NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Will Wade the millionaire coach is back in Baton Rouge, hiding behind lawyer statements that fail to address obvious questions.
But Javonte Smart? The 19-year-old LSU guard in the middle of the NCAA maelstrom created by the comments of his coach that were intercepted by an FBI wiretap last week? He was available Friday afternoon.
Smart wound up being the most accountable member of the LSU basketball program.
The postgame interview podium is not the ideal place to be asked about potential NCAA violations, especially after a last-second, upset loss to Florida in the Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinals. But these interviews aren't going to be comfortable in any setting, and this was the first time anyone has been able to ask the player about "the Smart thing," as Wade said on the wiretapped conversation with aspiring agent Christian Dawkins.
So I asked, and Smart answered.
"No, sir, I had nothing to do with that," Smart said about whether he had any knowledge of an "offer" from Wade for him to attend LSU.
On the wiretap, Wade said he made a "strong-ass offer" to a middleman. The following day the coach was suspended. Then Smart was withheld from competition last Saturday in the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt, and he met with NCAA investigators during the week.
LSU reinstated Smart on Friday morning to play here in the Southeastern Conference tournament against Florida. The team found out right before it boarded the bus from the hotel to Bridgestone Arena.
"The team welcomed me back," Smart said.
He came off the bench but played well, scoring 13 points and making five of seven shots in 31 minutes of playing time. Yet, in the end, the Tigers suffered a loss that ends hopes of an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed, and leaves their seeding for the tourney that matters most very much an unknown. Who knows where the selection committee will slot a team without its head coach?
It stands to reason that Smart will play next week, while the chances of a return by Wade seem to be tilting toward never. The comments by LSU associate athletic director Robert Munson to NOLA.com on Friday were noteworthy for their frankness regarding Wade, and why he remains suspended while Smart returned.
"Coach Wade may very well have violated his contract with LSU, as well as bylaws of the NCAA by refusing to be a part of this process," Munson said. "That obviously does not apply to Javonte as a student-athlete."
Also: "Javonte is not on that reported wiretap making an offer. Someone else is. Just because there have been no findings of an action does not change the possibility of a violation because of the offer."
Does this sound like an administration lining up behind its basketball coach? No, it does not.
All we've heard from Wade in the last week is a statement released Thursday that basically says, "I want my job back and should get it, just because." He cited "rumors, leaks and innuendo," which is an interesting description of his own words on an FBI wiretap, but in no other way addressed the substance of the story.
That generally follows the pattern for how the entire sport has reacted over the last 17 months to bombshell revelations regarding the federal investigation of corruption. Has anyone heard a single implicated head coach cop to anything? Not Rick Pitino, not Bill Self, not Sean Miller, not Mark Gottfried, and not Will Wade.
So it was left to Smart to face the music in Music City, however briefly. It basically boiled down to one question. When the podium interview session was over, Smart was the LSU player selected for drug testing (standard tournament procedure), which allowed him to avoid any further interviews in a somber locker room.
"It's definitely been a roller coaster," guard Skylar Mays said of the last eight days. "But we've got great character, high-character guys. I feel like we're doing a great job."
LSU's loss at least alleviated the awkward specter of SEC commissioner Greg Sankey handing another trophy to a team under investigation and missing its head coach. He already had to do it once Friday, delivering the regular-season title hardware to the Tigers before tipoff against Florida.
You can be sure it was not One Shining Moment for Sankey, a longtime chair of the NCAA committee on infractions.
Of course, LSU didn't mind. And the Tigers carried over the celebration to the start of the game, dropping dunks on the Gators while racing to a 13-point lead midway through the first half. Among the talents on display for LSU: sophomore point guard Tremont Waters from New Haven, Connecticut, and powerhouse freshman big man Naz Reid, from Asbury Park, New Jersey.
Those were recruiting coups Wade scored very quickly after arriving at LSU in the spring of 2017, and they made the college basketball world wonder: How does he do it? How does he get a four-star guard and a five-star big man from the Northeast to come to a school with modest basketball heritage and scant fan interest?
Maybe Will Wade is just that charming and persuasive. Maybe it's "strong-ass" offers. It would be good to ask, but the coach isn't answering. He left that to the teenager caught up in it all.
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