Once-troubled LSU Tigers still snarling, ready to take on Michigan State
Washington – Earlier this week, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talked about two types of adversity a team could go through – the kind that occurs off the court and the type that is all about basketball.
The Spartans had their share off the court last season, but this year’s hurdles have all been on the court in the form of injuries. From Joshua Langford to Nick Ward to Kyle Ahrens, the Spartans have been continually readjusting their rotation and how they play the game.
For LSU, adversity might not be the word that truly covers it all, and hardly any of it has to do with what’s happened on the court.
After all, how do you even begin a season just more than a month after one of your teammates is gunned down? How do you shake that off, enter SEC play and beat the likes of Kentucky, Tennessee and Auburn on the way to a regular-season championship? Oh, and by the way, with a game left in the regular season, your coach gets suspended after allegedly being caught on an FBI wiretap talking about offers to recruits.
That’s what this LSU team has been dealing with, yet somehow, here it is. The third-seeded Tigers take on No. 2 Michigan State at 7:09 Friday night from Capital One Arena in the East Region semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.
“You can have good players but at some point, there's got to be a buy-in factor, I think,” interim coach Tony Benford said. “And I think one thing about these guys – we've got good character guys. They trust one another. They love one another. They respect one another. I think that helps.”
That love was critical back in September when Wayde Sims, just hours before the first official practice of his junior season, was shot and killed outside of a party in Baton Rouge. It’s the type of thing that can derail most seasons before they begin, and LSU had some early struggles.
There were back-to-back losses to Florida State and Oklahoma State in Orlando in November followed by a loss to Houston.
But as SEC play began, things started to come together for the Tigers. They won their first seven conference games, including two in overtime. LSU then won in overtime at Mississippi State and after an overtime loss to Florida, the Tigers responded by beating Tennessee in overtime. Late in the regular season they avenged the Florida loss by winning in overtime in Gainesville.
“We got off to a great start and I thought our guys really, probably some of those overtime games, close games we went through, they really bought into what we were teaching them in practice,” Benford said. “For instance, we were working on a six-minute game, we get down in close games, what we have to do to finish games. I thought those guys really bought in to execution, and then defensively they bought in, ‘Hey, we've got to get stops and rebound the basketball,’ and I think the guys, the buy-in factor has been huge for our guys, for our coaches.”
The closeness was clear. Sims’ No. 44 was everywhere, even when it wasn’t as obvious.
In last weekend’s win over Maryland, the Terrapins had rallied to the tie the game, 44-44. The Tigers called timeout and guard Tremont Waters pointed out the score to his teammates. The Tigers went on to win on Waters’ driving layup in the final seconds.
“It's been about Wayde this entire year,” Benford said. “And it will be. I told these guys, the rest of their life, they'll never forget Wayde Sims.”
The last few weeks, though, it’s been about more. Head coach Will Wade was suspended indefinitely in March 8 for being overheard on a wiretap taking about an offer for then-recruit Javonte Smart, now a freshman at LSU. Smart was held out of the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt but returned for the SEC tournament.
He’s scored nine points in each of LSU’s two NCAA Tournament games but scored 29 this season in the win over Tennessee. Smart wasn’t talking about anything specific on Thursday, instead focusing on his team’s resolve.
“A lot of people counted us out,” Smart said, “didn’t expect us to go this far. We’re playing together. It’s a brotherhood and we’re playing for each other.”
The news has resurfaced here this week as a Yahoo Sports report on Thursday said the intermediary for the offer Wade talked about on the wiretap was Shannon Forman, someone Smart has called “my mentor.”
“I don't know about that,” Smart told Yahoo. “I don't have any comment about that.”
How much any of it will affect the Tigers on Friday night is hard to gauge, but if history is an indication, they’ll probably be just fine playing more for the memory of their former teammate than anyone else.
“Me, personally, I haven't gotten past what happened to Wayde,” junior Skylar Mays said. “I'll never get past what happened to Wayde. I'm pretty sure I could say the same for all these guys. With what happened with Coach Wade, we'll have to just move forward because that's something that none of us can control. And we're out here to play basketball for the university.
“So, at the end of the day the ball isn't going to stop bouncing for us whether he's on the sideline or not. So, we've used it to come together. And we're here.”
NO. 2 MICHIGAN STATE VS. NO. 3 LSU
Tip-off: 7:09 Friday, Capital One Arena, Washington
Records: Michigan State 30-6; LSU 28-6
Next up: Winner faces No. 1 Duke or No. 4 Virginia Tech in the Elite Eight.