JACKSONVILLE – With LSU men’s basketball coach Will Wade suspended indefinitely, Tigers players are using the situation to come together as a team.
“All season we’ve been saying, ‘We are a family. We are going to grow together. Keep pushing through everything, all the adversity that’s been thrown at us,’” LSU sophomore guard Tremont Waters said Wednesday. “We know we have to come together as a family even more now because we don’t have our head coach.
Wade was suspended before the final regular-season game against Vanderbilt and then missed the SEC tournament where the Tigers lost to Florida in the quarterfinals. Wade was allegedly caught on FBI wiretap discussing an offer for then-recruit Javonte Smart, who plays for LSU and has been cleared to play in Thursday’s game against 14th-seeded Yale.
The third-seeded Tigers put trust in the bonding experience.
“There’s been a lot of outside stuff throughout the year and we’ve done a great job of keeping that stuff outside once we step on the court, and I think our record shows that,” junior guard Skylar Mays said. “We should be able to continue to do that, and me and Tremont as leaders, we trust all these guys, and we’ve developed a great bond over the year, and we expect that bond to keep us together on the court.”
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Assistant Tony Benford was named interim head coach, and he has tried to empower the team and focus on basketball.
“First of all, we have a quality group – what I mean, a group of character kids, and they’ve really bought in,” Benford said. “They’ve really taken ownership of their team. They’ve had to unfortunately go through a lot of adversity this year.”
Losing Wade wasn’t the only adversity. Before the season, LSU junior forward Wayde Sims was shot and killed at a party in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“That really made these guys a tighter knit group, brought them closer together, more trust and respect for one another, and it made easier for us to coach them,” Benford said. “They dedicated the season to Wayde Sims. That’s the reason we were able to win in overtime. Had six overtime games in the league and we were 5-1 in those games because of the closeness of this group.”
It also helps that Benford has head coaching experience after five years at North Texas. Benford said assistant Greg Heiar is ready to be a head coach and Bill Armstrong is a veteran SEC basketball staffer.
“We talk about narrowing our focus,” Benford said. “We can’t control the outside noise and what’s going on. All we can control is our locker room and our huddle, and the players, they’ve taken ownership of the locker room. They’re holding everyone accountable, their teammates accountable, too. So that’s huge when you can narrow your focus. Kind of have to have tunnel vision and put blinders on.
“But they’re aware of what’s going on on the outside, but inside when we walk in those doors, hey, it’s about preparing for — for instance, Yale. We’ve got to prepare.”