It was only nine days ago that Florida last met LSU on a basketball court. But plenty has changed between the Tigers outlasting the Gators in overtime last Wednesday and this Friday’s meeting in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament (1 p.m, ESPN or WatchESPN).
On the court? LSU capitalized on that win over the Gators — in the second of two overtime games between the teams this year — to go on and win the SEC’s regular season title. That was aided by Tennessee dropping its final SEC game to Auburn, sure, but the Tigers did finish the year at 16-2 in SEC play, a mark blemished only by Arkansas and Florida.
Off the court? Well, things have been a bit more tumultuous.
LSU coach Will Wade is still LSU’s coach, for now, but in name only, and the suspension he received after reports that he was recorded having conversations discussing potentially paying a handler to land a recruit seems very much like a prelude to a full-on firing. LSU played without Wade on the sidelines last Saturday and blew out lowly Vanderbilt — which failed to win a single SEC game this year — but is now facing a first significant challenge without Wade.
Naturally, LSU will have guard Javonte Smart — the player at the center of the LSU controversy, thanks to Wade’s “strong-ass offer” reportedly being one made in hopes of securing Smart’s commitment — on this Friday, as the school announced early Friday that he was cleared to participate after fully cooperating with the school and NCAA.
But not having Wade — whose hectoring of officials may well have helped LSU draw more fouls from what is sure to be a dubiously competent SEC crew — may not hurt LSU more than his absence inspires his players, and the storm of drama around the Tigers is nothing new. This has not been a normal campaign for LSU since the tragic shooting death of Wayde Sims prior to the season, and the Tigers’ run to an SEC title has had all sorts of improbabilities and dramatics, from seven overtime games to multiple buzzer-beating and last-second plays.
And while LSU would certainly be forgiven for being distracted, the Tigers arguably played like they were for stretches of both games against Florida — yet still flexed enough of their considerable talent to send one game that the Gators largely controlled to overtime and win another on the road.
Florida is probably going to make the NCAA Tournament regardless of the result of this game, with a convincing Thursday win over Arkansas and a soft bubble both working in the Gators’ favor; a win over LSU would absolutely seal their berth, but a loss is far from a death blow. LSU, meanwhile, doesn’t stand to gain all that much from a win, and doesn’t stand to lose all that much with a loss. The recipe is there for a motivated Florida outfit to upset a less-thrilled Tigers squad.
This being an athletic contest between Florida and LSU and all, I’m hesitant to make any predictions other than surprise for someone. But I am cautiously optimistic about the Gators’ chances of at least going toe-to-toe with the Tigers today.