LSU basketball learns to win with defense ahead of Michigan clash - 6:10 p.m. Monday on CBS

Glenn Guilbeau
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

LSU basketball coach Will Wade graduated Saturday.

He became more of a defense-oriented coach in the Tigers' 76-61 win over St. Bonaventure in the NCAA Tournament first round Saturday in Bloomington, Indiana.

The Tigers (19-9) defended and rebounded in rare fashion and advanced to a Monday game against No. 1 seed Michigan (21-4) in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis (CBS, 6:10 p.m.) The Wolverines dispatched No. 16 seed Texas Southern, 82-66, on Saturday.

Nearly halfway into the first half of LSU's game at Assembly Hall, on the campus of Indiana University, the Tigers trailed St. Bonaventure, 4-2. Former Indiana coach Bobby Knight would have been disgusted, but he would have liked that defense.

Mar 20, 2021; Bloomington, Indiana, USA; Louisiana State Tigers forward Trendon Watford (2) plays for the ball against St. Bonaventure Bonnies forward Osun Osunniyi (21) during the first half in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Mandatory Credit: Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Wade was not frustrated, though, that his No. 8 offense, averaging 82 points a game, had one bucket on 1-for-11 shooting at the time. He was fine, because his defense was dominating the Bonnies, who were 1-for-10.

"Yeah, we were getting stops," Wade said. "That's what I was more excited about. The offense always comes around."

This from a man who criticized the fact 3-point shooting defense statistics were kept last year when he happened to be last in that category. 

Suddenly, LSU is not too cool to guard.

"It's about getting stops and rebounding, which is what we did a great job of," said Wade, who brought offense to LSU in 2017 like it had not been seen consistently in about a decade.

"It seemed like it was 4-2 for 20 minutes," St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt said.

It seemed like Hickory High coach Norman Dale from 1954 (of the "Hoosiers" film) had inhabited both teams.

"I knew as long as we were getting stops and getting rebounds, we were going to be in pretty good shape," Wade said. "So I was focusing on the positive and just getting our guys to calm down, and 'Let's get some easy ones on offense.'"

How to Watch: LSU vs. Michigan

Finally, LSU tied it 4-4 on a Mwani Wilkinson layup with 12:09 to go in the first half.

"We had like four points I think with 11 minutes left in the first half," LSU guard Cameron Thomas said incredulously. He was 1-for-8 shooting in the first half and 0-for-3 from 3-point range in the first half before finishing with 27 points, including 20 in the second half.

"So, we really had to sit down and get stops," Thomas said. "The game plan was to keep them out of the paint and contest all shots, and I think we did a great job of that."

Maybe Wade has had that game plan in the past, but this was one of the rare times that it was carried out, and that is getting more common of late. Often, LSU's game plan seemed to have been shoot anywhere and hope the opponent misses.

LSU took the lead for good at 10-8 on a 3-pointer by Trendon Watford with 9:59 to go. The offense eventually did arrive, and LSU led by 10 or more for virtually the entire game, including twice by 16.

LSU vs. Michigan: Betting odds

What was key, though, was that after LSU began scoring in bunches, it kept playing defense when it really was not necessary.

"We got stops, and that's what we really need to do in this tournament for us to make a deep run," Thomas said. "Because we can score with anybody in the tournament."

Wade's constant switching of his defense on weakside down screens and on ball screens frustrated St. Bonaventure — the more fundamental team in half court for most of this season.

"Yeah, the switching no doubt bothered them," Wade said. "And they rely on their sets to get their guys open. Switching kind of neutralized that. And we were there."

This allowed LSU's better athletes to thrive at scoring and rebounding, where LSU held an uncharacteristic 49-30 advantage.

"The switching — if you haven't seen it — can really bother you," Wade said. "We were there, forcing pretty tough, contested jump shots most of the time. That was critical."

Instead of double-teaming LSU's worst mismatch, who was 6-foot-10 center Osun Osunniyi, the Tigers pressured the passes to him instead.

"Because he's such a good passer out of the post," Wade said.

Osunniyi got his 15 points, but he had only four offensive rebounds and three assists.

"We did a great job of forcing their offense out and not giving them angles to feed it in there," Wade said.

And St. Bonaventure kept missing from the outside. Top scorers Kyle Lofton and Dominick Welch were a combined 5 of 28 from the field and 2 of 14 from 3-point range. 

Suddenly, LSU has transformed from a team that can make a significant NCAA Tournament run whether it shoots well or not.