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LSU Has All the Talent to Make a Final Four Run, but Not Enough Polish

And contrary to popular belief, there isn’t always next year. With the Tigers head coach embroiled in an FBI investigation, this could be the last time we see this collection of gifted, young players together.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Will Wade has an eye for talent. That is all we can know for sure about the suspended LSU head coach, who was caught discussing payments to a recruit on an FBI wiretap. His team has won without him, beating Yale and Maryland in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament to set up a game with Michigan State in the Sweet 16 on Friday. It is the farthest the school has gone since making the Final Four in 2006, and they have the players to make a similar run this time around. The Tigers have one of the best backcourts in the country and NBA prospects at every position. None are ready for the league just yet, though. They need a coach to refine their skill sets and prepare them for the next level. The problem is Wade, the man who brought them all in, may never coach again in the NCAA.

LSU is built around the explosive backcourt of sophomore Tremont Waters and junior Skylar Mays. Both came up huge in LSU’s 69-67 second-round win over Maryland, with Mays scoring five points in the last 1:20 before Waters hit the game-winning layup in traffic with two seconds left. Waters, at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, is a pint-sized guard with some Trae Young in his game. He can shoot off the dribble from all over the floor, slice through the lane, and make plays on the move. Mays, at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, is a combo guard who can play on or off the ball. He’s more of a two-way player than Waters, and is tied for second in the country in steals per game (2.9). The Tigers are the rare NCAA team with two guards who can play off each other and take over a game.

Their best NBA prospect is freshman Naz Reid, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound forward with the ability to play inside and out. Reid is averaging 13.7 points on 47.3 percent shooting and 7.1 rebounds per game, while shooting 35.4 percent from 3 on 2.4 attempts. There are moments where Reid looks like a lottery pick: There aren’t many 6-foot-10 players who can drain catch-and-shoot 3s, blow by defenders off the dribble, and zip the ball around the floor. However, the NBA scouts I’ve spoken to consider him more of an early second-round pick because of his inconsistent defense and decision-making. Reid averages 0.7 blocks per game, which is not a lot for a player with his physical tools, and often gives up as many points as he scores.

What makes LSU fascinating is their depth. Even Duke, a team loaded with four- and five-star recruits, has trouble filling out their rotation with players who can compete at this level. Kentucky, the other recruiting juggernaut of the past decade, looked average without sophomore forward PJ Washington, who missed the first weekend of the NCAA tournament with a sprained foot. It’s hard even for NCAA coaches with unlimited access to the best recruits to shoot 100 percent in player evaluation and development. Wade has done something remarkable. Every player in the Tigers eight-man rotation either has NBA-caliber physical tools or skills.

LSU rounds out their starting five with junior Marlon Taylor, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound wing, and senior Kavell Bigby-Williams, a 6-foot-11, 250-pound center. Taylor has the size and athleticism to defend multiple perimeter positions in the NBA. He just has to develop his 3-point shot (25.4 percent on 1.7 attempts per game). Bigby-Williams, who is averaging 7.8 points on 62.9 percent shooting, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks in only 21 minutes per game, is the prototypical shot-blocking and rim-running big man. He may not put up big enough numbers to get drafted, but he will at least get a chance in Summer League.

Their most intriguing NBA prospect could ultimately be one of their three freshmen reserves. Javonte Smart, the player Wade was discussing on the wiretap, has the size (6-foot-4 and 200 pounds) and athleticism to play at either guard position. He runs the team when Waters is out and often closes games next to Waters and Mays. Darius Days is their best 3-and-D player: an athletic 6-foot-6, 225 pound wing with a sweet shooting stroke (37.9 percent from 3 on 1.9 attempts per game, 75.8 percent from the free throw line on one attempt per game). Emmitt Williams, the rawest of the three, is the most gifted athletically. He’s about as big as Days, but plays as a small-ball center when the Tigers downsize.

LSU looks like an NBA team. They can play any style over the course of a game. Their starting frontcourt measures at 6-foot-10 and 6-foot-11, and they can play five-out lineups with a stretch 5, lineups with three guards who can all initiate the offense, and more switchable units where everyone is between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-6. The Tigers were 28-6 with a 16-2 mark in the SEC, including going 3-0 against Kentucky, Tennessee, and Auburn, all of whom are in the Sweet 16. They don’t have the pedigree of Michigan State or the star power of Duke, but they have as much talent as any team in their region.

Their biggest issue is playing to the level of their competition. They are a young team without much experience; LSU’s last tournament appearance (2015) came before any of their players were in college. Bigby-Williams is the only senior in their rotation; Mays and Taylor the only juniors. The Tigers have the no. 137 rated defense in the country, too low for a team with this much size and athleticism. They make a lot of mental mistakes, averaging exactly as many assists per game as turnovers, and they are no. 295 in the country in 3-point percentage (32.0). They barely escaped against Maryland, who clawed back into the second-round matchup by playing a zone defense after being down 15 points in the second half.

LSU is the biggest boom-or-bust team in the field, especially with interim head coach Tony Benford in place of Wade. They have the edge at every position except point guard against Michigan State, where Waters is giving up size and experience to junior Cassius Winston, one of the best players in the country. They also have the athletes to run with Duke in a potential Elite Eight game, with multiple players who can at least theoretically match up with Zion Williamson. None of that may matter, though, if they can’t take care of the ball, lock in on defense, and shoot opposing teams out of defensive schemes that pack the paint. The little things are holding the Tigers back. All their players need more polish.

Under normal circumstances, this team might roll over their success to next year, bringing back all their top players and becoming a 1-seed. Bigby-Williams is graduating, and no one else is a can’t-miss prospect. Waters (32.1 percent from 3 on 5.1 attempts per game) and Mays (31.2 percent on 5.1 attempts) need to become more consistent 3-point shooters. Reid needs to get better on defense. Smart, Williams, and Days have to show what they can do in bigger roles in an NCAA offense before being drafted. There are basketball reasons for each to return.

The problem is their situation is anything but normal. The odds are against Wade being reinstated. He is currently under subpoena to testify in the trial of Christian Dawkins, the former agent who was on the other end of the FBI wiretap. The legal process could drag on for a long time, and it is hard to see LSU being comfortable bringing him back until that is resolved. There is also the issue of Smart. The NCAA may never have enough evidence to rule him ineligible, but the chance of that happening still hangs over the program. LSU may end up being hit with devastating sanctions that vacate everything this team does and scatters their players to the wind.

The tragedy would be if guys like Waters, Mays, Smart, and Reid are forced to declare for the NBA draft before they are ready. They could have a fate similar to Brian Bowen, a former McDonald’s All American who was banned by the NCAA due to his part in the same FBI investigation. (He is currently playing in Australia after withdrawing his name from the draft last season when he didn’t draw much interest from front offices.) The NBA doesn’t particularly care what happens to any of them. They might get one shot to make a roster out of training camp before being sent to the G League, and they may never have an NBA team fully invested in their future. A handful of them may have first-round talent, but their only shot to convince an NBA team that they are worth that level of commitment might be in the next two weeks.

LSU has the pieces to make the Final Four. They are the NCAA’s worst nightmare. The last thing they want is for the FBI scandal to overshadow the games themselves. There is only so much they can do to Wade, who could have a future in basketball even if he never coaches in the NCAA again. There are a number of G League coaches who have survived NCAA scandals, and his eye for talent might make him a great fit in an NBA front office. The NCAA will get back at Wade by trying to ruin the careers of his players. The stakes could not be higher for the Tigers. This might be the biggest stage they ever get to play on.