Since reaching the Final Four in 2006, LSU has wandered in the basketball wilderness. There’s been some good teams, even some tournament teams, and even the all-too-brief excitement of the Ben Simmons era.
But by and large, LSU basketball had fallen to a certain level of national irrelevance. Even worse than being bad, people just didn’t care about LSU hoops that much, even on campus, as the basketball program had long been eclipsed in popularity by baseball, and now was fending off challenges from gymnastics and softball.
Will Wade started to change all that. From the moment he arrived, he made big promises and even bigger demands of the program. Better than simply talking the talk, Wade walked the walk.
Wade turned a 10-21 team that finished dead last in the SEC into an 18-15 team in Year One. In Year Two, LSU would eventually win 28 games, 16 of them in conference play, and win the SEC regular season title. But the true return to relevance came on March 7, 2019.
That’s when Pat Forde, Pete Thamel, and Dan Wetzel dropped the bombshell on Yahoo Sports that Will Wade had been caught on a wiretap discussing a “Strong ass offer” he made to a recruit.
It didn’t take too long before the recruit was identified as Javonte Smart, who was forced to sit until the school and the NCAA could comb through his and his family’s finances to prove his innocence. The NCAA and LSU investigations turned up no evidence of wrongdoing, and Smart was reinstated for postseason play.
Will Wade was not.
Now, if you think winning can bring the fans back and put your program back on the map, well… you’re right. But winning plus controversy? Boom, suddenly you matter again and the entire program and everyone related to it, including the fans, get to circle the wagons and rally behind the flag.
I’m not saying that an NCAA investigation is the best thing to happen to LSU hoops, but… you know what? It didn’t hurt. LSU didn’t just matter again, it was the focus of all sorts of hot takes from the usual sources. Pete Thamel has been trying to get Les Miles since he was back at Oklahoma St, and having failed in that quixotic endeavor, he moved on from LSU football to basketball.
But in the classic, “Make the bastard deny it” vein, the cloud hung over the program. Every time the Dawkins trial or pay for play gets brought up now, LSU’s name inevitably comes up despite, you know, the NCAA clearing Smart of receiving payments.
Once accused, there’s nothing you can do to clear your name. So you might as well embrace it, and go out and win. And win they did.
LSU wrapped up the SEC title and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the Big Dance. Would they have made it further had Wade been on the sidelines? Who knows? The best thing is that LSU can now point to it as further justification for its persecution complex.
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. LSU’s run through the NCAA tournament was the ultimate Haters Gonna Hate moment, as LSU shrugged off the criticism and decided if the black hat looks good, might as well rock it down the runway.
LSU blew a large lead to Maryland in the second round, only to have Tre Waters do Tre Waters things to win the game in the final seconds. LSU would finish the season ranked 12th in the country.
Let’s ask Emmet Williams if he’s upset by the cloud of scandal…
Didn’t think so. Being a villain was never so much fun. Suck it, Thamel.
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