NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Amid all the scandal, controversy and back-and-forth between suspended head coach Will Wade and the university that currently employs him, it’s easy to forget that the No. 9 LSU basketball team actually, well, plays basketball.
But the top-seeded Tigers (26-5) will get back on the basketball floor to do what they signed onto attend LSU to do Friday afternoon when they take on eighth-seeded Florida in the first quarterfinal game of the 2019 Southeastern Conference Tournament.
In a season that started with LSU serving as one of the league’s underdog darlings, the Tigers now enter the tournament as the biggest heal in the 14-team field after a regular-season SEC Championship got mired in the muck of an FBI investigation, a potential play-for-pay scheme and the suspension of one of the SEC’s — if not the nation’s — most promising up-and-coming coaches.
The Tigers have been without Wade in practice for nearly a week now, and the players admittedly miss having him around.
But his absence has led to the emergence of upperclassmen — most notably sophomore point guard Tremont Waters and junior guard Skylar Mays — stepping up and filling a leadership role much-needed in times like this.
“We have to do it for ourselves,” Waters said. “We understand, like… They say in life when your parents are getting on you and you finally move away from your parents, you then understand things that they would have held down. Like your mom doing your clothes when you’re younger. When you move away from your mom, you have to do them because you’re on your own.
“That’s the type of analogy I would say our team is using in comparing Coach Wade not being here. We have to get on each other and learn how to take it from one another. We’re growing, and, honestly, it’s helped us”
LSU will need all the leadership it can get as it takes on the Gators, who gave the Tigers all they could handle in both meetings between the two teams during the regular season.
Coached by another up-and-comer Mike White, Florida used its hard-nosed defense and slowed down the tempo in both games to send both games into overtime, winning the first in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center before the Tigers got one back in Gainesville in what turned out to be Wade’s last game on the bench.
Whether the Tigers will have freshman guard Javonte Smart still remains up in the air at the time of publishing, with LSU officials indicating they will finish their investigation of the freshman guard Friday morning.
The team would obviously rather have him on the court than not. Smart averaged 11.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, and he played a big role in the Tigers’ win against the Gators last week, tallying 15 points, including the first bucket of the overtime period.
If Smart doesn’t play, Marshall Graves will once again figure to play a bigger role than usual as he did against Vanderbilt when he hit four 3-pointers for a career-high 12 points in LSU’s 80-59 SEC-Championship-clinching victory.
The game will be the first of what LSU hopes will be three in as many days on its way to a second SEC Tournament championship in program history.
Due to the potential of playing three games in roughly 72 hours, LSU took practice easy this week, at least on the physical side of things.
“We didn’t go long, we only went an hour,” said LSU interim head coach Tony Benford. “I told the guys I put five or 10 minutes for each drill. I said ‘when that gets to zero, we are done. If you guys go extremely hard and execute, we will not even use all the time.’ We were in there right under an hour.”
LSU will have the difficult task of finding a way to slow down guards KeVaughn Allen Jalen Hudson, a problem it never seemed to solve the first two times they played.
The duo combined for 36 points in the first meeting at the PMAC and Hudson went off for 33 points in the second game.
“Even though they’re small, I think they’re the most physical team in the league,” Benford said of Florida. “They really do a great job of changing up their defenses. You have to take care of the ball. They really try to control the tempo. They do that with their offense and their defense. That’s why they’re the best defensive team in the league. They want to keep the game in the 60s. Obviously It was a challenge – we beat them in overtime.”
WHO: No. 8 Florida vs. No. 1 LSU
WHEN: 12 p.m. CT, Friday, March 15
WHERE: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tenn.
NET RANKINGS: No. 14 LSU, No. 33 Florida
KENPOM PREDICTION: 69-67 LSU
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