Men's Basketball Opens NCAA Tournament vs. Iowa St.

by Kent Lowe
NCAA Bracket Watch: TBS Live Stats Game Notes Photos +0
Men's Basketball Opens NCAA Tournament vs. Iowa St.

MILWAUKEE, Wisc. – The sixth-seeded LSU Tigers put together their final preparations here Thursday and met with the media as they get ready to face No. 11 Iowa State Friday in the first round of the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

The game is set for Friday at Fiserv Forum, the home of the Milwaukee Bucks and Marquette basketball, at 6:20 p.m. CT. It will be broadcast on the affiliates of the LSU Sports Radio Network (Guaranty Media flagship Eagle 98.1 FM in Baton Rouge) with the voice of the Tigers Chris Blair and the former LSU head basketball coach who took the Tigers to the 2006 NCAA Final Four, John Brady.

The telecast of the game will be available on TBS and online at www.ncaa.com/march-madness-live/watch with Spero Dedes, Debbie Antonelli and AJ Ross on the call. Jason Benetti and Will Perdue will have the national radio broadcast of the game on the Westwood One affiliates.

The Tigers are 22-11 and were 9-9 in the Southeastern Conference, finishing in a five-way tie for fifth. LSU was 1-1 in the SEC Tournament and opens the NCAA Tournament as No. 18 in the NCAA Net and No. 19 in Kenpom.com.

Iowa State enters with a 20-12 record, 7-11 in the Big 12. The Cyclones were 0-1 in the Big 12 Tournament and open the event No. 49 in the NCAA Net and No. 45 in Kenpom.com.

After arriving mid-afternoon on Wednesday, the Tigers on Thursday had a formal 90-minute workout at the practice facility on the University of Milwaukee campus before moving to the Fiserv Forum where several players took part in media opportunities and LSU Interim Head Coach Kevin Nickelberry visited with the media and also the Westwood One and CBS television crews.

The team then participated in 40 minutes of shooting opportunities given to all the teams on the day before first round play.

Iowa State is making its 21st NCAA Tournament appearance under first year head coach T. J. Otzelberger. He is one of four first-year head coaches nationally to lead his team to the tournament after taking over a team with a losing record.

Izaiah Brockington, the 6-4 senior guard, leads the Cyclones at 17.2 points per game and 7.1 rebounds, while freshman Tyrese Hunter averaged 10.8 points and 4.9 rebounds. Brockington is the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year while Hunter was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year.

LSU counters with its lineup that is 20-4 on the year with seniors Darius Days at forward and Xavier Pinson at guard, with sophomore Mwani Wilkinson at forward and freshmen Brandon Murray at guard and center Efton Reid III.

The Tigers also have the SEC Sixth Man of the Year, Tari Eason, with a team leading 16.9 points per game and a 6.7 rebound average. Days is averaging 13.7 points and 7.7 rebounds a game, while both Pinson and Murray is 10.1 a contest.

The winner of this game will play the winner of Friday’s late game between No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 14 Colgate at a time to be announced on Sunday.

The following is the transcript from Thursday’s LSU press conference in front of the media at Fiserv Forum featuring Coach Nickelberry, Darius Days, Xavier Pinson and Tari Eason.

MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Welcome to Milwaukee. If you weren’t here this morning, I’m Dennis Crouse. If you have a question, raise your hand and wait for the microphone. And we ask that you identify yourself. And with us is Darius Days, Tari Eason, and Xavier Pinson. Questions for the student-athletes, please.

Q. Darius, I guess we’ll just come out swinging at the fence here. How are you feeling with the team and just how things have been since what happened with Will Wade this past Saturday?

DARIUS DAYS: I feel pretty confident with the team, working hard, just not letting the distractions keep us away from our goal to win a national championship. We’ve been locked into each other, leaning on each other even though — in the time of distractions, but we’re going to be all right.

Q. How (indiscernible) in regards to maybe a full-circle moment, the way things happened during your freshman year and having a Deja vu with it again? How similar are the situations?

DARIUS DAYS: It’s very similar. Last time Coach Wade didn’t come back, but it’s a very touchy situation. I miss him. Our coaching staff misses him. But we’ve got to continue doing what we’ve been doing our whole lives, playing basketball.

Q. To any of you just what’s Kevin’s message been to the team since his role changed from assistant to being the guy in charge?

MODERATOR: Let’s start with Tari, Darius, and Xavier, please.

TARI EASON: The message has been play basketball. Like Darius said, we’ve been playing basketball our whole lives. We can only control what we can control. We’re playing. We don’t make the big boy decisions, so we just play basketball and keep the same goals and objectives.

Q. Xavier, Darius, scoring the basketball is going to be really important in this one. What do you guys need to do to put points up?

DARIUS DAYS: Actually, just start going back to the things that we did at the beginning of the season, locking in on defense, being more solid, cutting off on second chance points from the other team, getting the ball out in transition, getting to the rim, not trying to settle for too many 3s early in the game or late or middle of the game.

Q. Darius, Coach Nickelberry told us that you talked to the team the other day. Coach Wade always preaches control the things you can control. What did you — what was your message to the team?

DARIUS DAYS: Basically, that this situation happened before, so just be solid and continue. Let’s keep doing the things we’ve been doing, playing hard and loving each other and playing for each other. If we continue doing that, the sky’s the limit for our team and just continue to love each other and just lean on each other.

Q. Darius, I was curious: What lessons did you learn from the first time Coach Wade wasn’t there for you guys in the tournament that you can sort of apply to now for these younger guys who weren’t there in 2019?

DARIUS DAYS: Good question. Around that time, I wasn’t really playing much. I was really on the outside looking in, coming off the bench with, you know, some of the other guys. But this time around, it’s completely different. It’s my senior year. I would love Coach Wade to be here with us. Some things just don’t work out how you plan. Things happen. Things happen. We miss him. I’m going to continue saying that we miss him. We wish him the best. We just wish he was here with us.

Q. Xavier, do you have any kind of relationship with George Conditt? And if so, talk about that a little bit.

XAVIER PINSON: Yeah. We played against each other in high school, played with each other in a couple camps and outside games and stuff. We have a good relationship, kind of a brother-like relationship. Once you stood up in different uniforms, you know the rest, I mean, you’ve got to play hard against each other.

Q. Tari, this is your first NCAA Tournament. How much have you taken in at this moment?

TARI EASON: Man, this is amazing. I’m not taking anything for granted. I’m just trying to soak up everything and every little moment, like I said, not take it for granted. This is special, so I’m happy to be here, and I’m excited to get to work.

Q. Tari, can you describe just how this week is different? I guess in the terms of Coach Wade and Coach Armstrong aren’t there and who’s filling their roles, what would they normally be doing during preparation for the tournament like this?

TARI EASON: Yeah. This week has been a little hectic, obviously, with the new changes in the staff, but I feel like everybody’s doing their part to step up, all the assistant coaches, even the players, our leaders. We’re just all doing our part to try to step up and try to fill that missing piece, like Darius said before, and Xavier. We miss them. We’re just trying to all step up and rally together to make this a special run.

Q. Darius, do you feel like, in this game, y’all are going up against a mirror image of yourselves being the fact that both teams started off high and cooled off and that you both like to get after it defensively?

DARIUS DAYS: It really doesn’t matter who we play. Spitting image or not, we just trying to go out there and score more buckets than the other team and come out on top. We’re not taking anybody lightly. We’re locked into (indiscernible) the other team, Iowa State. So, it’s exactly what you said. At this time, it really doesn’t matter, so we just want to go out there and play hard and come out with the win.

Q. Just wondering: With Kevin, what had he been like as an assistant coach for you this season? Just what the biggest thing y’all have learned from him, and how does his head coaching background — he spent many years as a head coach. How has that kind of helped in the situation he’s in now?

XAVIER PINSON: I think Kevin is doing a — Coach Nickelberry. I think Coach Nickelberry is doing a good job of stepping up and not really mimicking what we used to do but trying his best to alter what he can. and try to — like, we talked about the last six minutes today. He’s trying to get us to get better shots without fouling. I think he’s doing a very good job of picking up where Coach left off at and try to tweak little things to make sure we’re getting better.

Q. Well, Xavier, piggybacking off of that, not just with the Xs and Os, but how does Coach Nickelberry differ in, you know, maybe the mentor approach and how things may be different with his leadership now?

XAVIER PINSON: It’s pretty much straightforward. It’s hard to say. I’ve been with Coach for a minute, and we just got with Coach Nickelberry. So, Coach Wade, you kind of know what he wants. I mean, since he’s being pretty new, Coach Nickelberry being in the head coaching position, we don’t exactly know everything he wants, but he’s kind of straightforward with telling us what he needs and what he wants and how he wants it to be.

Q. Darius, when coaches were fired over the weekend, the statement from the university president and the athletic director referred to, like, a cloud of negativity that had been around the program. Being inside, I guess, did you feel that same way over the last few years, or was it a different feeling within that locker room?

DARIUS DAYS: That’s a really good question. Good thing that you said that because a lot of people feel there’s a dark cloud around LSU basketball. But that’s how it’s been since I got there. We had a couple shirts made, “LSU versus The World.” At all times, that’s how we feel, “LSU versus The World.” That’s just what it is.

Q. Sort of a question for all y’all. Since Coach Nickelberry’s also the recruiting coordinator for the team, what kind of unique relationship does a lot of the guys, especially the younger guys, have with Coach Nickelberry in terms of that intimate relationship as the recruiting coordinator?

XAVIER PINSON: That’s a good question. I feel like all of us — Coach Nickelberry is a very serious man. Let me say that first. But, second, he’s a very, like — I don’t know. He’s pretty funny. Like, he’s pretty goofy. So, we’re all close with him. We all talk to him. We all have a great relationship with him, like an uncle or a father figure. I feel like we all just relate to him in any way. With him being in the recruiting position and then stepping up to where he is now, kind of like we have a close friend or a close guy who’s old enough to watch over us coaching us.

Q. For all of you, how has this brought you guys together even tighter?

TARI EASON: Immensely. Like Darius said, there have been shirts in the past that said “LSU versus The World.” before the season started, there was “LSU versus Everybody.” We had meetings before this season just kind of on how to kind of make our bond tight and make us a really close-knit group. So, I think that when adversity hits, the best thing about this team is we come together and we only get stronger.

Q. Tari, how important has Darius’s leadership been for you guys this season, and how much more important is it now after what’s sort of gone on the last week?

TARI EASON: Darius has been huge. Obviously, X, too. They’ve been great leaders from the beginning, from the jump. I think now his leadership has obviously stepped up even more. I think — just like I said previously, with the changes in staff and a little bit of uncertainty going around, I think our leaders have done a great job stepping up and accepting that role of just trying to be positive and get guys where they’re supposed to be and get us in the right spots. I think that they’ve been huge.

MODERATOR: LSU Coach Nickelberry is at the podium. If you have questions, please.

Q. Nick, I know earlier in the week, Sunday night, you said, obviously, your goal was to keep the team together and get them to focus on the job at hand and just make sure things flowed smoothly. Has everything gone the way you want? Was it a little easier, maybe a little harder?

COACH KEVIN NICKELBERRY: The first day was a little tough, obviously, you know, new voice. They’ve heard a certain voice for most of the year, so first day was tough. But we had two good days after that, and I think the guys understand this moment. I mean, this time of year, it’s about moments, and I think we got guys on that team who are ready for the moment. And we’ve just got to go out tomorrow, and we’ve got to prove it.

Q. How much have you relied on Darius’s leadership the last couple of days, and what has he meant to this program?

COACH KEVIN NICKELBERRY: Well, he’s been huge. Obviously, the first day when I talked to the media back in Baton Rouge, I told him I asked Darius to be my fullback and go in and talk with the team. He’s the one person that was here last time LSU was in this situation as a freshman when Coach Wade wasn’t coaching the team, so he understands the pressure and the media and the expectations associated with it, and they were very successful. So, I asked him to go out and be my fullback. I’m slow, but I asked him to open up the hole. I can go in and try to put us in a position to be successful.

Darius has done a great job this week making them understand what’s in front of us, forgetting this is still the NCAA Tournament and no one in that room, players, managers, coaches, don’t deserve to be there. We were all part of this year, and they deserve to go out tomorrow and have a chance to win.

Q. What’s special about the bond of this team and how they always perform when overcoming adversity?

COACH KEVIN NICKELBERRY: They’ve been unbelievable, to be honest with you. I told them after practice today the most important thing for us is that we have both feet in the boat. I can’t promise them it’s going to be a cruise ship smooth or a little rowboat in the middle of a swamp rocky, but we need all feet in — everyone’s both feet in the boat. If we do that, we’re going to be together, and we can get through anything with both feet in. If we have everybody’s feet together, together locked in with one objective to go out and — and whatever happens in the game, which is going to be some adversity, it’s going to be a 6-0 run, one way or the other. We hope we have the lead with six minutes to go and we get into what we practice, a six-minute game, stay together and believe in each other and love each other, and we’ll have a chance.

Like I said, young men are resilient. This is basketball. There’s a lot more going on in the world than this. I mean, a lot tougher things with social media, a lot of things going on in other countries that are a lot tougher than this, and I made those guys understand. This is a great opportunity. It’s a shining moment, and they need to step into that light and be themselves.

Q. I’m just wondering: The fact you’ve been a head coach for several years before this, how much has that kind of helped in kind of adjusting to this role, or is there a similarity in that regard?

COACH KEVIN NICKELBERRY: Well, I mean, again, it’s a new voice, but, again, like I said, I spent half my career as a head coach, so how to talk, how to plan, how to direct, you know. And the system we use is a system that we use. It’s a family system. You know, when Coach was with us together, a couple of adjustments but something I’m familiar with. And we won’t make a lot of changes. Obviously make some slight adjustments. But it’s something I was familiar with.

And, again, I didn’t think I would be a head coach again. I was content being the assistant in my career. But God sometimes has different plans for you. And in this moment, this is what we can control this week. I told the team we can control this week. Next week, you going to have a lot of guys looking for jobs, playing for, auditioning for new coaches. You’re going to have coaches looking for jobs. This week, we can control. We can control what happens this week, and we going to live in this week and live in this moment and control what we can.

Q. You talked already about how you’ve been a head coach before but first-time head coach for an SEC school and the face of a school heading into the NCAA Tournament. How do you think you’ve handled this, and what newness does this experience bring to you?

COACH KEVIN NICKELBERRY: I don’t know how I’ve handled it. You guys have to be the judge of that. And tomorrow, we’ll see. My only goal — I haven’t really thought about wins and losses yet because I have three sons, and two of my sons are close to their age. So, the first thing — I was thinking like a father. What are they going through? What are they thinking? How are they feeling? I had to talk to parents. I had to make sure that they knew I had their son’s back. That was the first thing, being a father for a couple of days and make sure they understand we’re in this together, we going to get through this, this too shall pass. That was my first goal.

Today, we worked on thinking about winning, winning basketball games. I’m not judging myself if we win or lose. We have the players to win. We have the talent to win. I want to make sure these guys come through with their spirits high and they can rebound on the other side. If that happens, I’ll sleep. I’ve had a wonderful career. So that’s all I’m going to do in this moment right now.

Q. As far as Iowa State goes, what’s going to be the key to containing their two guards, Brockington and Hunter?

COACH KEVIN NICKELBERRY: A lot of times, coaching goes out the window. I watched some exciting games last night in the first round, Notre Dame game. It comes down to players. At the end of the day, you can draw up whatever you want. Players are going to win. A lot of times when you talk about shining moments, there are pictures of players who made big plays. We’re going to have to have some players make some big plays tomorrow.

A lot of times, it comes down to the Jimmys and Joes. And their Jimmys and Joes, Hunter and Brockington, are good. We’re going to have to contain them. We’re going to have to make them uncomfortable. We’re going to have to make someone else beat us. We worked on that today, and our Jimmys and Joes are going to have to step up. We have guys that are good as well. We have some really good players, and I’m expecting Eason and Days and Pinson and Murray to have great days. We’ll see what happens. We’ll put our guys against their guys, and we’ll see what happens.

Q. Kevin, the players were talking a little bit about the t-shirts, “LSU Against The World” and “LSU versus Everybody.” How big are you on the motivational, and did you have to use a lot of that this week to try to get them prepared? And, also, did they have to dig the t-shirts out of their locker, or you got some new ones made?

COACH KEVIN NICKELBERRY: No, we didn’t dig any t-shirts out of the locker. Right now, I really feel that the best way to win in situations like this is to bring everybody who you know is in your corner. And the people — like I said to someone the other day, you know, I spent three years walking through my building saying hi to the concierge and walking in and — hey, I spent two days stopping and talking to everybody because people love LSU.

So, I’m not sure if it’s us against the world. We going to play for those three letters on the front of our jerseys. We’re going to play for the people who stopped us in the hallway and said good luck. we’re going to play for the boosters and the parents and the fan in 104. We going to play for the people who have told these kids, we believe in you. Good luck. That’s what we’re playing for. We’re playing for what’s on our chest. We’re playing for LSU.

I’m not sure if that answers your question. I can’t control the situation they’re in. I know a lot of people have supported us, especially the LSU fan base. It’s been unbelievable. They have supported us. And because — obviously, it’s a different person leading right now. I was expecting, oh, my God, who is this dude? Who is this guy, you know? I’m not Will Wade. I’m not Will Wade. I’m Kevin Nickelberry. And I can only be myself, and that’s what I’m going to be all week. I’m going to be that person for these guys, for LSU.

Q. I was curious as to what your leadership style is.

COACH KEVIN NICKELBERRY: The first 15 years — the first years of my career as a head coach — as an assistant and a head coach, I lived with every possession, you know. I was a fire and brimstone type of guy. I lived on every possession.

The last years of my years coaching and my three years here as an assistant, I’m the rah-rah guy. I’m the guy who gets the guys going. I’m the guy who gets in the huddle first saying, we’re gonna win this game. It’s going to probably be a lot different look. I’m more of a “Hey, we got this” type of guy. I’m not — you know, I may be the first one out there running on the court chest bumping somebody. I’m not going to change giving everybody my personal handshake I do before every game. I’m not going to change my role to them because I think that’s too much for them. I’m going to still be who I am. I’m going to be myself. Difference is I’ll be calling the plays or I’ll be calling the defenses. That’s all that’s going to change.

Q. What challenges do you expect Iowa State to pose for you on the defensive side of the ball?

COACH KEVIN NICKELBERRY: They do an unbelievable job of team guarding. They load to the basketball. From a terminology standpoint, they love to ice, keep you on one side of the floor.

We have to move the basketball a little more tomorrow. We tend to have played more isolation basketball in the past, but we probably going to have to — they’re not going to let us do that as much. We’re going to have to move bodies and move the ball and let the ball find shots tomorrow. For a team that they don’t get as many steals as we do, but they get as many stops as we do, so we have to definitely play and have our best game of offense tomorrow to beat Iowa State.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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