The NCAA Tournament’s East Regional semifinalists held their open practices and media days Thursday afternoon amidst a backdrop of swirling off-court rumors and on-court intrigue.
Opening proceedings at Capital One Arena was LSU interim head coach Tony Benford, who has guided the Tigers to a 3-1 record in the role. Benford is stepping in for Will Wade, who remains suspended while under investigation by the NCAA and the FBI regarding alleged payments in the recruiting process of current Tigers freshman guard Javonte Smart.
“Coach texts with our players, he texts with our coaching staff, but he’s not here, so we have to take ownership,” Benford said of Wade’s involvement while being away from the team.
He also reiterated: “I’ve enjoyed it, to have this opportunity. But my focus is on these kids.”
Meanwhile, tragedy struck Baton Rouge in September when Tigers junior forward Wayde Sims was shot and killed in a late-night fight off of Southern University’s campus. LSU has dedicated their season to Sims, who was brought up often at media day.
“Everything they do is about [number] 44. The other night against Maryland, with 44 on the scoreboard (LSU was leading 44-31), Tre (Waters) stopped the huddle,” Benford said. “It’s always been about Wayde.”
Skylar Mays, the Tigers’ junior guard who has led the team in scoring in both of their NCAA Tournament games, said the grief still lingers when he thinks about his classmate: “I haven’t gotten past what happened to Wayde. I’ll never get past what happened to Wayde. I’m pretty sure I can say the same for all of these guys.”
LSU, who beat 14-seed Yale 79-74 and 6-seed Maryland 69-67 in Jacksonville to reach the Sweet Sixteen, squares off against 2-seed Michigan State Friday evening at 7:09 p.m. ET. All eyes will be on the matchup between the Tigers’ sophomore Tremont Waters and MSU junior Cassius Winston, two of the finest point guards in the country.
Benford praised Waters’ development: “He’s taken his game to another level. And he’s a leader. He’s more vocal than he was last year…he knew he had to become a better defender, and you see that with him winning Co-Defensive Player of the Year.”
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said how excited he was for the matchup: “It should be a heck of a matchup. And usually everybody hopes for two good quarterbacks….We’ve got two great quarterbacks here, and I am looking forward to seeing how it works.”
Meanwhile, Winston had some interesting thoughts when I asked him about how he and Waters have each been so able to constantly produce despite being smaller point guards: “He does a good job of using his quickness, changing speeds and things like that to get to his spot. He does a good job of just staying poised and staying in control during the whole game. And I guess in my case, I play within myself. I know what I’m good at. I know my spots. And I don’t try to play outside of my strengths.”
A final wrinkle here is that Capital One Arena was where Tremont Waters was slated to play his college ball when he originally committed to Georgetown in October 2016. Waters asked for his release from his letter of intent when former Hoyas coach John Thompson III was relieved of his duties, and confirmed as much on Thursday: “The coaching staff was on [the] edge [of getting fired], and my family and I were monitoring it. When it happened, I decided to reopen my recruitment.”
The storylines don’t stop there, as Izzo of the 2-seed Spartans took the dais and was asked to reflect on his outburst during a timeout towards freshman forward Aaron Henry that went viral during MSU’s matchup with 15-seed Bradley last week.
“You know, hey, listen, my old boss told me the game makes fools of us all. And I’m sure there’s been times that, if I had to rewind something, I’d find a different way to do it,” Izzo said. “But in the heat of the moment, when a 30-second timeout–I’m not going to let one incident, one snippet, determine two years of a relationship with somebody.”
On the matchup Friday evening, Izzo said of LSU: “I said I’d love watching them if I didn’t have to play them because it reminded me of our teams back in 2000-2001, with [Jason] Richardson and [Zach] Randolph, and just guys that attack the boards. I say they go with vengeance.”
The later Sweet Sixteen matchup, 1-seed Duke against 4-seed Virginia Tech, is no less captivating than the LSU-MSU tilt.
For the underdog Hokies, it has just emerged that senior forward Ty Outlaw was charged with marijuana possession within his apartment in Blacksburg while Outlaw and the team were in California for their opening matchups last weekend. Outlaw, you might remember, hit the corner three that iced VT’s home win over Duke on February 26.
“The disturbance that occurred that led to the search warrant happened while we were in California. The search warrant was issued and executed while we were in California. We traveled all day Monday, got back Monday night. That’s when we were made aware of what had transpired,” head coach Buzz Williams said. “Ty took a drug test by an outside agency yesterday before we left. And the test was negative…I think we’ve handled it perfectly.”
As of now, Outlaw will play Friday, and was upon the dais at Capital One to field questions. “I came out here because I want to be with my teammates and really have done nothing to not want to be out here. But right now I’m focused on the game we have against Duke Friday,” Outlaw commented.
An uncertain future after tomorrow night looms for the Hokies if they do indeed fall to the Blue Devils, with rampant rumors that Williams is Texas A&M’s top candidate to fill their head coaching vacancy. For Virginia Tech’s veterans, however, their focus is singular.
“I don’t know if anyone said it, but my three out of four years here at Virginia Tech, we’ve beaten Duke. So I don’t think we’re excited for the moment,” Hokies senior guard Justin Robinson said. “I think we’re going to be ready for whatever is going to come for us to end the game.”
Finally, on the Duke side, freshman phenoms Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett engaged with the media and discussed their edge-of-your-seat victory over Central Florida last Sunday.
“It was a lot of emotions, but I mean I think the main thing we both felt was just confidence.” Williamson said. “At the two-minute mark, Coack K looked at us and said, ‘you guys are built for this moment.’”
For a college basketball community that feels intent on trying to make these Blue Devils seem mortal, seem fallible, on the biggest stage, it was refreshing to see the playful nature of the bond between Williamson and Barrett.
“It’s funny, because I know like what he’s thinking and what he’s about to say before he says it,” Barrett offered. “But, I mean, it’s just great to have somebody you can relate to off the court.”
Reflecting on his team’s matchup with VT in February in which both Williamson and Tech’s Robinson were injured, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “I think (Friday’s game) will be somewhat similar because we’re both really good defensively. And adding two of the best players in Zion and Justin will only make it better.”
Krzyzewski also added that junior forward Marques Bolden’s status has continued to improve and that he will be playing without a brace tomorrow, while junior forward Jack White is “more doubtful than probable.”
On managing the whirlwind of expectations that comes with bringing three of the nation’s four highest rated recruits last year to a program with such a storied history, Krzyzewski commented: “Look, from the start to the end we’ve kind of been ‘the team.’ A lot of people have said they need to beat us. That’s a good position, but there’s a lot going on for whoever that team is. And these kids have handled it really well.”
Duke and VT will tip off thirty minutes after the conclusion of LSU-Michigan State, which begins at 7:09 PM ET.
What’s certain is that there will be fireworks Friday night in DC, with the outcomes having implications far beyond a birth in Sunday’s Elite Eight. There are two Hall of Famers heading the two top seeds who want desperately to add one more Final Four, one more title to their illustrious resumes. There is a coach whose status beyond this year is completely up in the air. And then there is the head coach in exile whose replacement is gunning for the permanent job. What’s uncertain, of course, is who will be cutting down the nets come Sunday night and preparing to travel to Minneapolis.
Image Credits: Will Shanahan/The Georgetown Voice