An LSU basketball season that can only be described as “unbelievable” ended Saturday night with the Tigers cutting down the nets as they won their first SEC regular season championship in a decade.
But the moment wasn’t perfect. For starters, the Tigers were without their head coach Will Wade, who was suspended among controversy surrounding his alleged involvement in a play-for-pay scandal that involves FBI investigations and accusations abound.
But the Tigers seemed to be fine without their commander-in-chief, at least against Vanderbilt.
Emmitt Williams danced, Marlon Taylor dunked, Kavell Bigby-Wiliams blocked shots and Tremont Waters carved up the defense with his ball-handling. Even Javonte Smart — who was withheld from competition due to “an abundance of caution” from the athletics department — could be seen before, during and after the game smiling, laughing and playing with the crowd.
And the Tigers didn’t seem to miss a beat during LSU’s dominant 80-59 victory against Vanderbilt. Everybody who played got involved, shooting better than 50 percent as a unit and putting away the Commodores with more ease than in any prior SEC team they faced.
And the players felt Wade’s presence, even if he wasn’t in the building.
“I’m pretty sure, like 101 percent, that he watched the game,” said LSU point guard Tremont Waters. “And I’m pretty sure that when we messed up he was yelling at the TV and throwing stuff at the TV. We know he’s had our back since day one, and he’s still there for us.”
But Wade’s absence wasn’t the biggest felt. Instead, it was an absence felt throughout the entire season.
An absence that disappeared for a short moment after LSU defeated the Commodores and before the Tigers cut down the nets when a chant that stood out among the countless others in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center
“Forty-Four. Forty-Four. Forty-Four”
LSU’s scheduled first day ofpractice turned into the first day of a long grieving process that’s still ongoing after LSU forward Wayde Sims was tragically gunned down during an altercation after attending a concert alongside some friends and teammates.
On the day of the incident, Wade referred to it as “any coach’s worst nightmare.” In reality, it was everyone’s.
From freshman teammates who were just getting to know Sims like Emmitt Williams and Darius Days, to lifelong friends and teammates like Skylar Mays and Marshall Graves, everyone was understandably shaken after the incident.
LSU made use of specialized therapists, and players and coaches had to find a way to cope.
They had less than two months to figure out how to play basketball, let alone live without him.
But Sims’ presence has been felt at every turn the Tigers’ season took. His locker remains untouched, and the Tigers’ have worn a “44” patch on their jerseys in every game this season.
The beginning of the season started off a little shaky. Waters struggled to fit in his new role surrounded by playmakers after spending his freshman season as the only reliable scorer, and the duo of Naz Reid and Bigby-Williams had yet to find its rhythm.
In addition, Wade was still trying to figure out how to best distribute minutes after losing a player in Sims that figured to earn a lot of playing time.
As a result, the Tigers went to Orlando, Fla., to participate in the AdvoCare Invitational Tournament and came back with a pair of losses in the form of an overtime loss to then-No. 14 Florida State and LSU’s most embarrassing loss of the season in a blowout against Oklahoma State.
The first 10 games of the season didn’t go without its fair share of ups. A win against an impressive teams such as UNC-Greensboro and Memphis served as highlights.
Smart also hit a big 3-pointer to seal a victory against a pesky Louisiana Tech team that bounced off the rim three times before going in, causing Smart and Wade both to attribute the fortunate bounce to Sims, the first of many times the Tigers would credit him with some extra help.
But came to a head when LSU saw a 15-point, second-half lead against Houston disappear in an 82-76 loss to Houston in its first true road game of the season.
Having lost three of their last five games, Wade had a come-to-Jesus meeting with the team in the hotel prior to taking on St. Mary’s in Las Vegas for the Neon Hoops Showcase.
“Before the Saint Mary’s game, I met with the team the night before at the hotel,” Wade said of the meeting early during conference play. “It was just me and the team. I didn’t have the assistants, I had nobody else in there. It was just me and the players. We just kind of, I told them what I thought and they told me what they thought.
“It’s not what I want to do, it’s what gets the most out of our team. It’s not necessarily how I want to do things, but it’s what they respond to the best and what works the best with these guys. They told me some things and the staff and I, we adjusted.”
Shortly after the hotel-room meeting, things began to click, but not in the way one would expect.
Wade made the decision have Waters play off the bench for a couple games, which seemed to give him a new perspective on how teams were playing.
It also served as a prime example of a star athlete playing his role and doing what he felt necessary to help his team win, a theme for LSU moving forward.
That’s when the magic started.
The Tigers went on to win 10 straight games, including their first seven SEC games of the season, and with every win, the weight of Sims presence seemed to grow.
LSU won close game after close game. It won its first road win in a calendar year in overtime against Arkansas, which kicked off a streak in which the Tigers went 9-0 in SEC road games for the first time in program history.
They erased a 14-point deficit with 2:14 remaining in the game to force overtime and keep their winning streak alive.
Naz Reid bounced in a 3-pointer that sealed another overtime win against Mississippi State.
They beat Kentucky in Rupp Arena with a buzzer-beater by Kavell Bigby-Williams and had a program-defining moment with a win against then-No. 5 Tennessee in front of a sold-out PMAC that proudly began calling LSU a basketball school.
After each of these wins, players and coaches credited Sims’ presence and involvement, to the point that they began referring to him as their sixth man.
Before and after LSU’s win against the Volunteers, Mays could be seen holding up four fingers on each of his hands to signify Sims’ number “44.”
“We talk about Wayde so much that it doesn’t really take a (team) ritual or anything,” Mays said. “Everybody has their own personal thing. We just know that Wade’s with us all the time.”
As the possibility of winning an SEC Championship became more and more realistic, the weight of Sims’ loss seemed to become more apparent.
Prior to LSU’s season finale, Mays opened up about how he felt going into a game in which the Tigers could make LSU history with an SEC Championship.
“Obviously I want to win a conference championship, but I’d rather go 0-18 and have Wayde back than win a conference championship,” Mays said. “That’s how I feel about it. It’s been a rollercoaster…”
Mays got visibly emotional thinking and speaking about it.
“Wayde, man,” he said almost exhaustedly under his breath before continuing. “You don’t expect something like that to happen, but the season is a rollercoaster. We’ve obviously had a lot more highs and lows on the basketball floor.”
After the championship-stealing win, the crowd rallied around the team and chanted for Sims before the nets got cut down.
Then, Sims’ parents Wayne and Fay Sims participated in the net-cutting ceremony after the game, to represent Wayde so he could have a presence.
As interim head coach Tony Benford said after the game, the Tigers “aren’t done yet.”
They will play their first game of the SEC Tournament on Friday at noon against either Florida or Arkansas, and they figure to have a favorable seed in the NCAA Tournament.
LSU’s title may be mired in controversy at the moment, but there’s little denying that the Tigers have exceeded even their own expectations in a season that won’t be forgotten anytime soon, especially by those who made it happen.
The LSU Tigers are SEC Champs, and if you ask Mays, that couldn’t have happened without Wayde Sims.
“We couldn’t have done this without him,” Mays said. “He’ been a big part of what we’re about here and what we’ve been able to accomplish here.