LSU basketball prepares for NCAA opener
JACKSONVILLE, FL - The LSU Tiger basketball team will tip off their NCAA Tournament run on Thursday morning with a 1st Round game against Yale. It's LSU's first time back in the Big Dance in four years and many are not giving them a chance to advance given the recent controversy surrounding their suspended coach Will Wade and their early exit at the SEC Tournament.
On Wednesday prior to tipping off the Tigers met with the media in Jacksonville and here is a transcript of their questions and answers.
Q. Tre, how far did you grow up from Yale in New Haven? And did you ever as a kid maybe think about playing there?
TREMONT WATERS: Yeah, I grew up about -- like if I had a strong enough arm, I could probably throw a rock to Yale's basketball facilities.
Growing up playing basketball, I didn't necessarily think about playing them in the tournament, but it's a great feeling to be able to make it this far and be able to play against someone who's from back home.
Q. I've heard you played some pickup games against some of those guys when you were in high school. Do you remember any of them?
TREMONT WATERS: I used to play on the same AAU team as Azar Swain and Jordan Bruner. He was a guy that was on his way there like to start his school process, but he had sat out one year, so we had put up a couple shots together. Nothing crazy, but yeah.
Q. This team, their starting five has four players that average double-digit scoring. They're a high-flying scoring offense as you guys are. How do you guys plan to keep up, or is the mindset kind of the same, you're going to try to stay the same and score, as well?
SKYLAR MAYS: Yeah, it's going to be a big challenge for us. You know, when you see that balance on the scoring end, that means they really pass the ball well, so everybody is a weapon. We're just going to try to stick to our defensive principles and try to make shots hard for them.
TREMONT WATERS: Yeah, obviously like when you come into this type of environment, you've got to play against guys who either push the ball, slow it down. It's just a bunch of type of different offensive schemes and defensive schemes. We can't shy away from what we've been doing as a program, we've just got to continue to do what our jobs are and just keep doing what we do.
Q. Miye Oni, obviously a scorer, the leader of this team. What have you seen from him on film and what makes him so difficult to guard?
SKYLAR MAYS: He's a great player. He's been an integral part of a team that's made it to the NCAA Tournament, so you can tell the talent that he brings, and he's unbelievable in transition. So we're going to try to keep him out of that, and again, just try to make shots hard for him.
Q. What have you guys learned from the SEC Tournament? Obviously that loss against Florida. What have you guys done over the last week to try and pre-prepare and refocus, especially know that Will Wade is not going to be here?
TREMONT WATERS: All season we've been saying, we are a family, we are going to grow together. Keep pushing through everything, all that adversity that's been thrown at us. But nothing has changed since the Florida game. It was a game that we lost. We didn't execute down the stretch, and we know that we have to come together as a family even more now because we don't have our head coach.
Coach Benford is our new head coach and everyone respects that. We totally loved the change of Coach Benford being there, Coach GH, Coach Armstrong. But like we say, we've just got to come together, just be one and not let anything break us apart.
Q. Not having your head coach, has it bonded you guys as a closer unit? What has it done to bring you guys closer as a basketball team?
SKYLAR MAYS: Yeah, you know, the ideal family is when one person is down, the other person has to pick them up. The huge part of our team and Coach Wade, with him being out, we knew that we'd have to come together even more, and we probably didn't show it as much in the Florida game, but looking at that film and learning from that loss, we understand that's going to be a big part of us being able to move further down in this tournament and getting past Yale.
Q. Now that y'all have worked with Coach Tony and Heiar and Armstrong as that collective co-coaches unit for a couple of weeks now, how are you getting used to that in terms of only having it for one day for the first game?
TREMONT WATERS: Well, they were a part of our coaching staff before, they were just an extension of Coach Wade, but now that Coach Benford is our actual head coach now, everyone is looking towards him, and he's putting a lot of -- not pressure, but he's putting a lot of trust into the players now and just holding each other accountable more because when Coach Wade was the coach, he had more say so. But now that we know we don't have him, everyone has been coming together. We've been in the gym shooting a lot more. Like we've been doing a lot of things together without the coaching staff pretty much forcing us to do it, like throughout practice and stuff.
I would just say that they're giving us a lot more freedom to see what we're going to do, and I would say we've stepped up to the challenge. We know that games aren't going to be easy. We've just got to go out, fight together and be brothers.
Q. Kind of following that up, with all the off-the-court stuff, how much do you guys think about that other than when you're in press conference here? During the day between practices, between games, is it on your mind, and does it anger you what people say about the program and about your coach?
SKYLAR MAYS: I think there's been a lot of outside stuff throughout the year and we've done a great job of keeping that stuff outside. You know, once we step on the court, and I think our record shows that. We should be able to continue to do that, and me and Tremont as leaders, we trust all these guys, and we've developed a great bond over the year, and we expect that bond to keep us together on the court.
Q. Obviously this is a different team than Florida, Florida more of a slow-it-down type of offense, and this one more of a high-speed offense. Coach Benford talked about how paint touches would be more important in this game. Without giving away the game plan, what do you think is an important to do in a game like this where it could be a shootout down the stretch?
TREMONT WATERS: I would say we have to get back in transition because Oni, he's a beast in transition. He likes to push the ball, get out, and their point guard, No. 3, he pushes the ball a lot, and as long as we're able to stop those two guys and pretty much play everyone else inside, then I feel like we have a pretty good chance to win the game.
Q. Skylar, I don't know if you saw, but ESPN rated all the coaches by their playing ability, and Coach Benford rated pretty high. Has he ever told you about what a great player he was, and does he still have any game?
SKYLAR MAYS: Yeah, he brings up how back in the day he got drafted by the Celtics, I believe, and said he was kicking butt back in the '80s. But he doesn't dwell on it too much. It was a long time ago.
Q. I don't know if you got asked this earlier, but being from New Haven, what do you know about Yale? Did you get recruited by Yale? Did you consider them? Some of the guys said you might play pick-up games.
TREMONT WATERS: Yeah, like I said before, if I had a strong enough arm, I could probably throw a rock to Yale's basketball facilities. That's where I started playing basketball. My dad got a membership to Payne Whitney gym, and it was like the local -- not local but the facility where everyone could go in, if you had a membership. So that's where I started. Actually one of my basketball videos, like my training videos is actually in their gym, and that's when I wasn't being recruited by them, so it wasn't a violation or anything.
Yeah, I just grew up playing there. Now that Azar Swain goes there, I actually grew up playing basketball with him for the CT Elite Basketball Club, and just knowing that I'm from New Haven and that this team is from New Haven, it's an honor to be able to play them in the first game of the March Madness NCAA Tournament.
THE MODERATOR: Coach, a few thoughts on the last weeks and how it's gone for your basketball team.
TONY BENFORD: Yeah, first of all, our guys have been great. They've been working extremely hard. We've had some great practices the last few days, really focused, especially after the SEC Tournament. After the loss to Florida, we gave the guys a couple of days off. Came back, had two really, really, I think, spirited practices. The guys are focused, looking forward to the opportunity to play here in the NCAA Tournament against a very quality Yale team, and we'll be prepared to play tomorrow.
Q. Naz Reid is a local guy for us. What's his development been like on and off the court?
TONY BENFORD: Great. I'll tell you what, I was just talking to another media person about Naz. Naz has lost 30 points since he joined us in June, and he's worked extremely hard. Out strength coach has done a great job with him. We all know about his skill set, but he's been very coachable, he's got a high IQ, he absorbs the scouting reports and our film sessions. He's really good, and I'll tell you what, with our big guys he's like a coach on the floor with our big guys. He's been good defensively. That's one area I think he's really improved is defensively. He's able to guard ball screens. You'll see Naz, we'll match him up sometimes on the wings. He's guarding 6'4", 6'5" wings.
I've been really pleased. He should be a lottery pick, in my opinion. I don't see how guys pass on a guy with that size and that skill set.
Q. Tony, given the unforeseen circumstances of the season, being thrown in so late, what does it mean having been a head coach so recently? Do you think it would be -- has it made the adjustment easier for you? And if you hadn't been, would it have been more difficult?
TONY BENFORD: That's a good question. First of all, we have a quality group. What I mean, a group of character kids, and they've really bought in. They've really taken ownership of their team. They've had to unfortunately go through a lot of adversity this year, losing one of their teammates in Wayde Sims, and that really made these guys a tighter knit group, brought them closer together, more trust and respect for one another, and it made easier for us to coach them. They dedicated the season to Wayde Sims. That's the reason we were able to win in overtime. Had six overtime games in the league and we were 5-1 in those games because of the closeness of this group.
For me to step in, Coach Wade really delegates a lot to our coaching staff. We have a great staff - Greg Heiar, who is ready to be a head coach. He was at Wichita State. He does a tremendous job. Then Bill Armstrong, who was in the SEC for 13 years. That's made it easier, having really good -- I say we're co-coaches but really other good coaches on the staff, and that's helped our transition and our relationship with our players.
Q. Following that up, how difficult has it been for you to not only try to coach a basketball team obviously but keep players focused on basketball as opposed to everything swirling around the program?
TONY BENFORD: Well, first of all, we talk about narrow focus, narrowing our focus, controlling -- we can't control the outside noise and what's going on. All we can control is our locker room and our huddle, and the players, they've taken ownership of the locker room. They're holding everyone accountable, their teammates accountable, too. So that's huge when you can narrow your focus. Kind of have to have tunnel vision and put blinders on. But they're aware of what's going on on the outside, but inside when we walk in those doors, hey, it's about preparing for -- for instance, Yale. We've got to prepare today, guys. We can't control what's going on on the outside.
Q. What are your thoughts about the program just being shown in such a negative light? And do you have any sense for what players think about it, but also what do you think about it?
TONY BENFORD: Well, I mean, in college athletics, things happen. That's just part of life, in any walk of life, any profession, things happen. So we can't worry about that right now. I'm just focused on these kids and making sure that we're prepared for Yale, and making sure that we're going to represent LSU the best way we can at this moment.
Q. I asked one of the players this: You saw ESPN ranked the coaches by their playing ability, and you ranked pretty high. You were not Chris Mullin, but one of the pretty good coaches in the tournament. I was just wondering if you had seen that, and what do you take from your playing days to help you relate to players and what they're going through and what they're thinking, that sort of thing?
TONY BENFORD: Yeah, that was about 100 pounds ago with that. But anyway, I saw that. One of my subs sent that to me.
But anyway, I had guys -- I played my senior year -- well, I played a couple years in the NCAA Tournament. I played at Texas Tech, and we lost a teammate, and I related this to my guys. We lost a teammate when I was in college while we were playing at the rec center on the floor, had a heart attack and died. That brought back -- I still stay in contact with those guys. That brought us closer together, that group that I played with. That's what I see with these guys. I shared my experience with these guys, and you can see like these guys have went through the adversity, obviously the adverse situation with losing Wayde that we've gone through there, a lot of people talk about being their brothers' keepers and all that stuff. These guys are living it. They are truly their brothers' keepers.
So we've got to continue to stay focused and continue to stay together.
Q. Tony, your history with the tournament, you know there's upsets happen in these early-round games. You're playing an early game tomorrow. What's your message to your team? How do you keep your team loose and not get tight as a top seed?
TONY BENFORD: Well, Yale is, first of all, they're well-coached. Coach Jones is a tremendous coach. He does a great job, and those guys are -- they have more experience. We have one guy that's been in the tournament. That's Kavell Bigby-Williams. They have five that have played in it just recently two years ago, and beat Baylor. They played Duke really, really close that second game I remember.
But you look at their numbers, they scare you. Offensively they're off the chart. They really push the basketball. But also defensively they're pretty sound. I think they're holding teams to 41 percent field goal percentage on defense. So they're a quality team.
But all we can control is what we do. We're not going to change a whole lot. That's one thing, I think, is we've kind of kept our routine the same. We've got to do a good job of pushing the tempo. They want to push the tempo. But we've got to do a good job, make sure we get back in transition defense and get to their shooters, and they've got some guys that can make some plays, obviously Oni and Copeland and Reynolds all can make plays.
So we've got to do a solid job defensively. We've got to be solid on our ball screen coverage, on the defensive end, and then we've got to rebound the ball, and then we've got to get on the glass. We're one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, so when a shot goes up, we've got to make sure we get on the glass, too, for the next possession.
Q. As a coach, you've obviously been thrown into a very unusual situation. How do you as a coach impart to 19, 20, 21-year-old kids trying to navigate this with all the outside noise that comes in with a situation like this? How have you handled that with them?
TONY BENFORD: Well, earlier I was just mentioning to a couple of the members in the chairs that we try to talk about today. We can't control what happened yesterday. But we're mindful of the fact that there's a lot of noise out there. You know that, but what we try to do is focus in on Yale right now. That's what we've done, preparing for Yale, and we've talked about that. Unfortunately guys have great leadership in Skylar Mays, Tremont Waters. You guys just visited with those guys. Kavell Bigby has been a great leader for us. So we just really try to have tunnel vision and just concentrate on the task at hand, and that's to play a really good Yale team.
Q. Has it become maybe a little bit easier now as time goes on, maybe I'm sure the first few days it happened, there might have been a little more of a chaotic feel to it, but has it become easier has time has moved on?
TONY BENFORD: Well, I don't know about easier, but it's helped, and I think we're settled into a routine I guess is the right answer to that. I think our guys -- we haven't changed our routine at all as far as our preparation and as far as the amount of time we spend with our guys and stuff. I don't think it's gotten easier, but the guys I think now are accustomed that Coach is not around right now. They're hearing my voice, Coach Heiar's voice and Coach Armstrong, and they understand that.
And then again, I just get back to the ownership. I think every championship team that I've been a part of, associated with, it's always about the players. Players have taken ownership of their teams, and that's the reason we were able to win the SEC championship is because of our players.
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