What could go down as LSU's most successful men's basketball season in four decades also has been tarnished by the suspension of coach Will Wade amid concerns about the recruiting tactics he used to build his team.
On Friday, LSU chancellor F. King Alexander and athletic director Joe Alleva announced they had suspended Wade indefinitely and appointed assistant Tony Benford interim head coach. Benford's first game in his new role comes Saturday, when No. 10 LSU (25-5, 15-2 Southeastern Conference) hosts Vanderbilt (9-21, 0-17) with an opportunity to win at least a share of the SEC regular-season championship.
The suspension came a day after reports that an FBI wiretap captured Wade's telephone conversations with a person convicted last year of funneling money to the families of basketball recruits. In a joint statement, Alexander and Alleva said the suspension will continue until LSU can ensure Wade's recruiting tactics have been in full compliance with NCAA and university policies.
"Recent media reports regarding coach Will Wade are without question concerning to all of us," the joint statement said. "As such, we and university officials have taken deliberate and purposeful steps to fairly assess and adequately address this situation. We are closely coordinating with the NCAA with every step. They have our full cooperation and we will continue to report to them all facts and information on this matter."
Wade, 36, is in his second season at LSU. The Nashville native started his head coaching career at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2013, and after leading the Mocs to a pair of winning seasons, he took over at Virginia Commonwealth University.
He won 51 games in two seasons with the Rams before taking charge of the Tigers. LSU had struggled to a 10-21 record, including 2-16 in SEC play, in 2016-17, which ended with Johnny Jones being fired after five seasons in Baton Rouge. The Tigers went 18-15 overall, 8-10 in the SEC and reached the second round of the National Invitation Tournament in Wade's first season.
A Yahoo Sports report published Thursday included excerpts of a phone call in which Wade spoke with Christian Dawkins, who is one of several people convicted in October of conspiracy to commit wire fraud for funneling illegal payments to families of recruits to Kansas, Louisville and North Carolina State. Dawkins also is a defendant in a federal bribery case scheduled for trial on April 22, and Wade is expected to be called as a witness in that case.
In the report, Wade is described expressing his frustration with an unidentified third party handling the recruitment of player referred to only as "Smart." LSU has a freshman guard named Javonte Smart who is a former Louisiana high school player of the year.
Wade is quoted on a transcript of the call saying he made a strong offer that was "tilted toward taking care of" the player and his mother, but that the third party who received the offer was unsatisfied with his "piece of the pie." The report also states it was not clear if the offer Wade discusses would violate NCAA rules, or if the player and his family knew of or accepted the offer, of which there were no specific details.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said he supported LSU's decision to suspend Wade.
"The information in recent news reports is very disturbing, if true," said Sankey, noting the SEC advises member institutions on compliance matters and would do so in this case. "Considering the existing circumstances, LSU has taken appropriate action."
Wade was at a public speaking engagement at a south Louisiana casino when the report came out. When asked about the report by media after the event, Wade declined comment other than to express confidence in his players' ability to remain focused on basketball.
"We've handled everything very well so far," Wade said. "We've talked about the bigger the game or the more noise that's out there, the more you have to narrow your focus. We've been very good at keeping a narrow focus thus far."
Smart has not been made available for comment.
On Thursday afternoon - before Wade's suspension - several LSU players who were among Wade's top recruits the past two years echoed some of their coach's comments about moving forward and also suggested their recent success had something to do with the timing of the scrutiny surrounding the program.
"If we weren't winning, trust me, they wouldn't talk about us," freshman forward Emmitt Williams said. "As you can see, we're doing stuff no one ever thought of us doing. They're trying to find a way to bring us down. We don't even pay attention to that stuff."
LSU's 25 regular-season victories are tied for second-most in program history with the 2000 and 2009 teams and behind only the 1981 Final Four team that won a school-record 27 regular-season games and totaled 31 victories, the program record.
Sophomore guard Tremont Waters said the current Tigers have formed a close-knit group that stays together "when people are trying to create havoc around our program."
"People don't pay attention to losers," Waters added. "Growing up, I never won a championship. People don't talk about you when you're not winning. That's just a way of life."
Wade's suspension comes near the climax of a season that began amid profound sadness after the late September shooting death of Wayde Sims, a junior forward from Baton Rouge. Sims - a popular role player known for proudly showing teammates around his hometown or helping them run errands - was fatally shot while sticking up for a friend who had been involved in a fight near the campus of Southern University.