Rapidly reloading LSU roster driven to 'start fresh, wake some people up'
Matt McMahon brushed aside concerns of potential program sanctions from the first question of his introductory press conference at LSU seven weeks ago.
The Tigers' new coach said he hadn't "even looked that far down the road" and repeatedly redirected to his excitement to rebuild both the culture and roster from the foundation.
"There's a lot to be done," he admitted and assured, "And I'm in it for the long haul."
But the speed and efficiency with which McMahon and his staff have restocked the purple-and-gold talent pool since then has stunned much of the college basketball world, including blue-blood counterparts vying for the same players.
And a program once expected to suffer through a lean year — or two or three — before being able to reasonably and consistently compete in one of the nation's top conferences fairly suddenly appears to poised to out-perform and out-pace any of those outside expectations or criticisms.
"This is LSU, one of the great brands in all of sports," McMahon said. "This is the SEC. We've built a program with elite players, and we're going to continue to do that here at LSU. I'm excited to move the program forward, and we're gonna build it with great players, great people and everyone in our organization. So no concerns there at all. I'm excited about this opportunity of a lifetime, and we're ready to roll."
Storm Clouds and Floodgates
The university had just received in early March a notice of allegations from the NCAA that included seven Level I allegations tied to the men's basketball program alone, in addition to other purported Level II, Level III or football-related violations.
President William F. Tate IV and athletic director Scott Woodward announced the termination of coach Will Wade and associate head coach Bill Armstrong on March 12, as the Tigers awaited their NCAA tournament draw.
The divorce had been in many ways more than three years in the making, including a nearly six-week suspension in 2019 and subsequently reworded contract.
A historic efficiency of on-court success — with Wade finishing with the program's fourth-highest win total and second-highest winning percentage — was often, if not always, tinged with the tension and gloom of ongoing investigations and corresponding barrage of criticism from fans and media around the country.
Iowa State ended the team's season six days later. And, within the next week, one player after another began eying his options elsewhere.
Eleven of 13 scholarship players entered the transfer portal in a nine-day span, with the other two declaring for the 2022 NBA Draft.
All four commitments or signees for the next two recruiting classes — three for 2022 and another for 2023, including a combined three five-star prospects — reopened their recruitments.
Guard Cam Hayes, who transferred from North Carolina State last month, admitted the volume raised eyebrows even from afar.
"When everything was going on, seeing all those people go in the transfer portal, at first you really were thinking, 'Man, why are all these people leaving?'" he remembered. "But you realize it's a whole new coaching staff going there, and all the people that were there were all Will Wade recruits."
And McMahon and his staff, arriving against the flood current of that exodus, were tasked with an entirely fresh start without even knowing for sure what restrictions could await.
"I was never of the opinion that LSU is a particularly difficult place to win or that Will Wade was the only one that could win there," Rivals national recruiting director Rob Cassidy said. "But I was worried that it would take a handful of years to rebuild an absolutely bare roster. If we’re being really honest, I sort of chalked up the 2022 recruiting cycle as a lost year. Obviously that has not been the case, but the hill to climb was massive."
A Relationships Business
McMahon and his staff were able to move quickly on familiar faces for their first four signees.
Former Captain Shreve standout Kendal Coleman couldn't pass on the chance to play for the home-state SEC team.
The Northwestern State center led his team with 16 points and 13 rebounds at LSU in December, and returns along with fellow Louisiana native and longtime Demons assistant Jeff Moore, who takes over as director of recruiting.
Murray State guards Justice Hill and Trae Hannibal, both former SEC signees, and one-time Racers commitment Corneilous Williams followed McMahon and staffers Casey Long, Tim Kaine, Ronrico White, Mike Chapman and Brian Puckett to Baton Rouge.
"Obviously being here with coach Mac for two years," Hill said while finishing his spring semester at Murray State, "We have a relationship that's already been established. And everybody that has had to jump around between schools really knows that just trusting the coaching staff and the people that you're going to be playing for is something that is really important when you're looking for where you want to go to school.
"So that was obviously something that was still on the table. Still having that same trust on a bigger platform, bigger stage, bigger school was definitely something that I think would be hard to turn down for anybody. Then obviously what LSU has to offer just from being LSU, the SEC, the location, everything, really that was an easy sell. Honestly, I feel like it was just a perfect situation."
Hill said he and Hannibal actually began preparing themselves months in advance for a potential move, especially if the Racers' strong season launched McMahon into a higher-profile job.
"When you try to deal with the reality of situations and you realize the success of coaches at this level and a lot of the things going on around NCAA basketball as a whole, you start to get ideas in your head," he said. "Even during the season, not even just in the NCAA tournament, you just start to bring up scenarios.
"And definitely something that me and Trae had talked about was if it ever came true, we would try to make it happen. So definitely fortunate enough to make it happen, because we'd definitely been in conversation. We just didn't know it would end up being LSU. But definitely after the season when I knew coach was leaving, I knew the transfer portal was something that I was gonna explore."
That perspective and the wide-open roster circumstances made the actual series of events an admittedly quick turnaround.
Murray State won its first NCAA tournament game, but fell short to the Cinderella buzzsaw Saint Peter's and had its season end the day after LSU's.
The Racers returned home that Sunday, and McMahon told the players to enjoy their spring break and reconvene on campus the following week.
But news began leaking out the next day that he had accepted the LSU opportunity, so he called a virtual meeting via Zoom and was headed south by afternoon.
Coleman, Hill, Williams and Hannibal committed and signed the next week.
"When I knew coach was leaving, I knew the transfer portal was something that I was gonna explore," Hill said. "And once coach talked to me and told me what the deal was going to be, that was really it as far as other schools were concerned. I had just put my name in the portal to see what other opportunities could maybe come about. But the whole time I knew I was gonna be with coach Mac."
Hill can't say enough positive words about McMahon.
The glowing reviews include basketball-specific aspects such as the style of play and track records of both team success and player development the coach oversaw at Murray State.
But, even more, Hill emphasizes day-to-day, year-round consistency, enthusiasm and trust.
"The basketball scheme side of it works," he said. "But I think more importantly you just know what you're going to get with coach Mac every day. There's not gonna be any ups and downs. It's gonna be high energy, up tempo all the time, and he's definitely going to push you to match that energy and match that level.
"He just preaches on the opportunity that you have to play college basketball and how many people would be honored to be in this position. He just makes you get on his level of energy and appreciation of being there and really teaches you a lot about being a man, just as much as about being a point guard or whatever position you may be."
Hill, Hannibal and most recently K.J. Williams, who signed last week, all had the benefit of seeing those attributes at play for years with McMahon and the staff in Kentucky.
Twice as many players had to take more of a leap of faith in the staff and its game plan with only a couple weeks in some cases to start building rapport.
Cam Hayes said he had watched Murray State some in 2018 -19 when then-sophomore guard Ja Morant was ascending into one of the sport's top young athletes.
And the staff's mindset and communication style quickly resonated.
"When I entered the portal, it was a lot of schools reaching out, but LSU just made me a priority," he said. "Talking with coach Mac and coach Long a lot and just seeing their vision they have coming in for the new LSU program and what their goals were, I just liked everything he said and laid out to me. But he didn't promise me anything, which was one of the big things that I liked that he wasn't just selling me a dream. He was keeping it honest with me the whole time."
The Greensboro, N.C., native left his home state to become the Tigers' first transfer addition to come from a university where members of their new staff hadn't coached during the past year.
"Just me wanting a fresh start and them having a fresh start at a new school, it was basically me being able to go to a new school and start all the way over," Hayes said. "And seeing what they accomplished at Murray State, the people they got into the league and the winning game and the winning culture, everything that they said sounded good. And I feel like the vision that had for LSU is really good, and I'm excited to see how it all pans out when everybody gets there."
The first two showed McMahon and company's ability to pull two contributors from other Power Five programs.
The latter two showed the confidence the staff had gained from a duo of returning players who had experienced success under the previous regime.
And LSU appeared to hit even another gear to close April and begin May.
Former Florida signee Jalen Reed, a four-star forward in Santa Clarita, Calif., signed April 28 with the Tigers out of a list of at least 20 scholarship options.
Former Xavier commitment Tyrell Ward, a five-star forward in Bethesda, Md., signed April 30 despite many expectations he was headed for Georgetown or Virginia Tech.
And K.J. Williams, the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year, announced May 5 his commitment to LSU despite interest from national runner-up North Carolina and other notable programs.
"McMahon has changed my (immediate expectations) significantly," Cassidy said. "A lot of times you need a big, splashy name to make enough waves to salvage a recruiting class this late in the cycle. Coming from Murray State is not that, but McMahon has somehow still managed to beat out heavy hitters to land day-one contributors.
"I think a lot of heads turned when he landed five-star prospect Tyrell Ward, despite Ward having deep connections to both Georgetown and Virginia Tech. Winning that battle is obviously great for the roster, but it also says McMahon is capable of winning battles at the highest level of recruiting going forward."
On the Horizon
Potential sanctions that could await LSU remain unclear.
But Hill and Hayes echoed McMahon's sentiments of being largely unfazed by the topic and more focused on the work and opportunity ahead.
"Obviously it's been something that we've had to talk about, but we really haven't gone too far in-depth about it," Hill said. "Because really I think it'll work out the way it's supposed to. Even if we do get some type of sanctions or something like that, I feel like everything will still work out for the better.
"We definitely have said something about it, but it's something that I think that even regardless if it does happen we'll be all right and we'll be able to work through it."
The Tigers now have at least 11 scholarship players locked in and continue working to potential add another one or two.
"It's been good," Hayes said of watching the roster continue to grow. "I knew Coach Mac and them had some things cooking up, so I really wasn't worried. But the pieces that we've been bringing in have been really good. I feel like we're gonna be real well-rounded and that everything is really shaping up just how they said it was gonna happen, so it's really looking good. I'm really looking forward to being able to meet everybody and get to work."
Most of the players plan to arrive in the beginning of June.
But they and the coaches have continued to grow a group text message with each signing.
Hill and Hayes said they've appreciated the head start on getting to know their new teammates, particularly the way Wilkinson and Justice Williams have recommitted to the program under new leadership and have started welcoming all the new faces with open arms.
They said those conversations have focused solely on future without any question of the circumstances that led to the wholesale turnover in the first place.
But the newest Tigers said they are arriving with a collective chip on their shoulders under the circumstances.
"I feel like a lot of people are really sleeping on us," Hayes said. "But I feel like our team is really nice, honestly, in my opinion. We've got a lot of pieces. A lot of people that can get buckets, defend and do everything to help the team win."
Said Hill: "I'm just really looking forward to being able to come out there and represent the Tigers and everybody who's been there before us. People are counting us out, but we're definitely going to wake some people up this year. I'm looking forward to it."