When LSU coach Will Wade took over the program in 2017, one of his goals was to make LSU basketball a state-wide brand, one that Louisiana could be proud of and root for.
In Wade's mind, the best way of going about that is making sure to take the team to all corners of the state for fans across Louisiana to catch a glimpse at the program he's building. In 2017, LSU scrimmaged Tulane. In 2019, the Tigers traveled to Ruston for a scrimmage with Louisiana Tech in a "Disaster Relief Effort" after a tornado ravaged the area just a few months prior.
This year, the Tigers will square up with Louisiana Tech once again, the game taking place on Nov. 24 in a neutral setting at Bossier City's CenturyLink Center, in what should be a highly competitive matchup. Louisiana Tech is coming off a 19-7 season and return five seniors to its squad in 2020.
"I think it's important for our program to travel and to go play in other venues in the state," Wade said in a conference call Monday. "We wanted to play an attractive opponent and Louisiana Tech, Eric's [Konkol] been cranking out 20-win season after 20-win season so we're very excited to travel up there and play a great team."
A lot can happen between now and Nov. 24, particularly in these times that are being controlled by the novel coronavirus. One of the first steps Wade and the program will need to figure out is just what the team will look like come the regular season.
The Tigers are awaiting the decisions of three underclassmen in Javonte Smart, Darius Days and Trendon Watford, who all have until Aug. 3 to decide if they're keeping their names in the NBA Draft slated for Oct. 16. Exactly how many decide to return Wade doesn't yet know but he feels confident that the Tigers will have a more veteran roster then in previous seasons.
"I think we've got a very good mixture of some experienced guys who have been through the battles of SEC play and some really talented newcomers," Wade said. "We should have a very good team that should challenge at the top of the Southeastern Conference and hopefully in the top-25 nationally."
Those talented newcomers Wade mentioned are led by guard Cam Thomas, who is already on campus along with fellow freshmen Mwani Wilkinson, Josh Cook and Eric Gaines.
"We needed some more ball handlers and Josh and Eric, those are two kids that can come help us and immediately contribute in the backcourt," Wade said. "Obviously a huge part was replacing Skylar Mays and getting Cam Thomas--who is the all-time leading scorer at Oak Hill which is a very prominent high school program--is just a prolific scorer that will help us after losing Skylar."
In addition, Aundre Hyatt and Days are also on campus and are set to start voluntary workouts on Monday Wade said. The program is bringing its players back in small quantities with another group expected to arrive July 13.
Wade and the training staff spent countless hours on zoom calls with the players and their parents to decide about when to bring each player back in a safe manner.
"I don't expect we'll be fully up and running until the first part of August," Wade said. "We're just trying to do it in manageable chunks so we can keep things up and running. Our guys have been great so far, following all of the protocols.
"We've really taken a approach of when you feel comfortable and when you feel like things are safe that you can come at that time. There's a lot of different factors that go into when certain guys plan on coming back."
One player that the LSU staff will be excited to bring to campus, along with the freshmen, will be UCLA transfer Shareef O'Neal. O'Neal, the son of Shaquille O'Neal, was once a top-40 player in the country entering the college ranks but a heart issue discovered before his freshman season forced O'Neal to miss his first season and lingered into his second season with the Bruins.
Now, according to the conversations Wade has had with Shaq and Shareef over the last few months, Shareef is feeling as good as he has in the last four or five years on the court.
"He's been hurt but he's somebody I think is going to be a tremendous player," Wade said. "He had a heart issue and I think this past year at UCLA, he was never really fully recovered and never fully comfortable. From what I can tell from his workouts and talking to him and Shaq and the family, this is as good as he's felt basketball wise in four or five years. I think he'll have a tremendous year for us."
With the players not having the summer to build that chemistry among each other, it puts the 2020 team a little behind the eight ball in that respect. Once the players are all back and LSU gets into a routine, Wade said there are some team-building exercises that will be implemented.
"It's going to be a little bit different but we've tried to come up with a plan for the fall," Wade said. "We're mixing a lot of older guys with some newer guys so when you do that we've got to have those opportunities. We've come up with a lot of different ways to try and create that bond.