LSU

Why LSU basketball, Matt McMahon will sneak into the NCAA Tournament. 5 bold predictions

Koki Riley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

BATON ROUGE - The first season of LSU basketball under coach Matt McMahon is a mystery to predict.

The Tigers are adding 10 new scholarship players in McMahon's first season, which will be played under the cloud of an NCAA investigation that could derail their hopes of playing in any kind of postseason.

But despite that uncertainty, here are five bold predictions heading into the Tigers' 2022-23 season.

KJ Williams will lead LSU in scoring, but Tyrell Ward finishes second

Williams is the reigning Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year for a reason. In four seasons playing under McMahon at Murray State, he averaged 13.4 points and 7.2 rebounds. He can hit threes (shooting 35.5% from beyond the arc in his career), score in isolation and capitalize on second-chance opportunities as an offensive rebounder.

With guard and former Illinois starter Adam Miller coming off an ACL tear, Williams is easily the best bet to be the Tigers' leading scorer. Second behind Williams, mostly because of Miller's injury, is a toss-up.

There are some veteran candidates for the spot, including NC State transfer Cam Hayes and Murray State transfer Justice Hill. But Ward, a freshman, should be the guy. He was the No. 36 recruit in the nation and the No. 11 forward in the country when he signed with LSU this offseason, according to 247Sports Composite.

LSU will finish the year with a top 5 defense in the SEC

The Tigers eventually will have a strong defense in McMahon's first season.

Size, rebounding and shot-blocking will be strengths, as LSU has six scholarship players who are at least 6-foot-8 (Shawn Phillips, Williams, Jalen Reed, Derek Fountain, Corneilous Williams and Kendal Coleman).

No more than two of those six will be able to play with each other at the same time, but there's still plenty of length and versatility within that group. And with Ward and forward Mwani Wilkinson, the Tigers also have two wing players who can defend multiple positions.

When McMahon was at Murray State, his teams were very solid on defense. The Racers were 16th in the nation in defensive rating last season and no worse than 33rd in four of his final five seasons.

Justice Williams and Trae Hannibal will be the odd men out in LSU's guard rotation

LSU has a deep corps of guards, including Hannibal, Justice Williams, Miller, Hayes and Hill. And with how talented LSU's group of forwards is, only three of this group of five will receive regular rotation minutes.

As the only true point guards on the team, Hayes and Hill will share time as LSU's floor generals. Hill has the leg up to start, at least initially, given his familiarity with McMahon. Miller then will get the lion's share of minutes at shooting guard, as he was a promising player at Illinois before transferring to LSU last season and getting hurt in the preseason.

That leaves Williams and Hannibal as the odd men out.

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LSU will lose at least six of its first eight SEC games

LSU's first eight SEC games in order: Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and Arkansas again.

Woof. That's a murderer's row of programs that are all expected to at least make the NCAA Tournament. And since this stretch comes during the opening half of LSU's SEC schedule, all of the Tigers' new pieces won't be as familiar with each other as they'd like to be.

LSU will make the NCAA Tournament

The Tigers have the talent to play in March. Two high-end freshmen (Ward and Reed), KJ Williams (a preseason second-team All-SEC selection) and Miller will help lead a surprisingly deep roster.

The NCAA investigation dragging into next offseason, as it did with Oklahoma State when the Cowboys made the NCAA Tournament despite also facing looming sanctions throughout 2020, combined with a weak second-half SEC schedule could also benefit LSU.

Koki Riley covers LSU sports for The Daily Advertiser and the USA TODAY Sports South Region. Email him at kriley@theadvertiser.com and follow him on Twitter at @KokiRiley.