JACKSONVILLE, Florida — Nothing was going to dampen LSU’s excitement about returning to the NCAA Tournament.
Not the indefinite suspension of head coach Will Wade a few weeks ago and the back-and-forth public relations feud between he and the school since then, not having freshman guard Javonte Smart’s eligiblity rest in limbo for a week, not a last-second defeat to Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals, nor having that defeat drop the team down from a No. 2 seed to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
None of that could prevent the Tigers for being pumped up about returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.
“All of them are very excited,” LSU interim coach Tony Bedford said earlier this week. “Some of them were very laid back and relaxed but when they saw LSU pop up on the screen, they immediately became excited. Those guys are ready to go. They are ready to play and they are all very excited.”
No. 3 LSU (26-6) will look to carry that excitement into its matchup against No. 14 Yale (22-7) in the opening round of the East Regional on Thursday. The two teams will tip off at 11:40 a.m. in Jacksonville, Florida, and the game can be heard live on 103.7 The Game.
Bedford took over as interim coach after Wade was suspended following reports of a detailed conversation, caught on an FBI wiretap, between the second-year head coach and low-level agent/shoe company middleman Christian Dawkins in regards to the recruitment of players. Despite less than a week to game plan as the team’s head coach, Bedford felt that his team had the right approach to start off with against Florida in Nashville.
“We wanted to attack the paint,” Bedford said. “We talk about or game standards, that’s getting 50 paint touches. We were above that. We scored about 20 points more (than Florida) in the paint. Naz (Reid) was dominant. We wanted to play through Naz. We had the same game plan.”
The Tigers did a terrific job of attacking the paint in the first half scoring 26 points down low, and ended the game with 48 points in the paint. The problem for LSU was its defense. After holding Florida to 25 first-half points on 34.5 percent shooting, the Gators would score 51 points in the final period on 59.3 percent shooting in the 76-73 win.
“I thought we did a great job defensively in the first half,” Bedford said. “I thought defensively in the second half we were not as sharp as we needed to be defensively. We had some careless turnovers when they made their run. I thought down the stretch they made some plays and really did a good job executing.”
The early exit from the SEC Tournament though may prove to be beneficial for the Tigers — as the team got a few extra days of rest and more time to work on the things that cost them an SEC Tournament title.
“I think it helps us to have a narrow focus,” Bedford said. “I’m not paying attention much to who we play in the second round. We are just going to focus on Yale and focus on us. We are going to talk about some of the things that we have to do better defensively.
“We have to do a better job of containing the basketball,” Bedford added. “We have to finish our possessions with rebounds and make sure that we box out. We have to continue to focus on the fundamental things. Offensively, we can score the basketball but we just have to make some shots. We had some great looks in the Florida game as we did a great job in attacking the paint but our shots did not fall. We had some great opportunities from the three-point line so we just have to keep on getting our shots and hope they go in this time.”
LSU will need to play improved defense when it takes the court Thursday as it faces a Yale team that is averaging 81.1 points per game, and is led by a pair of guard in Miye Oni and Alex Copeland. Oni, who is an NBA draft prospect, leads the team with 17.6 points per game, while Copeland averages 13.8 points. Bulldogs senior forward Blake Reynolds is also a threat as he leads the team in both field goal (55.9) and three-point percentage (44.2).
“They’re a veteran team,” Bedford said. “They are a very experienced team. Sometimes it’s tough to change the way you want to play. They may make an adjustment. If you’re averaging over 80 points a game it’s tough to tell your kid, ‘hey let’s keep it in the 60s.’ That’s pretty tough. We’ll be prepared for whichever way they want to play. We’re focused on us. Tomorrow we’ll practice. We’ll get the kids prepared, we’ll scout Yale and we’ll have our guys prepared for them on Thursday.”