BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Newly named LSU men’s basketball coach Will Wade left little doubt about his intention to wear his players out.
It also sounded like the fresh-faced 34-year-old, who has known only winning in his four seasons as a head coach at Chattanooga and at VCU, knew better than to make immediate promises about turning the Tigers into champions before he’d truly discovered what he’s gotten himself into down on the bayou.
“You may beat us, but you’re going to know you’re in for a fight,” Wade asserted as he spoke of going “all out, all the time,” and defending “every floor board for 94 feet.”
“That’s going to be our identity,” Wade said.
At LSU, basketball has long been a sport that lags behind football and even baseball in popularity. The program’s history is one of inconsistent results and wavering fan support — despite considerable resources spent on upgrading practice and training facilities in recent years.
There are larger than life bronze statues of Hall-of-Famers Bob Pettit and Shaquille O’Neal in front of the basketball practice gym, and the Tigers’ home stadium is named for the legendary Pete Maravich. But LSU has been to a total of four Final Fours in program history. Its last Final Four in 2006 is the only one in the past three decades.
The top overall NBA draft choice in 2016 — Ben Simmons — played at LSU two seasons ago, but the team he led failed to make the NCAA Tournament. One season later, the man who recruited Simmons, Johnny Jones, found himself at the helm of a team mired in a school-record 15-game losing streak.
Now Jones, criticized by fans for allowing Simmons to put his personal goals before those of the team, is out after five seasons, and Wade has taken on the task of trying to turn things around.
Wade said he sees LSU, which went 10-21 this season, as a “sleeping giant.” He plans to wake it up with a high-energy approach and a focus recruiting the type of players who care about the way they represent LSU.
“We’re going to have unwavering commitment to put the team first,” Wade said. “This is a privilege to be here. This is not a right to be here.”
Wade also spoke of making sure his players are not only in class, but sitting in the first few rows. (Simmons was disqualified in college from receiving the Wooden Award, which takes academic performance into consideration).
“It’s all about culture from the start,” Wade said. “You’ve got to establish the way you’re going to do things and be absolutely uncompromising in those. … We’re not going to have shortcuts.”
Wade took his first head coaching job at Chattanooga following a stint as Shaka Smart’s assistant at VCU. Chattanooga was coming off consecutive losing seasons when Wade arrived and made them winners in his first season. Chattanooga won more than 20 games in Year 2 under Wade, who then took over at VCU when Smart left for Texas. Wade guided the Rams to a 51-20 record in two seasons and is now 91-45 overall as a head coach.
Wade acknowledged that the program he took over at VCU was “humming.” He was also at a school where basketball is king, and in a region known for college basketball.
But Wade said LSU offered something that some more traditionally successful programs could not — a chance to build something that represents his own vision of what a bigtime program should be.
“I really looked at this as an opportunity to try to put my stamp on something … and build it in the vision of how I would like it built,” Wade said.
After Wade’s ceremonial introduction at LSU’s student union near the center of campus, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva was pretty specific about his expectations for the Tigers’ new coach.
“We should be one of the top teams in the SEC and go to postseason play on a regular basis,” Alleva said before dismissing the notion that it is somehow basketball’s lack of popularity at LSU that has made it hard for the Tigers to win consistently.
“Our fans are great, and if we win, they’ll come,” he said.
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