Javonte Smart of the LSU Tigers shoots the ball against the Florida Gators during the quarterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 15, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Coach scandal clouds LSU’s NCAA tourney chances 

The committee does not have a formula that factors in a head coach unavailable because he was caught on an FBI wiretap apparently discussing an offer of cash to lure a recruit. Maybe the committee should add that scenario to the equation, considering the multiple recruiting scandals roiling big-time college basketball. 

It’s LSU’s turn in the tourniquet. Last week Yahoo Sports reported that coach Will Wade was recorded discussing a “strong-ass” offer to a third party to lure LSU freshman Javonte Smart while he was a recruit. LSU suspended Wade and Smart in response to the report, but cleared Smart to play Friday morning against Florida. 

“I have nothing to do with that,” Smart said after LSU’s 76-73 loss to Florida. 

Wade remains sidelined as he’s declined to talk to LSU officials or NCAA investigators. Wade released a statement which he cited a pending federal trial as the reason for that, but notably did not deny the allegations against him. Wade wants to coach the team, but LSU said he can’t if he won’t talk. 

The Tigers are a legitimate Final Four contender under normal circumstances. Their ceiling is less certain with the scandal swirling and assistant coach Tony Benford in charge. Benford lobbied for a No. 2 tournament seed for his team, the SEC’s regular-season champion, but may not get it after the loss Friday. 

As the selection committee holes up this weekend building the bracket, it will spend extra time evaluating teams with special circumstances. LSU certainly qualifies. 

“It’s really what the team has done, who is available, how we think they’re going to play in the postseason, the NCAA postseason,” committee chairman Bernard Muir told the Associated Press. “That’s all we have to go on.” 

LSU solved one part of that conundrum by clearing Smart to play, at least for now. LSU said that school and NCAA investigators interviewed Smart and found no wrongdoing. However, LSU said the inquiry remains open, so Smart’s eligibility seems contingent on no new revelations in the case. 

LSU blew out Vanderbilt without Smart last weekend. The Tigers faced a stiffer challenge against Florida. The teams split during the regular season, with the road team winning both games in overtime. LSU led by as many as 13 points in the second half Friday but this one came down to the end, too. 

A blunder by Benford figured heavily in the outcome. 

With 3:45 left Florida’s Keyontae Johnson made a tying 3-pointer as LSU forward Naz Reid was called for a foul away from the ball. Benford protested to officials — he said he believed the whistle was before Davis’ shot — and kept complaining until he was assessed a technical foul.  

Florida guard KeVaughn Allen made both of the free throws for the technical. Kevarrius Hayes made one of two free throws for the foul. The Gators went from down three points to up three in one possession. 

“When you are an interim coach, you are not going to get any calls,” Benford said. 

That sequence hurt the Tigers, but they still made Florida earn the victory. 

LSU regained the lead, 67-66, before Florida responded with consecutive baskets. Reid twice made 3-pointers to tie the score, the second with 14 seconds left, before Florida’s Andrew Nembhard won it on a 3-pointer with one second to go. 

The Gators likely earned an NCAA tourney bid with the victory. 

“LSU is one of the best teams in the country,” Florida coach Mike White said. “Obviously a very big win.” 

The Tigers might still be that good, even without Wade. They are a young team, but they’ve been resilient. The situation with Wade is minor compared with the tragedy at the start of their season. 

Hours before the LSU’s first practice of the season the Tigers learned that teammate Wayde Sims had been fatally shot in Baton Rouge. He was 20 years old. 

“They’ve had to grow up really fast, but they’ve had tremendous success,” Benford said. 

Said Smart: “Coach Benford is the coach. We lost coach Wade, but we are going to stay together and be a family and hopefully just win the whole thing.”

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 

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