Information and analysis on LSU players includes contributions from college basketball freelance researcher and writer Nathan Giese.
The LSU Tigers' 2017-2018 college basketball season should feel very familiar to Vanderbilt basketball fans.
A former coach with NCAA Tournament appearances who gave the program a national profile for brief periods of time, but who eventually accumulated too many blots on his resume, had to go. In came a young, energetic coach who -- in his first season -- noticeably improved the culture in and around the program, scored meaningful wins, but could not avoid the bumpy periods which typically fill a coach's first season at a program.
Kevin Stallings and Bryce Drew last year, meet Johnny Jones and Will Wade this year. It's all very familiar in Nashville, which will host Wade's LSU team on Saturday.
LSU is roughly where Vanderbilt was last year, too -- at this point last season (the second half of January), the Dores were not in the NCAA Tournament field or even on the immediate cut line. In the course of five weeks from January 20 through February 24, the bubble moved downward and Vanderbilt picked off a few valuable wins to move into the conversation. When VU then beat Florida at home on Senior Day, it moved to the good side of the cut line. Avoiding a first-game loss in the SEC Tournament solidified the bid, in retrospect. VU likely did not have to beat Florida a third time to make the NCAA Tournament (though possibly to avoid going to Dayton a second straight year), but that extra win over the Gators in the SEC Tournament completely nailed down a bid. Vanderbilt, taking a page from 2001 Georgia's playbook, made the Dance with 15 losses.
LSU, at 11-6, won't make the NCAAs if it winds up cramming nine more losses into its remaining schedule, so the Bayou Bengals won't replicate VU's specific feat of getting in with 15 defeats. However, the possibility that LSU can make the tournament with 10 or 11 losses is very real.
The Tigers crushed Arkansas, and if Texas A&M stabilizes, the Aggies are still an NCAA Tournament team due to their No. 1 seed-level performance in non-conference play (counterbalancing their not-even-NIT-level performance in SEC play). LSU already has those solid wins, and it has also beaten bubble teams Houston and Michigan plus a decent road win at Memphis, which has won four straight games.
The SEC -- it does not need to be explained -- is a deeper league this season. LSU will get many bites at the quality-win apple. If it takes advantage of a majority of its opportunities, a 20-12 record (with the right wins against the right opponents) could be good enough for March.
What Vanderbilt fans will also recognize about this 2017-2018 LSU team is that much like the 2016-2017 Commodores, home and road splits did not go the way conventional wisdom would suggest. Last season's Vanderbilt team didn't win its second SEC home game until FEBRUARY 16. That's not a typo. Many home games slipped through VU's fingers, including a one-point loss to Arkansas and a home loss to Ole Miss which felt like a second or third nail in the NCAA Tournament coffin. The home game in January which gave VU's profile a crucial boost was a Big 12-SEC Challenge upset win over Iowa State. The heft it added to the Dores' resume offset a few of their stumbles, and when the team finally stabilized at home in the latter half of February, the team had survived well enough on the road to own a credible resume. Road wins at Florida and Arkansas gave VU an odd but solid profile compared to a lot of bubble teams, enabling the late-season finishing kick (with the double wins over Florida) to put the Drew Crew in Bracketville.
LSU is traveling a similar road -- emphasis on road -- in the month after Christmas Day. The Tigers are 3-0 in their last three road games and 0-3 in their last three home games. Their one-point loss to Georgia earlier this week feels a lot like Vanderbilt's one-point loss to Arkansas in Memorial Gym last year. LSU destroyed Arkansas in Bud Walton just as VU did a year ago, which makes the home stumbles as irritating for Wade as they were for Drew in his SEC debut campaign.
Yes, this LSU team carries a highly recognizable identity. We'll see if Vanderbilt changes it or not.
Here are LSU's more notable players:
Tremont Waters: The team’s leading scoring at 16.3 points per game, Walters lives at the 3-point line. Over half of his 190 field goal attempts have been from distance and he’s been solid, hitting over 40 percent of those attempts. He memorably splashed two 30-footers (possibly a few feet beyond 30 -- he wasn't closer)
in the final 13 seconds of regulation to steal a win from Texas A&M a few weeks ago. The second long ball came off an inbound pass with three seconds left and the Aggies knowing the ball was coming his way. Waters caught, turned, and instantly launched so that the Aggies couldn't foul him. The defense was not terrible. It didn't matter. Swish.
Waters also has 102 assists and shoots just under 80 percent from the free throw line. He doesn’t crash the boards, has 37 steals and is at exactly a 2-to-1 assist-turnover ratio. He works extremely well in pick-and-roll situations. He’s had some great scoring games but can be a bit sporadic, finishing under double digits in the scoring column six times. He also has a 39-point game to his credit.
Duop Reath: Reath is second in scoring and rebounding and has 16 blocks on the year (less than one per game). The vast majority of his attempts have been in post-up situations and he is hitting 56 percent of his overall attempts. He moves well and finishes off cuts and in transition when given the chance.
Opponents have succeeded when drawing Reath away from the basket. The 6-foot-11 post is strong inside and uses his frame well when he can put a body on someone. Chasing or operating in open-floor situations is a less reliable proposition for him.
Skylar Mays: Mays likes to shoot the three but is hitting just 35 percent of his attempts so far. He 57 assists but also 34 turnovers. He’s an average jump shooter and has 22 steals.
Teams have gotten the better of Mays in the pick-and-roll and in transition. He’s obviously a threat to score with his 11.6 points per game average but doesn’t excel in any one particular area. He plays the game the way according to the player he would like to BECOME, not in accordance with the player he IS. He has to develop a more efficient game; currently, he takes more shots than his level of accuracy warrants. That disconnect needs to be reconciled in a meaningful way for LSU to improve in the coming weeks.
Aaron Epps: The 6-foot-10 big man leads the team in rebounding (6.3 per game) and has connected on 54 percent of his shot attempts this season. He doesn’t get to the line much and is an average shooter. His best work has come while being on the move.
Teams don’t necessarily attack Epps but work well when taking jumpers against his defense. Vanderbilt conceptually has a chance to take advantage of his defensive tendencies and their limitations.
Brandon Sampson: After missing a good chunk of the non-conference schedule, Sampson has played in the last seven games for the Tigers. He’s coming off a 17-point effort against Georgia, which is what LSU was expecting from his early season output. He’s still working his way back into the flow of the offense but 34 of his 65 total shot attempts have come from three.
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