No matter how this ends, LSU's 2018-19 team should always be applauded
Admittedly, I’ve been looking at LSU all wrong for the past month.
After the indefinite suspension of Will Wade over reports of FBI wiretaps in which he discussed illegal benefits for a recruit, I made it my goal to try and figure out LSU. Part of that was probably fueled by wanting to do a little pre-bracket research, and the other was so that I would sound like I knew what I was talking about when asked.
And I’ll be honest. I didn’t have LSU figured out. At all.
I wrote off the Tigers when Wade was suspended. That was only confirmed when they lost in their first SEC Tournament game to Florida. I thought, “Yep, this team won’t be able to overcome losing Wade so late in the season. They’re primed to get upset in the NCAA Tournament and fade away like any other college basketball flash in the pan.”
Again, I was wrong. Dead wrong.
But I wasn’t wrong about how difficult it is to overcome the loss of a coach in March. I was wrong about how LSU would handle it.
I dismissed the fact that they had gritty, clutch shot-creators like Tremont Waters and Skylar Mays. I overlooked their ability to deliver a first-round haymaker with uber-talented bigs like Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams. I forgot that a team familiar with pulling out nail-biter wins would probably be in good shape to do so again with the season on the line. I underestimated how much LSU players already overcame when teammate Wayde Sims was killed in September.
Ahead of the Sweet 16 matchup with Michigan State on Friday, it’s safe to say I have no idea how this 2018-19 LSU season will end. I do know that this year and this team should be appreciated no matter what.
A season with LSU’s off-court drama isn’t supposed to be the program’s best in 13 years. Go figure that this was the year that LSU had its best NCAA Tournament seeding since 1981. Never mind the fact that other Tigers teams couldn’t do that with No. 1 overall picks Shaquille O’Neal and Ben Simmons.
Instead of comparing this LSU team to those, perhaps the better comp is the 2006 squad. That group, like this one, had a foundation with multiple Baton Rouge natives. Tyrus Thomas and Glen “Big Baby” Davis brought local flavor that made a historic season that much more special.
This year’s LSU squad is still 2 games from accomplishing what that group did. That is, earn a Final Four berth. To get there, the 2005-06 group had to take down a top-seeded Duke squad with the Associated Press National Player of the Year J.J. Redick. To get there this year, LSU will likely have to take down a top-seeded Duke squad with future No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson.
That, of course, can only happen if LSU beats Michigan State. The oddsmakers don’t believe those chances are too favorable. That’s why MSU is a 6-point favorite. This won’t be the first time the odds were against LSU.
I thought it would be a successful season if LSU could just get past Yale in the first round. I kept having flashbacks of watching teams like 2018 Arizona and 2011 Tennessee collapse in the first round while their coaches were in the midst of NCAA investigations. Just by winning a game, this LSU team did what those couldn’t.
With another week of answering questions, I’m no longer doubting LSU’s ability to block out the outside noise. The way they started their first 2 NCAA Tournament games suggests they haven’t been distracted in the slightest. That’s applaudable for any group of individuals, much less a team of 18-22 year-old kids without any NCAA Tournament experience.
Even if this season ends on a sour note with something like a blowout loss to MSU — I don’t expect it will — this team deserves to be bragged about on future recruiting trips. And when new findings in Wade’s investigation arise, the footnote should be about how LSU had one of its best seasons in program history despite the looming cloud that hung over the program throughout March.
It remains to be seen where this year’s LSU team will rank among the program’s all-time bests. Certainly a Final Four appearance would put it in the conversation for best ever, seeing as how that only happened 4 times in Baton Rouge. I’d argue that feat would put it right at the top of the list, especially if it meant watching an interim coach take down Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski.
Speaking of Tony Benford, I thought he summed it up best after LSU’s last-second win against Maryland in the Round of 32.
“It’s huge for these guys,” Benford said. “They’re the ones that paid the price. They’ve been through a lot. … I give it to these guys. They have taken ownership of this team.
“They trust each other and respect each other, they love each other, and when you have a team like that, you have a chance to win games.”
Yup. That’s exactly right.
And I couldn’t have been more wrong to overlook that.