Sidelines with John Clay

LSU could be an SEC champion without a coach

As of Thursday, the fight for the SEC men’s regular-season champion has been officially overshadowed by an FBI wiretap.

Yahoo Sports reported that the FBI intercepted a phone call between LSU head coach Will Wade and middleman Christian Dawkins in which Wade discusses a recruiting “offer” he had made to then Louisiana high school star Javonte Smart.

“I was thinking last night on this Smart thing,” Wade tells Dawkins, according to Yahoo. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m (expletive) tired of dealing with the thing. Like I’m just (expletive) sick of dealing with the (expletive). Like, this should not be that (expletive) complicated.

”Dude, I went to him with a (expletive) strong-ass offer about a month ago. (Expletive) strong.”

It’s not clear what the “offer” was that Wade made to Strong, but the top-50 guard ended up committing to the Tigers. He is averaging 11.5 points and 30.3 minutes per game for LSU, which enters Saturday tied with Tennessee for first place in the conference at 15-2.

ESPN confirmed Yahoo’s report and added a second phone call in which Wade says that Smart would be compensated more than “the rookie minimum” apparently referring to the NBA pay scale.

Reaction has been swift. USA Today sports columnist Dan Wolken wrote that Wade should be fired and that LSU should skip this season’s NCAA Tournament.

“When the NCAA Tournament begins in two weeks,” wrote Wolken, “LSU will be one of roughly a dozen teams for whom the Final Four will seem within reach. The Tigers, who have made just one tournament appearance in the last nine seasons, could even be a No. 1 seed.

“But after an explosive report Thursday by Yahoo! Sports, which obtained transcripts of a wiretapped phone conversation between coach Will Wade and black market deal-maker Christian Dawkins, LSU’s mere presence in the tournament is a mockery. It’s an embarrassment for the school, for the Southeastern Conference and for an NCAA justice system that is relying on the FBI to do its dirty work and still can’t take meaningful action in time to save the tournament from such obvious taint.”

Glenn Guilbeau of the Shreveport Times wrote that LSU can’t just brush off this latest turn in the FBI investigation with regard to Wade.

“Should LSU end up tied with Tennessee (27-3, 15-2 SEC) and/or Kentucky (25-5, 14-3 SEC) for first in the final standings, it will still strut into the SEC Tournament in Nashville next week as the No. 1 seed as it defeated Tennessee and won at Kentucky in the regular season,” wrote Guilbeau. “But it will also wear scarlet letters — L-S-U.

“LSU and Wade already look very much on borrowed time.

“On Saturday, LSU will try to win a title already tainted.”

Dana O’Neil of The Athletic wrote that LSU needs to sit Wade.

“Wade cannot be on the bench on Saturday or for the foreseeable future,” O’Neil wrote. “So long as he is sitting in the coaching jumpseat, the Tigers will carry the stench of this report with them. So far the university has done its best tap dance, refusing comment and taking no action in October, when Wade was first connected to a federal wiretap. Now he will be put on podiums and in front of microphones to answer questions. He will insist that he be asked “basketball-only” questions, and reporters worth their salt and doing their jobs will ignore that request. He will then offer a “no comment.” His players will be asked about it and about the distraction, and they will have no comment. And round and round we go.”

All this comes after Yahoo reported Feb. 25 that Wade and Arizona Coach Sean Miller are expected to be subpoenaed on April 22 as part of the college basketball corruption investigation.

In just his second season, the 36-year-old Wade has pushed LSU basketball back into national prominence. Ranked 10th in the latest AP poll, the Tigers defeated Florida 79-78 in overtime on Wednesday to finish 9-0 in SEC road games. If LSU beats visiting Vanderbilt on Saturday, the Tigers will clinch the No. 1 seed for next week’s SEC Tournament in Nashville, which happens to be Wade’s hometown.

I’ll be surprised if Wade is there.

SEC men’s basketball standings

S Carolina10-715-15
Miss State9-821-9
Ole Miss9-819-11
Texas A&M6-1113-16

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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