruit the students and we are going to put a product on the court that’s hard working that everyone will be proud of.”

That passion for recruiting is long-standing. At VCU, Wade brought top talent to the Rams—a program not accustomed to attracting top talent. While once restructuring his contract with the Rams, Wade asked the school for an increase in his recruiting budget so that he could travel more and attract top-flight players.

“He is persistent, but in a good way,” Smart said when talking about his decision to sign with LSU. “He cares. You can tell that he really cares and he is genuine. He always gives us a really good vibe.”

INFECTIOUS STYLE

Perhaps the reason why Wade hits it off so well with the top-flight prospects is his on-court style, which coincidentally enough, is also appealing to fans. Wade doesn’t like to walk the basketball up the floor and run half-court sets. He likes to push for 40 minutes. Defensively, Wade likes to full-court press and try and create turnovers and easy scores for his offense. Players love that.

In the first game of Wade’s tenure, LSU crushed Alcorn State 99-59. Granted, it’s Alcorn State and the Tigers should beat that team 99 times out of 100, but the pace, tempo, energy and tone were all greatly in LSU’s favor. The Tigers shot 61 percent from the fi eld, including 11-of-19 from the 3-point line. The team had 18 assists to just 7 turnovers and 11 players scored.

Defensively, LSU swarmed, forcing 16 turnovers and crushing the glass, out-rebounding Alcorn State 35-26 in the win.

“It was a lot of fun,” Waters said. “We came out and started off on a 9-0 (run) and from there, we just kept improving, bumping the lead up and the crowd got into it. It was a great time.”

Fans bought in. There were more than 10,000 tickets sold to the game – easily outpacing the numbers LSU has sold in the past several seasons.

Wade said he wants his style of play to be fan-friendly. He wants to turn the PMAC into a place opponents fear playing – much like it was throughout the 1980s and early 1990s under Dale Brown.

“We are going to fly up and down the court,” Wade said. “We are going to play fast. We are going to get up and down the court and we are going to attack the rim… Defensively, we’re going to guard every floorboard for 94 feet.”

WHERE DOES IT GO FROM HERE?

In 2017-18, no one expects the Tigers to be a threat.

At SEC Preseason Media Days, the Tigers were picked to finish last place in the SEC—an indication that people aren’t yet buying the hype. But Wade pays the critics no mind.

Since taking over the program, he’s not shied away from expectations, saying that he thinks LSU can win as much as any team in the country. He believes the Tigers can become a second Kentucky in the SEC—the type of team that is favored to win every single game it plays.

On the first day of practices, Wade said he noticed that only a handful of players showed up to the team’s facility wearing LSU gear. He quickly scoffed, “That’s why we beat your asses last year,” a wisecrack of pride because VCU crushed the Tigers one year ago.

Since getting into the routine, that’s changed and those in the building are proud to be Tigers again, which obviously bodes well for the future.

It likely won’t in 2017-18, but the troops are on the way. Once they get here, LSU figures to never stop loading up on prized talent.

“Everybody wants to win championships,” Wade said. “Everybody wants to go to the NCAA Tournament. A select few get to do that. What are we doing to separate ourselves to do more, to put ourselves in that position? That’s going to be the message… There is no option to fail. We are going to get it done. We are going to get it done, but it’s going to take everybody. It’s going to take everybody. We’re going to find a way.”

Image: Sean Gasser

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