Local college basketball seasons provide microcosm for current NCAA landscape

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Naz Reid #0

NEW ORLEANS – The diverse climaxes to the seasons of the most prominent local men’s basketball programs demonstrate the various challenges facing NCAA Division I college basketball programs.

For the LSU Tigers this season has brought a return to national prominence but also showed the temptations that can lead a coach and a program astray.

For the Tulane Green Wave this season served as a reminder of the difficulty faced by schools that have lower football income and higher academic requirements compared to the universities with elite athletic programs.

And for the UNO Privateers this season demonstrated the limitations that hamstring programs from the least prestigious conferences.

LSU had not make the NCAA Tournament since 2014 when Johnny Jones’ team lost to N.C. State in the first round.

But this was a breakout season in Will Wade’s second season as head coach. The Tigers won the SEC regular-season championship in the league’s most competitive season in several years.

That earned them a number three seed and they showed flashes of how they earned such a lofty position when they held off an impressive Yale team, 79-74, on Thursday afternoon in the East Regional in Jacksonville, Fla.

LSU’s first NCAA Tournament victory in 10 years earned it a second-round game Saturday against sixth-seeded Maryland, which rallied to push the Tigers to the limit before a dramatic layup by Tremont Waters pushed the SEC champs into the Sweet 16.

Regardless of whether the Tigers season ends in the Sweet 16 or even in the Final Four, it will be remembered within the context of Wade’s suspension by the university, just as the last three games have been played within that same context.

LSU suspended Wade after Yahoo! Sports reported that the FBI had captured Wade on tape discussing with a “recruiting broker” an “offer” to a recruit. The recruit mentioned appears to be freshman guard Javonte Smart.

Wade has refused school officials’ request for a sit-down about the suspicious comments, which accelerated Wade’s suspension and perhaps necessitated it in the minds of LSU officials.

It remains to be seen exactly what Wade did or didn’t do in violation of NCAA rules, though the wording in the conversation seems damning.

But at the very least, the fact that a college basketball coach feels compelled to do business with a “recruiting broker,” who is a de facto agent for high-school kids – especially one being investigated by the FBI – shows the challenges and temptations facing coaches of programs that aspire to compete at the highest level.

The quickest way to build an NCAA championship contender is to lure NBA-ready players to your program, which requires annual replenishment because most will be gone to the NBA after one season.

It also generally requires working with people such as Christian Dawkins, the convicted felon who spoke with Wade on the tape in question.

The more you encounter “recruiting brokers” in your recruiting process, the more likely it is that you will face the prospect of breaking NCAA rules in order to land the players most capable of helping you compete for a national championship.

You can lure elite recruits to your school without cheating and you can compete for a national championship without signing lottery picks.

But if you’re trying to take a program that has been off the Final Four radar for many years and put it back on the radar as quickly as possible, you’re going to be tempted to take short cuts.

Wade’s Tigers made a remarkable turnaround and it remains to be seen whether it was done on the up and up. But this saga reminds us that if a coach is inclined to cut corners, it’s easy to find ways to do just that.

While LSU continues its most successful season in a long time, Tulane fired head coach Mike Dunleavy in the wake of the first winless conference season in school history.

Dunleavy was always an unconventional hire, an NBA guy who had had mixed results on the pro level and who was in the twilight of his coaching career.

The Green Wave had little team success in Dunleavy’s three seasons, but players did show significant development individually under Dunleavy’s tutelage.

After losing starting point guard Ray One Embo to a season-ending knee injury this season, the bottom fell out for Tulane.

Athletic director Troy Dannen made the right move by moving on from Dunleavy, and finding someone able to turn the Green Wave into perennial contenders for an NCAA Tournament berth was a daunting task for Dannen. The choice is Georgia State’s Ron Hunter, who will almost have to start from scratch Uptown.

As for UNO, the Privateers have a coach who has already taken the Privateers to the NCAA Tournament.

Mark Slessinger led UNO to the Southland Conference tournament title and automatic bid to the NCAAs two years ago and the Privateers came up one win short of duplicating that feat this season.

UNO knocked regular-season champion Sam Houston State out of the Southland tourney and an NCAA big with a semifinal upset, but the Privateers fell to Abilene Christian in the final.

No matter who wins the Southland tourney, they’re almost always going to be the only team from the league to get into the NCAA Tournament.

Everything that a team such as UNO or Abilene Christian does – from recruiting to off-season work to preseason practice through four months of regular-season play – is meaningless expect as preparation for the few days in the conference tournament. Win the tournament and you go to the NCAAs; come up short and you don’t, regardless of anything and everything else you have done.

If you’re a regular-season champion that doesn’t get into the NCAA Tournament – such as Sam Houston State – you get an automatic bid to the NIT.

If you’re a team such as UNO, which doesn’t get an NCAA or NIT bid but has a winning record and a strong enough desire to keep playing, you can buy your way into a home game in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament for a reported $38,000.

That’s what the Privateers did, figuring the cost was worthwhile for the opportunity to keep playing and accelerate the development of underclassmen.

The stay didn’t last long as the Privateers lost their opener in overtime against Texas Southern, Johnny Jones’ current program, in Lakefront Arena.

When it comes to men’s college basketball there’s plenty of March Madness, but there’s a fair amount of madness going on in other months as well.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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