LSU bounces back again, puts Will Wade investigation behind it during NCAA Tournament run
LSU is no longer Will Wade’s team.
He built it, he prepared it and he coached it for all but the past four games.
And he’s responsible for the dark cloud that has hovered over it during his suspension during a university investigation of a conversation taped by the FBI, reportedly in which he appears to discuss a suspicious “offer” to a recruit who later became a Tiger.
Wade’s refusal to discuss the controversy with LSU officials led them to suspend him just as his team was preparing to clinch the SEC championship in the regular-season finale.
After the Tigers claimed that title in interim coach Tony Benford’s debut, they squandered a double-digit lead in losing to Florida in their first game in the SEC Tournament.
It’s hard to believe that the toll of changing coaches unexpectedly and answering constant questions about Wade didn’t have some effect on LSU’s performance in that game.
And it was reasonable to wonder if that toll would lead to another early exit from the NCAA Tournament for the No. 3-seeded Tigers.
But the first weekend and 52 of the 68 tournament teams are gone and LSU is still standing and in fact riding high, reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006. Few expected the Tigers to still be playing basketball this week.
It wasn’t easy by any means for the Tigers to get past 14th-seeded Yale and No. 6-seeded Maryland to reach an East Region semifinal against No. 2-seeded Michigan State on Friday in Washington D.C. But nothing has come easy of late for the Tigers and nothing will until this Wade thing is resolved.
LSU rolled to a 16-point halftime lead against Yale only to see the gritty Bulldogs climb within 3 points in the final seconds. But the Tigers made 9 free throws in the final minute to prevail.
The game against Maryland followed a similar script as LSU built a 15-point lead and saw the Terrapins fight back and briefly hand the Tigers a deficit for the first time in the tournament.
But Tremont Waters broke the sixth and final tie of the final six minutes on a drive to the basket with 2 seconds remaining and Benford’s team was on its way to the Sweet 16.
If the Wade distraction were going to derail this team, it would have already done it – perhaps during Yale’s comeback, or Maryland’s, or more likely with a flat performance from the get-go in the opener.
But it’s clear after those two wins that Wade’s team and players now belong to Benford, who joined the Tigers when Wade arrived in 2017.
Ironically Benford’s most recent job before arriving in Baton Rouge was the head coaching position at North Texas State that he held for 5 seasons.
Benford got that job after Johnny Jones, an LSU point guard and lead assistant during the program’s heyday under Dale Brown, left the Mean Green after an 11-year stint that included two NCAA appearances to try and restore glory to his alma mater.
Jones took baby steps, leading the Tigers back to the NCAA Tournament in 2015 before losing to N.C. State in the first round, but his teams never had the success that his highly touted recruiting classes promised.
So Jones’ successor at North Texas has provided the steady hand that has returned to prominence the program that Jones’ successor at LSU built and had to abandon.
Much of this team’s national notoriety in the past couple of weeks has been a result of the Wade scandal.
But during the last week, Benford and Waters, along with Naz Reid, Skylar Mays, Kavell Bigby-Williams and their teammates have shown that for the time being it’s their play in this tournament – not Wade – that’s the lead story.
This is a team that was shaken to its core last September when one of its best and most popular players – Wayde Sims – was shot to death in Baton Rouge.
Having dealt with that, it should be no surprise how quickly LSU has been able to move on from Will Wade.