LSU’s dream season is over.
I don’t mean that in a literally sense because technically, the Tigers are in position to win a share of the SEC title and potentially earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. But in terms of the narrative about the underdog team in the SEC, that went up in smoke Thursday.
Yahoo’s report of an FBI wiretap involving LSU coach Will Wade speaking to basketball middleman Christian Dawkins about a “strong — offer” to a recruit was damning. Like, damning to the point where it wouldn’t be surprising if Wade never coached another game for LSU.
In case you somehow missed the excerpt from the FBI wiretap that appears to be related to LSU guard Javonte Smart getting an “offer,” here it is, according to Yahoo:
Wade: “I was thinking last night on this Smart thing. I’ll be honest with you, I’m [expletive] tired of dealing with the thing. Like I’m just [expletive] sick of dealing with the [expletive]. Like, this should not be that [expletive] complicated.”
Wade: “Dude. I went to him with a [expletive] strong-ass offer about a month ago. [Expletive] strong.
Wade: “The problem was, I know why he didn’t take it now, it was [expletive] tilted toward the family a little bit. It was tilted toward taking care of the mom, taking care of the kid. Like it was tilted towards that. Now I know for a fact he didn’t explain everything to the mom. I know now, he didn’t get enough of the piece of the pie in the deal.”
Wade: “It was a [expletive] hell of a [expletive] offer. Hell of an offer.”
Wade: “Especially for a kid who is going to be a two- or three-year kid.”
Even worse for Wade was that ESPN reported via court documents that Dawkins had “at least three calls with a cellphone number belonging to LSU coach Will Wade, each of which occurred between June 19, 2017, and June 30, 2017.” Smart announced his commitment to LSU on June 30.
If I’m forced to predict an outcome for Wade, my guess is that he’s on his way out. Coaches have been fired for far less damning allegations. Regardless of what’s next for Wade, though, it’s hard to envision anything but 2019 ending on an awful note. That’s saying a lot for a team that was starting to get Final Four buzz as a possible “team of destiny.”
Current and future headlines aren’t on LSU’s side. Neither is recent history.
When I tried to envision how LSU’s season could play out with this cloud looming over the program, 3 examples came to mind.
Back in 2008, Kelvin Sampson was busted by the NCAA for impermissible phone calls. No, he wasn’t accused of having a bunch of wiretapped conversations of offers like Wade. Sampson made too many phone calls to recruits, which violated the probation he was already on. Long story short, Sampson “resigned” in the middle of the 2007-08 season, and an Indiana team that started 17-1 and was in the top 10 at the end of January ended its season by losing 4 of its final 5 games, including an ugly loss to Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Maybe Wade won’t be forced to resign like Sampson. Perhaps LSU will let him ride it out amidst controversy like Tennessee did with Bruce Pearl in 2010-11. As a result of lying to the NCAA about an infamous recruiting cookout at his home, Pearl was suspended for the first 8 SEC games while the NCAA investigation continued. A Tennessee team loaded with talent limped into the NCAA Tournament and got smacked by Michigan in the first round.
Starting to get the picture here?
If you’re not, perhaps you could look as recently as last year when Arizona was in the center of its own FBI wiretapping story involving Dawkins. Sean Miller was suspended for a game and allowed to return to his team … but even a team with future No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton was dominated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Buffalo.
I cite these examples because while there have been coaches under NCAA investigation who have had impressive seasons — Bill Self and Roy Williams know a thing or two about that — I’d argue that we’re talking about a more damning allegation with Wade himself, and not one of his assistants.
Immediately after Yahoo’s report surfaced, Wade was asked about how his team would handle this distraction.
LSU head coach Will Wade was talking to fans today at a luncheon when the Yahoo Sports report broke regarding further phone calls with Chris Dawkins that the FBI is investigating. We spoke with him immediately after and here's what he said. #LSU pic.twitter.com/b0vZ003wNi
— Michael Cauble (@Cauble) March 7, 2019
“Our guys have handled things very, very well so far. We talk about the bigger the game or the more noise that’s out there, you’ve got to narrow your focus” Wade told reporters. “We’ve been very good at keeping a narrow focus and narrowing our focus thus far. I think this will be no different.”
Call me crazy, but I think this will be a little different than any “distractions” Wade had this year. It’s different from that other time that Wade was accused of discussing improper recruiting benefits for a player (Balsa Koprivica, a 7-foot center from Montverde, Florida) with Dawkins. Those recordings were deemed inadmissible in court.
Innocent until proven guilty is one thing, but Wade won’t be able to simply deny this even more serious allegation that stemmed from an FBI wiretap and hope it goes away (the word “offer” makes it worse). And even worse, this appears to be more evidence that Wade did deal with Dawkins, despite his repeat denial that “I, or we, have never, ever, done business of any kind with Christian Dawkins or Mr. Dawkins.”
Yahoo reported that “the FBI possesses additional evidence and phone conversations that could be entered into evidence in the second trial.” That won’t even begin until April 22 in New York, well after the NCAA Tournament concludes.
Maybe LSU will continue to deny and players will take on an “us against the world” mentality. The team with the perfect SEC road record has been just fine at doing that.
But I can’t help but think that Wade’s team will follow in the footsteps of Sampson’s, Pearl’s or Miller’s. It didn’t matter that all of them had future lottery picks and at one time, legitimate national title aspirations. All of them caved when the NCAA walls were closing in.
They’re closing in on LSU’s dream season faster than ever.