Without its head coach and with a dark cloud currently hanging over the program, the No. 10 LSU basketball team will try to win at least a share of the Southeastern Conference regular season championship Saturday when it takes a woeful Vanderbilt squad.
Will Wade will miss the game, which will serve as senior night, after being indefinitely suspended by athletics director Joe Alleva and university president F. King Alexander amid reports that Wade was heard on an FBI wiretap discussing potential compensation for a recruit and at least one third party seemingly affiliated with Javonte Smart.
Assistant coach Tony Benford has assumed the role of interim head coach for Saturday’s game between the Tigers (25-5, 15-2 SEC) and the Commodores (9-21, 0-17), who are currently on an 18-game losing streak and looking for their first league win of the season.
It is unclear whether Smart, who is averaging 11.4 points per game for the Tigers, will be available for Saturday’s game.
Vanderbilt is led by guard Saben lee who tallies 12.4 points and four assists per game, and forwards Simislola Shittu (11.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Aaron Nesmeth (11.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) do most of the work in the paint.
The Commodores started the season with a 9-3 record and seemed to be on its way to a decent season until star freshman guard Darius Garland (16.2 ppg) went down with injury after just five games in a Vanderbilt uniform and announced he would forego the rest of the season to focus on his potential NBA career.
Prior to his suspension Wade praised Vanderbilt for their lack of quit despite everything going winless so far in SEC play and said he didn’t plan on letting LSU look past the struggling squad.
“They’re going to play extremely hard. The last two games at Texas A&M and against Arkansas, they’ve gotten off to quick starts,” Wade said. “They’ve had 10 point leads early on against both of those teams. They’re going to be ready to go. They’re going to play hard.”
Benford takes the program over amid Wade’s suspension. Prior to arriving at LSU, Benford served as head coach at North Texas, where he accumulated a 62-95 record with the Mean Green between 2012 and 2017 before the program decided not to renew his contract after the 2016-17 season in which the Mean Green with 8-22 and 2-16 in Conference USA play.
Whether the Tigers will be playing for a share of the conference title or the outright title to hold themselves will be determined earlier in the day when Tennessee takes on Auburn on the road at 11 a.m.
Both LSU and Tennessee hold a 15-2 conference record going into the final day of the conference slate. If Tennessee defeats Auburn, LSU will have to win Saturday to earn a share of the title, as well as the top seed in the SEC Tournament due to LSU’s head-to-head win against the Volunteers.
But if Auburn wins Saturday afternoon, the Tigers can earn the outright title with a win, with the worse-case scenario being a three-way tie for the title with Tennessee and Kentucky if they lose. An Auburn win would also guarantee LSU’s top-seeded status in the SEC Tournament next week.
WHO: No. 10 LSU vs. Vanderbilt
WHERE: Pete Maravich Assembly Center(13,215, sold out)
WHEN: Saturday, March 9, 7:30 p.m.
NET RANKINGS: No. 13 LSU, No. 150 Vanderbilt
KENPOM PREDICTION: 81-65 LSU (93 percent)
NOTES: LSU playing for SEC Title; Tigers coach Will Wade suspended.