Basketball Tigers Depart For Sweet 16

by Kent Lowe (@LSUkent)
Tony Benford Press Conference - March 26 +0
Basketball Tigers Depart For Sweet 16

BATON ROUGE – The LSU men’s basketball team left Wednesday afternoon for their 10th Sweet Sixteen appearance in the NCAA Tournament, flying to Washington, D.C., for their East Regional matchup Friday with Michigan State.

The matchup of the second seed Spartans and No. 3 Tigers will take place at the Capital One Arena at 6:09 p.m. CT and will be televised by CBS (Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, Grant Hill, Tracy Wolfson) and broadcast on the LSU Sports Radio Network with Voice of the Tigers Chris Blair and former LSU coach John Brady (LSUsports.net/live or Eagle 98.1 FM in Baton Rouge the flagship).

The Tigers are 28-6 on the season after wins over Yale (79-74) and Maryland (69-67) in the first two rounds in Jacksonville, Florida. Michigan is 30-6 after wins over Bradley (76-65) and Minnesota (70-50).

These teams last met in the 1979 Sweet 16 in Indianapolis, as Magic Johnson and the Spartans took down Dale Brown and the Tigers, 87-71, in the Mideast Regional. The teams were seeded exactly as they are this year with Michigan State a two seed and LSU a three seed.

Both teams this year are league champions with LSU capturing its 11th Southeastern Conference title and Michigan State the champions of the Big Ten.

Late Tuesday afternoon LSU interim coach Tony Benford met with the media and here are some of his comments:

Opening statement…
“We’re extremely excited to be headed to the Sweet Sixteen. These guys have really paid the price to have this opportunity starting when they got on the campus in June, and through all our workouts, through the adversity – it shows you the character of these guys. To be in this position, they’ve really earned it. We’re looking forward to playing a great Michigan State team.”

On what he’s seen in Michigan State
“They have a hall of fame coach and one of the greatest coaches of all-time in Coach (Tom) Izzo. He does a tremendous job. They’re as good as anybody in the country on offense. They’re very efficient, also defensively. The main thing you have to do with them is you’ve got to do a great job in transition defense. You have to keep them out of transition. They score 30-percent for their points in transition. We have to get back and make them play against our set defense. Offensively, we have to really execute. They’re number three in field-goal percentage defense and the top-20 in scoring defense. We have to do a great job on offense and defense. Our offense has to help our defense. We’re looking forward to the challenge. We had a great practice (Tuesday). We’ll go again in the morning. We’ll do a lot of film work and we’ll be prepared Friday.”

On how much they have stressed total team defense…
“Obviously they have a great player. The player of the year in their league, Cassius Winston. He’s really talented. He reminds me of, when I was at Marquette, of Kemba Walker. He reminds me of Kemba with his ability to score at all three levels. They put a lot of pressure on the defense in transition. They have really good inside players. They have (Xavier) Tillman who is very strong in the low post. Nick Ward and (Kenny) Goins. They have a really good low post. The x-factor is Matt McQuaid. He’s a really good shooter. He’s a kid I knew when I was at North Texas. I knew him a long time. He’s a really good player and a great leader for them. They are just a solid all-around team.”

On going up against Tom Izzo…
“I have much respect for coach Izzo. His resume’ speaks for itself and our staff is looking forward to preparing our guys. It’s not going to be us against coach. We’re just going to prepare or guys as much we can and make in-game adjustments to have our guys ready to play.”

On playing in and winning a lot of close games…
“It’s a testament to these guys. The closeness of these guys and the respect they have for one another, the trust they have in one another, their ability to make plays under pressure – that’s rare. I’ve been doing this a long time, and you don’t see that with young players. Some players tend to wilt under pressure. These guys, they just get stronger. I think we try to prepare them for it. We work on six minute games. We just worked on one. We put them in a situation with six minutes to go, we’re eight or 12 points down and they have to play it out and make good decisions down the stretch. And make good plays. You have to have great players to win close games like that and we have guys that can make plays.”

On struggling to put games away after gaining substantial leads…
“College basketball is a game of runs. Ask Duke. That’s the greatest coach of all time and the greatest player in the game today and they played a solid UCF team. You look around at the tournament and everyone is playing close games. I think what we have to do is continue to prepare our guys to execute offensively against a solid Michigan State team. Then we have to do a good job defensively. If we’re in that position again we just have to make the right plays. We have to get stops defensively. We’ve got to finish those possessions with rebounds and then you have to go down to the offensive end and grind it out and get good shots. That’s what we have to continue to do.”

On going up against mature players like Matt McQuaid…
“Matt has had some injuries in his career that have held him out a bit, but he’s a really good player. He’ll be one of the best defenders probably that Tre’s gone against. I saw him defend Carson Edwards and he did a great job against Carson. He can make shots. He shoots about 44-percetn from the three-point line. He just makes big plays for them. We have to do a good job of knowing where he’s at in transition. Cassius does a great job of pushing the ball and looking for Matt. He’s made big shots for them throughout the season. We have to do a good job against him.”

On what his initial thoughts were when he was named interim …
“All I tried to do when I was named interim was just concentrate on the kids. That’s the main thing, the players – making sure they have a great experience. Not only me, but the whole staff, we prepare these guys to play every game. Make sure they block out the noise. All we can concentrate is in the moment we’re in today, to be the best that we can be. Go out and perform. That’s what I try to do, is just out and concentrate on the guys. That’s made it easier for me because it’s all about their experience.”

On how Tremont’s size has determined the type of player he’s become…
“I think you have to contribute that to Tremont’s heart and his dad. You probably could google some videos from when he was in the seventh grade and his dad put him through some workouts. I was talking to Coach Jones, the Yale coach, and Tremont used to go up to their gym and workout all the time when he was in junior high. He’s put in the time guys, and worked on his game, his ball skills, his shooting ability and he’s become a great defensive player. He was named (SEC) Co-defensive Player of the Year and I think he’s become a really big leader for us too. He’s like a coach on the floor. We’re really fortunate to have him and I know he’s looking forward to the matchup with Cassius on Friday.”

On the strengths of Greg Heiar and Bill Armstrong
“Coach Heiar is one of the best young coaches out there. I think he does a great job with his preparation. He has this scout. We were texting last night at two in the morning different things we were looking at watching film. He’s a basketball junkie. He does a great job of taking an opponent and breaking them down, each players’ weaknesses, what we have to do to stop those players, offensively what we need to run to probably be effective and defensively what we’ve got to do as far as guarding ball screens, defending the post. Do you want to trap the post? Do you want to go one-on-one in the post? I think he does a great job with that. He’s fiery. He does a great job bringing a lot of energy every day. I think we play off each other. He’s probably a little more fiery than I am … Bill Armstrong is probably in between both of us. Bill’s probably the guy that is calmer among the three of us.”

On if Marshall Graves could see any minutes…
“I leave the substitutions up to Coach Armstrong. We did that when Coach Wade was here. He handles our substitutions. We thought about putting him in the game the other night against that zone. He’s not bashful. He’ll put it up and he can make shots. He’s one of our better shooters. I told him be ready. He might need to go in and make some shots for us. It’s a possibility he could play. He’s done a great job.”

On having a week to prepare for Michigan State…
“It’s huge. First of all, your kids get a chance to rest. We took Sunday and Monday off. Our guys came back fresh. You want to be light on your legs and heavy on our minds around this time. We have got a lot of shooting in. Our percentage may not be great, but we have some guys that can make some shots. We want to make sure they get a lot of shots up during this time right now. We’ll be prepared.”

On how he handles his duties as the interim head coach…
“What I try to do is, we’re all involved in the game plan. For instance, the Maryland scout was Coach Bill Armstrong‘s scout. Greg Heiar had input and I had input. We break it down. We talk about what we want to do. What we want to run offensively, what we want to do defensively, if we want to make changes on different things, what personnel will work well together. I try to manage the game. I let those guys handle the bench a lot for substitutions. If we need to make adjustments, they make suggestions to me and I’ll ask them. I just try to manage the game the best I can.”

On being considered an underdog…
“The odds were against us with Yale. They were against us with Maryland. I think everybody has picked us to lose because of our situation and all the adversity these guys have gone through. I can tell you what, this is a close group. They respect one another. They work hard. They have given themselves to us coaches and they want to win. We know everybody is picking us to not advance, but we can’t control that. All we can control is our preparation and what we do to get ready to play an outstanding Michigan State team. We will be ready.”

On how this team can improve in transition offense…
“We’re pretty good in transition, but you have to get the rebound. If we have great defensive possessions, get stops and rebound the ball, we can get out in transition. We’re athletic. Our bigs can run. Our guards can make plays in transition. That’s the whole key to transition offense. Even if they do score we can still run on makes sometime. We’d rather gets stops and rebound the ball on misses. That’s what we like to do.”

On how they have developed so many closers…
“I think it’s the character of these guys when you look at it. We have some guys that have been winners in our high school careers. That really helps. We have guys with the ability to make plays off the bounce. Tremont can go create his own shot or a great shot for his teammates. Skylar Mays can do the same thing. Javonte can do the same. Naz is able to go in the post or create off the bounce. We’ve got several guys who can make plays and that matters. That’s great. When you have that as a coach, that makes your job a lot easier.”

On Javonte Smart
“… I just told him to play with confidence. He’s got a lot of confidence. I tell him, ‘Javonte, if you have a good shot, take it.’ That’s what we want him to do. We want him to be aggressive. That’s his nature. He’s really good when he’s aggressive. We don’t want him playing passive.”

On players answering the same questions over and over…
“I think the more success you have the more scrutiny and questions you’re going to be asked. I think our guys; we’re going to stay in the moment. We all can control what we can control. That’s getting better every day and preparing for who our next opponent is. We can’t control the peripheral noise. All that we can control is what’s in our locker room and our huddles and just getting better every day.”