A Yahoo Sports story that bubbled to the surface Sunday night alleges that the NCAA has been looking into LSU men’s basketball coach Will Wade’s recruiting practices dating back to his seasons at VCU.
LSU and Will Wade assert the NCAA officials have made zero inquiries into or contact with members of the basketball program.
In this case, both assertions can be correct.
It is one thing for LSU to land top-rated recruit Ben Simmons three years ago because his godfather, former assistant David Patrick, was on the staff. It’s another for LSU to go from firing former coach Johnny Jones after a 10-win season to a top three-ranked recruiting class less than a year later.
There are naturally going to be eyebrows raised. There are going to be questions. And if LSU and Wade have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear.
I do not wish to question the journalistic motivations and ethics of Yahoo Sports or the story’s writer, Pete Thamel. There is plenty of that kind of stuff going on in America right now, and it can cast unnecessary doubt on some truly important journalism that’s being done.
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However, Yahoo and Thamel should have known that dropping this story about Wade and LSU on Sunday night, so close on the heels of Friday’s story about FBI investigations into payments to players at numerous schools (including LSU), plus the ESPN report that asserts Arizona coach Sean Miller was caught on FBI wiretaps talking about a $100,000 transaction to land a major recruit, had potential to implicate Wade and LSU disproportionately. Even though the earlier stories — including the allegation that former Jones’ player Tim Quarterman got $16,000 from the agents in question — have much to do with the one about Wade, other than the fact they all pertain to college basketball.
LSU said it confirmed with the NCAA there is no active investigation into men’s basketball. But what separates an active investigation from inquiries into recruiting tactics is open to interpretation.
There are explainable reasons why each member of LSU’s 2018-19 recruiting class picked the Tigers. Scotlandville Magnet’s Ja’Vonte Smart wanted to stay close to home. Five-star forward Naz Reid’s girlfriend (at least at the time; it’s not my business if this is still the case) reportedly was LSU women’s basketball freshman Raven Farley, herself a five-star prospect from New Jersey.
Darius Days drew some of the biggest eyebrows when he picked LSU over North Carolina, but he said Wade was recruiting him hard when he was still coaching at VCU. And Emmitt Williams, LSU’s other five-star forward, perhaps felt loyalty to LSU after it stuck with him in recruiting while dealing with charges of sexual battery which were eventually dropped.
If you want to take a cynical view, it's easy to assert that if there’s smoke there’s fire when it comes to LSU recruiting. More accurately, Wade is playing with fire when it comes to recruiting players like Williams and Oregon transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams, who also once faced sexual assault charges.
At his news conference Monday, Wade suggested he and his staff do more background research into recruits than most schools and that doesn’t make them shy away from recruits who have had to “overcome adversity.”
If LSU is going to again become a college basketball colossus as in the days of Rudy Macklin and Shaquille O’Neal, it’s going to have to take some risks. That includes that people are going to question what Wade and the Tigers are doing lurking about the palace of college basketball elites when they’ve spent so many seasons outside picking turnips.
Wade was clearly rankled by some of this, but he also seemed to take it in stride.
“You’ve got to have a thick skin if you do this job,” he said. “That’s part of it. Comes with the times and coaching at a high level. Certainly you’re disappointed (at the allegations). But it’s part of what you sign up for.”
College basketball is facing some deeply troubled times. LSU basketball is part of the overall story.
On the face of it, this story about Wade and his recruiting practices is a thin slice of beef. The first paragraph of the story even says the NCAA enforcement staff has spent “parts of the past six months” looking into Wade’s recruiting tactics. It doesn’t sound as though NCAA investigators set up a branch office in Richmond, Virginia — where Monday VCU officials said they have reviewed the men’s basketball program and found no evidence of wrongdoing — then high tailed it to Baton Rouge.
There will probably be more scrutiny to come for Wade and LSU. As long as he and the Tigers are recruiting at a high level, that is. But that is a far cry from actual guilt.