On Saturday at 1:45 pm, the (#8) Louisiana State (LSU) Tigers (18-9, 11-6 SEC) will take on the (#9) St. Bonaventure Bonnies (16-4, 11-4 Atlantic 10) in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. These two teams will square off at Assembly Hall, on the campus of Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana. Fans can watch the game on TNT.
Before we scout the LSU Tigers, let’s quickly re-introduce ourselves to a former Atlantic 10 Head Coach.
A Familiar, Yet Friendly Foe
Over the last couple of years, Will Wade, the LSU Head Coach, has faced great scrutiny. He was caught on tape saying that he would compensate his recruits if they came to play for him. As a result of this, LSU suspended Wade for a few games back in 2019, when LSU went to the NCAA Tournament as a three-seed.
Despite these mishaps, Will Wade is one of the best coaches in the country. Since coming to Baton Rouge in 2017, Wade has compiled a 79-38 overall record and has made either the NIT or NCAA Tournaments in each of his four seasons. LSU would have made the tournament last season, as the Tigers finished tied for second in the SEC, but the pandemic forced the NCAA to cancel the 2020 edition.
Before his time at LSU, Wade spent two seasons as the Head Coach at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He knows all about the “mighty” Atlantic 10 Conference.
While there, he had a record of 51-20, which included two NCAA Tournament appearances. In 2016, Wade led VCU to a First Round victory over Oregon State. In the subsequent game that year, the Rams almost knocked off the Oklahoma Sooners, the two-seed, but VCU ended up losing 85-81.
VCU fans may smile when reflecting on 2016.
St. Bonaventure fans cannot say the same.
Back in 2016, the St. Bonaventure Bonnies finished the season with a 22-9 overall record and finished the regular season tied for first in the conference. With a Rating Percentage Index (RPI) rating in the Top 30, Bonnies fans felt that they would go the Big Dance for the second time in five years.
The Selection Committee ruled otherwise. Bona was left out of the field and fans today simply call it “The Snub.” St. Bonaventure was relegated to the NIT and they lost to Wagner in the First Round.
St. Bonaventure: Biggest snub by the selection committee. I mean, Tulsa over the Bonnies? Syracuse? Vandy? Please.
— Reid Forgrave (@ReidForgrave) March 13, 2016
Many media pundits could not believe that the Bonnies did not make it.
Will Wade felt the same. He vehemently defended St. Bonaventure in a press conference following the 2016 Selection Show.
Wade felt that the committee prioritized bigger schools with larger resources. He discussed how it’s tougher for St. Bonaventure to build its non-conference slate because of its smaller budget:
“[VCU] can get a pretty good Big East team… Or we’ll go play some good team on a neutral floor like Florida State, who’s pretty good. We’ll go get that. The problem is St. Bonaventure can’t go get that. That’s the reality of the situation. Us and Dayton can go get that. [For] the rest of our league, it’s a struggle. But you can’t hold that against them…
St. Bonaventure played a ton of road games. Do you know how hard that is for an A-10 team? For an upper-level A-10 team to play as many non-conference road games as they play? That’s impossible. [Bona has] to play home-and-homes. They don’t have the money to buy a bunch of games. They gotta play at Siena, which is a tough place to play… and they don’t get credit for that when all these other folks are just beating teams at home.”
—Will Wade on March 15, 2016.
So Bona fans, when you see some publicity about Will Wade, remember, that back in 2016, he went on the record to defend the Bonnies. He is one of the few who understands the magnitude of “The Snub.”
It’s not like Wade touched on this briefly, he continued on this rant for quite some time.
“It just drives [me] crazy to watch a team like Bonaventure, who has more of an uphill battle to climb than we do, do what they can do, everything they can do, and it [does] not work out for them. And they have got a great team with great guards. And great guards win in the NCAA Tournament. Posley is unbelievable.”
Knowing what Bona has to go through annually when compared to other schools, I can assure you that Will Wade was happy to see the St. Bonaventure Bonnies in the 2021 field matched up against his LSU Tigers.
Bonnies fans everywhere are obviously excited too, as I alluded to earlier this week.
Scouting the LSU Tigers
LSU comes into the Big Dance as one of the hottest teams in the country.
Following their loss to #20 Arkansas on February 27, the Tigers rattled off four wins in a row before losing to Alabama by a point in the SEC Championship. The Tigers can really score as they have the fifth-most efficient offense in the country, according to KenPom.
“[LSU is] really talented. They’re the number one team in the country in scoring. They have two really good guards [in Thomas and Smart.] Watford is a tremendous combo-forward and Days is a five-man that can shoot the ball well from the perimeter,” St. Bonaventure Head Coach Mark Schmidt said on Wednesday.
The Big Three
Cameron Thomas, Trendon Watford, and Ja’Vonte Smart are three elite scorers for the LSU Tigers. These three combine to average 55.2 points per game (PPG). For perspective, St. Bonaventure’s defense allows its opponents to score just 60.4 PPG.
Thomas, a 6’4″ Freshman guard from Virginia, scores 22.6 PPG, which ranks fourth in the country. He took 32.7% of LSU’s shots this season, per KenPom. He’s clearly a high-volume shooter who can score at all three levels.
Thomas shot 32% from downtown and 88% from the charity stripe this season. He has scored at least 16 points in every game except for one. In that one instance, against Ole Miss, Thomas played just four minutes because he injured his ankle. Nevertheless, he will be a first-round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
Another LSU Tiger to watch out for is Trendon Watford. A Sophomore from Birmingham, Alabama, Watford stands at 6’9″ and averages 16.7 PPG. He weighs 240 pounds as he will likely matchup against St. Bonaventure’s Osun Osunniyi. Watford is tremendous offensively as he can score in both the post and in the mid-range. Although he is not a great three-point shooter, he did make 17 from distance this season.
Rounding out the LSU “Big Three” is Junior Guard Ja’Vonte Smart, who is 6’4″ and averages almost 16.0 PPG. Smart is a lethal shooter from the outside as he shoots 43.7% from beyond the arc. Furthermore, he leads the team in assists, averaging four per game. Smart, who is a Baton Rouge native, led the team with 21 points in the SEC Championship loss to Alabama.
Darius Days, the Junior forward from Raleigh, Florida, will likely matchup against St. Bonaventure’s Jalen Adaway. Standing at 6’7″, Days averages 11.7 PPG and leads the team in rebounding. He grabs close to eight boards per game. LSU struggles on the boards, but Days is the one player who really crashes the glass hard.
Another Tiger contributor is Aundre Hyatt, a 6’6″ guard from the Bronx. He averages 3.9 PPG and sees about 15 minutes per contest. He actually played 33 minutes and got the start against the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship game. Hyatt scored 8 and missed four shots from the floor, one of which was a last-second attempt for the win.
Eric Gaines is another guy to watch out for. Standing at 6’2″, the Freshman guard from Georgia sees about 13 minutes per game. He scored ten points against Arkansas in the SEC Semifinal game.
Aside from those six guys, Josh LeBlanc was the only other Tiger to hit the floor against Alabama in the SEC title game. LeBlanc is a 6’7″ Junior forward from Baton Rouge. He scored just six total points in the SEC Tournament.
Other than LSU’s “Big Three” and Darius Days, Will Wade does not have a lot of depth. Similar to the Bonnies, LSU does not employ a deep rotation with nine or ten guys. The Tigers will likely have just seven or eight guys hit the floor against Bona.
Who Needs Defense?
LSU ranks 125th in the country in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
The Tigers do not have a bad defense per se, but they have struggled at times. LSU ranks 199th in the country in forcing turnovers and they rank 325th in offensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom. The Tigers are not great on the glass and the Bonnies should have some second-chance opportunities by way of offensive rebounds.
But who needs a strong defense when the offense scores 82.1 PPG? LSU has scored 80 or more points in 13 games this season. That mark is the highest for LSU since 1991-1992 when Shaquille O’Neal led the Tigers to average 87.5 PPG that season.
St. Bonaventure Head Coach Mark Schmidt compared LSU’s offense to that of one at the next level: “it’s almost an NBA-style of play [with] a lot of isos.”
We shall see if the Bonnies have what it takes to shut down an “NBA-style” offense.
How Can The Bonnies Advance to the Round of 32?
Call me crazy, but I think the winner of this game has a real shot at top-seeded Michigan in the Second Round. Before the Bonnies can get to Michigan, they will have to defeat the LSU Tigers. The Bonnies will win if (1) they keep the game in the sixties and (2) go through Osunniyi and Adaway on offense.
Keep The Game in the 60s
This game features a terrific offensive team in LSU and a stellar defensive team in Bona.
For the Bonnies to win, they will have to control the pace of the game and keep the scoring in the 60s.
“If the game’s in the 80s on Saturday we’re probably not gonna win, so we’ve gotta somehow control the tempo and keep those guys out of the paint,” Coach Schmidt said.
LSU’s “Big Three” are terrific one-on-one players and each can get to the basket with ease. Bona will have a difficult task in keeping these guys out on the perimeter.
“Obviously the goal is to keep it a low-scoring game and grind it out on defense,” said Kyle Lofton, the Junior point guard.
If the Tigers begin to score in bunches, I’m not so sure that St. Bonaventure has the firepower to keep up with LSU’s high-octane offense. But St. Bonaventure has shut down terrific offenses already this season. If they can hold LSU to under 70, I like their chances.
Roll Through ‘Shoon and Adaway on Offense
LSU does not have a big-man like St. Bonaventure’s Osun Osunniyi.
Sure, Trendon Watford and Darius Days are terrific forwards, but they do not have the inside presence that ‘Shoon does.
Thus, the offense needs to go through Osunniyi on Saturday. He has the offensive repertoire to make a move towards the basket. He can also dish it out to a shooter or find a cutting Jalen Adaway along the baseline. As I have said many times before, ‘Shoon is the best passing big man in the Atlantic 10. The offense shines when he gets touches down low, and since LSU does not have a traditional center, Bona should look to exploit the paint on Saturday afternoon.
Osunniyi is essentially a walking double-double; he averages 10.5 PPG and 9.4 rebounds per contest.
Furthermore, Jalen Adaway needs to get involved for the Bonnies to win.
Nicknamed “Flight 33” because he can leap through the roof, Adaway scored 12, 17, and 10 points in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. He was instrumental in the Semifinal victory over St. Louis and hit a couple of daggers from long range in the Championship game against VCU.
In fact, since the beginning of February, Adaway has scored in double figures in every game except for one.
If the offense goes through ‘Shoon and if Adaway can provide another spark, that leaves guards Kyle Lofton, Dom Welch, and Jaren Holmes with more space to operate. Those three guards have found their stroke as of late and the Bonnies will need their fair share of threes to advance to the Round of 32. Both Welch and Holmes shoot roughly 40% from downtown while Lofton went four for five from deep against VCU in the Atlantic 10 Finals.
There is something special about these Bonnies.
They have been through so much this season, whether it was the early Covid-19 pause, the lack of fans in the Reilly Center, or the loss of St. Bonaventure’s beloved President, Dr. Dennis DePerro, on March 1.
Despite these challenges, the Bonnies have persevered.
And they fear absolutely no one.
As I said Friday on “RPIII and Company,” a morning radio show that airs down in Louisiana, I like the St. Bonaventure Bonnies to survive and advance. I think the Bonnies will continue to play terrific defense and hold the LSU Tigers to under 70 points.
St. Bonaventure 68, LSU 66
For more St. Bonaventure basketball coverage, follow Jack Milko on Twitter @jack_milko.