NCAA Tournament prediction: Without Will Wade, how long will LSU last in the Big Dance?
LSU is as big a wild card as there is in the NCAA Tournament.
The Tigers are a No. 3 seed in the East Region, having won the SEC regular-season title outright and having been ranked No. 9 in the final regular-season poll.
But they lost their only game in the SEC Tournament, falling to eighth-seeded Florida on Friday.
Whether that loss had anything to do with the absence of suspended coach Will Wade or the distraction of suspicions about him perhaps having committed NCAA violations in the recruitment of freshman guard Javonte Smart is anyone’s guess.
But the fact remains that Wade will be absent still and the distraction will be present still when LSU opens play in the NCAA Tournament against 14th-seeded Yale on Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.
Smart, who was held out of the Tigers’ regular-season finale as a cautionary measure, was reinstated for the SEC Tournament after cooperating with the initial phase of a joint inquiry by LSU and the NCAA, which hasn’t revealed any wrongdoing on Smart’s part.
Presumably Smart will be available for the NCAA Tournament, unless the ongoing investigation produces information requiring some sort of disciplinary action.
Presumably Wade, who has refused to discuss the matter with university officials, will not be available no matter how far the Tigers advance.
But this team has won 26 games and a regular-season championship in a league that produced 7 NCAA Tournament participants, including No. 2 seeds Tennessee and Kentucky, both of whom lost to the Tigers in the regular season.
So LSU looks like a team that has the talent to potentially make a deep run and the baggage to potentially under-perform.
It’s a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2015 and will begin the tournament without its head coach.
With all that in mind, here’s a game-by-game prediction about who we think LSU will face and how far we think the Tigers will go:
First round: vs. No. 14 Yale
LSU under interim coach Tony Benford plays Ivy League champion Yale on Thursday.
No need to overanalyze this. The Tigers will have the advantage in terms of talent and depth, which will enable them to prevail against Yale in the first round.
Second round: vs. No. 6 Maryland
LSU will face a tougher challenge against 6th-seeded Maryland in the second round, but should prevail against the Terrapins, who are scheduled to play Belmont or Temple in the second round.
Maryland went 13-7 in the Big Ten and pushed No. 1 seed Virginia in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge before falling 76-71. The Terps are stumbling a bit, having lost 3 of their past 4 entering the NCAA Tournament. The Terps don’t have a star, but they have a trio of double-digit scorers, led by guard Anthony Cowan.
Sweet 16: vs. No. 2 Michigan State
Beating Maryland (or somebody else) would move the Tigers into the second week of the tournament and things will get much tougher in the Sweet 16.
LSU’s season will come to an end in a regional semifinal defeat against second-seeded Michigan State.
The Tigers might take an us-against-the-world attitude and turn the Wade situation into a positive, but chances are their stay in the NCAA Tournament will be relatively short.