After four years of defensive struggles, Will Wade and LSU have the nation’s top defense this season. Find out how the Tigers have dramatically improved.
Getting talented players to Baton Rouge has never been an issue for Will Wade. But motivating them to play defense has been a different story.
In three of his first four years at LSU, Wade’s squads finished ranked lower than No. 120 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric — a stark contrast from his two seasons at VCU (No. 24 and No. 41, respectively). Numerous issues on that side of the ball have submarined the Tigers in past seasons, but no issue has been more noteworthy than their lack of rim protection and defensive rebounding.
Well, the times they are a-changin’. Despite losing its three best players from last season (Cam Thomas, Javonte Smart and Trendon Watford), LSU has started 12-0. And surprisingly, its defense has been the catalyst.
Similar to previous years, Wade deploys a pressure-heavy attack intent on forcing turnovers. But none of his earlier teams found this level of success at causing disruption. The Bayou Bengals currently rank first in the country in steal percentage — a number buoyed by a quartet of sticky-handed athletes.
At the point of attack, Missouri transfer Xavier Pinson and freshman Brandon Murray persecute opposing ballhandlers. The duo often presses at least three-fourths of the court, mixing in run-and-jumps to wrench their foes out of rhythm. But when one heads to the bench, the opposing team can’t stop to catch its breath. Sophomore Eric Gaines maintains the heat when he comes off the pine — the 6-2 guard has a steal rate (4.2 percent, No. 61 nationally) almost identical to Pinson’s (4.3 percent, No. 49).
But perhaps no player makes as much of a defensive impact as sophomore Tari Eason. This past summer, Eason transferred to LSU from Cincinnati in a move that largely flew under the radar. A few months later, the versatile forward has broken out as one of the top defenders in the country. In particular, Eason shows off impeccable timing as he prowls opponents’ passing lanes. Remarkably, he makes plays like the one below without reaching — per KenPom, Eason commits just three fouls per 40 minutes.
Rotations as crispy as fresh beignets
LSU’s effort and communication along the backline allow its pressure to thrive. With Eason, Efton Reid or Darius Days lurking in the frontcourt, the guards can play aggressive defense as soon as the ball crosses midcourt. In the following clip, note how quickly Days (#4) covers ground on the rotation after Mwani Wilkinson (#5) traps the ballhandler. Days perfectly identifies the open man and sprints to break up a pass for a would-be dunk.
When opponents operate in the halfcourt, the Tigers also execute their rotations in a synchronized manner. They switch every ball screen, and they recover as swiftly as a stampeding bronco when an offense finds an advantage. Down the stretch in its game against Louisiana Tech, the LSU defense put its combination of discipline and athleticism on full display:
Observe the late-game possession above: Wilkinson fronts the post, denying Louisiana Tech star Kenneth Lofton (#2) from touching the ball. When the ball reverses to Cobe Williams (#24), Wilkinson rotates over to protect the basket. Then, Eason flawlessly anticipates the dump-off pass to Lofton, which he diabolically thwarts. Days pounces on the loose ball, wiping away what Williams thought would be an open look down low.
Oh, and about that rim protection
Erasing those easy opportunities around the basket has been the Tigers’ most notable turnaround this season. Per Hoop-Math, they rank 12th nationally in defensive field goal percentage at the rim. Contrast that to last season, when LSU finished 308th (!) in that same statistic.
So what’s behind the dramatic upswing/reversal? The addition of the aforementioned Reid plays a huge factor. The 6-11 freshman committed to LSU noticeably late in the recruiting cycle — once considered a Pitt lock, Wade swooped in at the eleventh hour and flipped the top-30 prospect. Now, the head coach’s coup is paying dividends, as Reid has already outplayed his high school ranking.
Per basketball statistician Evan Miyakawa, Reid leads the country in Defensive Bayesian Performance Rating (DBPR) — a metric that “reflects the defensive value a player brings to his team when he is on the court.” (For more information on how Evan’s rankings work, head over to EvanMiya.com.)
The freshman’s well-rounded defensive skill set gives way to his gaudy ranking. Reid’s a beastly presence in the paint with a knack for swatting shots, but he also deftly guards smaller players. In the play below, he switches onto Georgia Tech’s Khalid Moore (#12) off of the dribble-hand-off and sticks with him all the way to the cup.
But Reid isn’t the only Tiger capable of smacking shot attempts into the bleachers. Eason shines in this area, too, but redshirt freshman Alex Fudge has emerged as the bigger surprise. Despite his wiry frame, the 6-8 wing showcases tremendous instincts and verticality as a weakside rim protector. If you watched Jim Carrey’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas during your holiday season, you may remember the scene where Carrey serves as fudge judge during his “Holiday Cheermeister” duties. Well, Alex Fudge stuffs shots like the Whoville residents stuff the Christmas dessert in the Grinch’s face. Particularly in the Georgia Tech contest, Fudge put on a shot-blocking clinic.
Can this continue into SEC play?
LSU’s relatively soft schedule is the only discredit to its hot start. The Tigers have dismantled a slew of quality mid-majors who expect to win their leagues — Texas State, Liberty, Belmont, Ohio and Louisiana Tech — and they notched a convincing win over a plucky Wake Forest squad. But none of those teams currently rank in the KenPom top 50. In the SEC, teams will be better equipped to deal with their pressure and match their athleticism. Still, this defense doesn’t seem like a mirage. Even if their defensive efficiency numbers slip, the buy-in and energy will be there on a nightly basis for the Tigers.