There was never anything like this at LSU, was there?
When has there ever been this mix of championship glory and nationwide ignominy for an LSU team marinating in its moment? One cannot imagine it, not an arena that was such a gumbo of raw anger and defiant rage over a boiling scandal that led the school to suspend Will Wade in his moment of ultimate triumph.
Saturday night’s game for the Tigers’ basketball team was supposed to be nothing more than a victory lap. Earlier in the day, Auburn defeated Tennessee 84-80 to assure LSU of at least a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship, as well as the No. 1 seed in this week’s SEC tournament. The only issue to be decided was whether the Tigers would be the outright champion or have to share first place with Tennessee and Kentucky.
The outcome, an 80-59 LSU victory, seemed a fait accompli considering the Tigers’ opponent, Vanderbilt, was 0-17 in the SEC. But that didn’t tamp down the emotions turning the Pete Maravich Assembly Center into a pressure cooker, an arena that seemed more like a European soccer match than the site for a college basketball game.
Instead of chants from the crowd of “SEC! SEC!” or “We’re number one!” there were other messages on the crowd’s mind. From before the tip to throughout the game, the LSU student section was hammering home the “Free Will Wade!” and “Joe must go!” mantras, the latter directed at LSU athletic director Joe Alleva a day after he and LSU president F. King Alexander suspended Wade for not coming to talk to them about the Yahoo! Sports and ESPN allegations. The allegations that also led LSU to hold guard Javonte Smart out of the game because Wade mentioned his name on the FBI wiretaps revealed in the Yahoo! Sports story. The Tigers were also without star forward Naz Reid because of an unspecified injury.
One imagined what Wade must have thought of the whole scene. He was watching from home, he told The Advocate’s Sheldon Mickles, and had to be wondering if and when he would get another chance to coach the team now entrusted to assistant coach Tony Benford. A team that if it also cuts down the nets in Nashville, Tennessee, could even play its way into a NCAA tournament No. 1 regional seed.
“(Wade) was there in spirit,” LSU guard Tremont Waters said. “I’m sure he was yelling at the TV when we messed up.”
But on Saturday night, all that speculation was as far away as the honky tonks on Nashville’s Broadway, where the Tigers will play next Friday in the SEC tournament. For now, this was about mad love for a coach who has so rapidly (some would say too rapidly) made LSU basketball relevant again.
“He’s like a young Nick Saban,” said Baton Rouge resident John Berges, an LSU basketball season-ticket holder since 2006. “He’s organized, high energy and demands a lot from his players. To have them playing for this (SEC title) and him not being here seems unfair. I think they’re letting Dick Vitale and the national media dictate what they’re doing. I’m very disappointed in Alleva and Alexander.”
The LSU student section was filled with pro-Wade and Smart signs (“Will Wade for AD … Free Will Wade … Free Javonte … I Will Wade for you.”) There were even purple or gold (depending on your preference) “I Support Coach Wade” T-shirts scattered through the crowd, cranked out earlier in the day by an erstwhile local entrepreneur.
Can't see video below? Click here.
LSU student Brant Becker of Addis brought a two-sided sign to the packed student section — “I Will Wade for you” on one side and “Will Wade American Gang$ter” on the other — the latter a reference to a description Sports Illustrated’s Jon Rothstein gave to Wade earlier this season.
“We’re victims in this FBI case,” Becker said. “And so is Will Wade. Will Wade is one of the greatest basketball coaches ever to grace this university with John Brady and Dale Brown.”
Of course, that was what all the angst and anger was about. And the fear. Fear that if Wade goes permanently and NCAA probation follows, LSU could sink back as quickly into the SEC cellar as it rose, a team that was just 2-16 in conference play two years ago.
When LSU went to the first media timeout up 12-8, the PMAC stood and cheered the effort. They cheered when Wade showed up in the pregame hype video on the big screens hanging over the court. Then the students tired of profanity-laced chants and put “Free Will Wade” lyrics to every song the LSU band played and they cheered for that.
Afterward the biggest cheer was reserved for Wayne and Fay Sims, the parents of slain LSU player Wayde Sims, when they went up to cut down pieces of the net in front of the student section. Hopefully in the midst of all this, their loss and the loss of his LSU teammates can be remembered, if just for a little while.
Amid all the distractions surrounding LSU basketball, an emotional moment in the Tigers' post-game championship celebration stood out Saturday night.
There was nothing Tigers fans would cheer more than to see Wade pacing in front of the LSU bench again next season. But on this strange Saturday night, that was far from certain.
If LSU wants to add a Southeastern Conference tournament championship to its resume, the Tigers will need to win three games in three days in …