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No. 20 LSU Tigers: Just how good is Tremont Waters going to be?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 20 LSU.


Will Wade is heading into his second season as the head coach of the LSU Tigers and the sixth season of his head coaching career, and this past season was simultaneously the worst of his career and incredibly promising if you are a fan of the Bayou Bengals.

Prior to moving to Baton Rouge, Wade had coached two seasons at VCU and two seasons at Chattanooga, never finishing lower than second in his league standings and, in 2015-16, doing the one thing that Shaka Smart never did as head coach of the Rams: Win a conference regular season title.

Last year, the Tigers finished the season just 18-15 overall, their 8-10 mark in a strong SEC enough to get them into the bubble conversation but not into the NCAA tournament, but when you consider what Wade was walking into, those numbers are better than you realize. In Johnny Jones’ final season at LSU he went 10-21 overall with a 2-16 mark in the SEC as one of the single-worst defensive teams in the country before losing his two best players.

Wade was walking into a rebuild, and it didn’t take him long to get it kickstarted.

And much of that was thanks to a freshman from New Haven, Conn., named Tremont Waters, a four-star prospect and one of the most exciting players in college hoops last season.

He’s back for his sophomore campaign, and Wade has bolstered his roster with a handful of talented recruits from the Class of 2018.

Will that be enough to get LSU back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in four seasons?

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LSU WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

LSU is going to look very different than they did a season ago. That’s what happens you lose three of your top five scorers and four players that started double-digit games.

But where there will be consistency for the Tigers is at the point, as Waters returns after a freshman campaign that saw him average 15.9 points, 6.0 assists and 2.0 steals while thrilling fans with an array of deep threes and no-look passes. He’s Trae Young-lite, if you will, and the fact that he is back for another season cannot be overstated.

The reason that LSU was even in the conversation when it came to the NCAA tournament was because of the fact that they could score. They finished the year 33rd in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric, more than 100 spots above where they finished defensively, and Waters was easily their highest-usage player. He’s a ball-screen savvy point guard playing in a system that puts significant value on ball-screens. More than 35 percent of LSU’s halfcourt possessions last season were ball-screen actions, according to Synergy Sports. Just under 50 percent of Waters’ halfcourt possessions were ball-screen actions, and the Tigers averaged 1.022 PPP on those possessions.

For the season, LSU averaged 0.859 PPP on halfcourt possessions. That tells you all you need to know.

In a year where the crop of guards around college basketball is not all that exciting, Waters has a chance to finish the season as a first-team All-American. He’s that good.

The question I have is about his supporting cast.

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Skylar Mays (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

BUT LSU IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

We really don’t know all that much about LSU’s supporting cast, do we?

We know who all these guys are on paper. Ja’vonte Smart is a top 35 prospect and a talented, athletic combo-guard with some size to him. Emmitt Williams is as powerfully athletic as anyone in this recruiting class, and he plays with the motor of an F150. He won’t stop. Naz Reid has all the tools to fill the role vacated by the underrated Duop Reath, a stretchy big man with size to hang with all of the SEC’s big boys. Skylar Mays is a good program guy, as is Kavell Bigby-Williams. The same can be said about the likes of Daryl Edwards, and Marlon Taylor is the kind of athlete that will have a dunk or two go viral before his time in college is over.

But this group is also going to be entirely new. There will likely only be three or four players in the LSU rotation that played a game for the Tigers last season. They could end up starting three freshmen with a fourth coming off of the bench, which is not an easy thing to do when those freshmen are among the best players in the country. Every year it feels like we are talking about it is going to take a while for Duke and Kentucky to come together, and with all due respect to Reid, Williams, Smart and Darius Days, we’re not exactly talking about guys that are surefire lottery picks.

And that’s before we even mention that the 2018 recruiting class as a whole is not as good at the top as previous recruiting classes.

To be frank, it makes it very difficult to analyze.

This group is going to be totally different than last year’s group.

Stylistically and schematically, the dots connect. Wade has a point guard — or three — that excel in ball-screens, and he runs an offense that is ball-screen heavy. His two teams at VCU had talented guards and a bevy of athletic, hard-playing big men — remember Mo Alie-Cox? — and this LSU team has the same. Those VCU teams did their damnedest to continue on the ‘Havoc’ era, and this LSU team does have players that can fly around defensively.

I think Wade will find a way to make it work, and having a player as good as Waters stick around for a second season is certainly going to help, but this LSU team is not going to be a finished product by the start of SEC play.

That could be a good thing or a bad thing.

Naz Reid (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

For my money, the guy on this roster that can take LSU from being a borderline top 25 team to a team that has a real shot at finishing the year as a top three seed with Final Four potential is Naz Reid.

Reid has all the makings of a future pro. He’s 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds. He’s not Robert Williams, but he’s athletic enough. He’s not Dirk Nowitzki, but he shot 34.6 percent from three on the UAA circuit prior to his senior season. He’s not Tim Duncan, but he can do some things around the bucket.

He’s a five-star prospect that is 18th in 247 Sports Composite rankings, a good enough player that NBA teams are going to have to send their scouts to Baton Rouge to get a look at Reid throughout the season. More importantly, at least in this discussion, is that he’s a guy with the ability to have a major impact on the SEC …

… if he decides he wants to.

The knock on Reid throughout his high school career was that his motor never ran high enough. He DGAF-ed for too long in front of too many people, and that is never a good reputation to have. Is that how he is going to play at LSU? Tiger fans know all too well about superstar players that have no interest in being on campus (see: Simmons, Ben), and that is certainly a concern for Reid.

We know what we’re going to get from other guys on this roster. Mays is going to be a good role player, a valuable veteran on a roster with a lot of youth. Smart has a bright future and will have the luxury of being able to let Waters and Mays lead the way in the backcourt. Williams isn’t all that skilled, but you know he’s always going to play his tail off.

Reid?

He can put up 20 and 10 any given night.

He’s just as likely not to show up for a game.

That’s pretty much the definition of an x-factor.

Will Wade (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

2018-19 OUTLOOK

I know this is going to sound weird, but it’s probably the truth: The SEC is as good as any conference in college basketball, including the ACC.

Kentucky might be the best team in the country. Tennessee won a share of the league’s regular season title a year ago and returns literally everyone from that roster. Auburn brings back the most of the team that shared that league title with Tennessee. Mississippi State looks like they will be a top 20 team this year. You are going to see some people rank Arkansas and some people rank Florida. Missouri has a shot of getting back to the NCAA tournament, as does Alabama. Even Vanderbilt looks like they could be a tournament team with the recruiting class that Bryce Drew brought in.

And that, as much as anything else, is what will probably be the culprit if LSU doesn’t end up getting into the NCAA tournament.

Their non-conference schedule is … fine, I guess. They play Memphis. They play Houston. They play Saint Mary’s. They play in the Advocare Invitational (Florida State, Villanova if they win). I’m not sure how many tournament teams or quality wins you’ll find there. They are going to have plenty of work to do in league play, and, on paper, they should have the pieces to be able to get it done.

We’ll see if those pieces come together the way Tiger fans hope they will.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.