LSU senior forward Darius Days does not know what it’s like to play college baskeball without the NCAA on the Tigers’ tail.
Days was a freshman at LSU in the 2018-19 season. In February of 2018, the first report of the NCAA investigating LSU coach Will Wade was written by Yahoo.com when he was only in his first season. The NCAA was also looking into his time at his previous job at Virginia Commonwealth.
In October of 2018, other stories had Wade talking to talent broker Christian Dawkins on FBI wiretap in the early days of the federal investigation of college basketball corruption. Wade was discussing on tape how to “fund” the commitment of prospect Balsa Koprivica, one of the top prep centers in the nation from Montverde Academy in Florida. He instead signed with Florida State and played there from 2019-21.
“I’m very proud of what I’ve done as the LSU basketball coach,” Wade said at SEC Media Days on Oct. 16, 2018, when asked about Koprivica. “And I have never ever done any business of any kind with Christian Dawkins.”
On March 7, 2019, Yahoo.com produced the groundbreaking story that had Wade talking business to Dawkins again on FBI wiretap, saying in 2017 that he made a “strong-ass offer” for Baton Rouge prep prospect Javonte Smart. Smart signed with LSU in its highly ranked 2018 class with Days and Naz Reid, among others. Smart played from the 2018-19 season through the 2020-21 season with Days.
Wade was suspended by LSU the day after the “strong-ass offer” story came out for not cooperating with LSU’s and the NCAA’s investigation of the story. He was reinstated a month later after agreeing to cooperate. The investigation then intensified over the next three years, and the NCAA said it had to deal with delays and misinformation from Wade. The NCAA issued LSU a Notice of Allegations less than two weeks ago.
On Friday, the 6 seed Tigers (22-11) play No. 11 seed Iowa State (20-12) in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (7:20 p.m. eastern, TBS). Assistant coach Kevin Nickelberry, who came to LSU before the 2019-20 season, has been elevated to interim coach.
“That’s really a good question,” Days said Thursday at a press conference in Milwaukee when asked about a “cloud of negativity” around the program. “Because a lot of people feel there’s a dark cloud around LSU basketball. But that’s how it’s been since I got here.”
Days does not know an NCAA Tournament without an NCAA investigation, and this is his third Tournament.
“We had a couple shirts made, ‘LSU versus the World.’ At all times, that’s how we feel – ‘LSU versus the World.’ That’s just what it is,” he said.
LSU next will respond to the Notice of Allegations, though it already has in many ways with Wade’s dismissal, which could soften the NCAA penalties against the school. Then the NCAA will respond and a hearing will be set.
“I feel very confident with the team,” said Days, who leads the team in rebounding with 7.7 a game while averaging 13.7 points. “Working hard, just not letting the distractions keep us away from our goal to win a national championship. We’ve been locked into each other. We’re going to be all right.”
While Wade was suspended in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, then-assistant coach Tony Benford became interim coach. The No. 3 seed Tigers, who had won the SEC regular season title at 16-2, defeated 14 seed Yale, 79-74, and 6 seed Maryland, 69-67, in Jacksonville, Florida, to reach the Sweet 16. Days scored 10 points with five rebounds and an assist in 15 minutes in the win over Maryland.
LSU fell to No. 2 seed Michigan State, 80-63, in Washington D.C. to end its season at 28-7.
“It’s very similar,” Days said. “Last time, Coach Wade didn’t come back too. But it’s a very touchy situation. I miss him. Our coaching staff misses him. But we’ve got to continue doing what we’ve been doing our whole lives – playing basketball.”
Wade took LSU to the NCAA Tournament in the 2020-21 season with Tigers defeating St. Bonaventure in the first round before losing to Michigan. Days scored 13 points with 11 rebounds in the opener.
Nickelberry asked Days to talk to the team soon after he received the interim job last week.
“Basically that this situation happened before,” is what Days said he told the team. “‘So just be solid and continue. Let’s keep doing the things we’ve been doing – playing hard and loving each other and playing for each other.’ If we continue doing that, the sky’s the limit for our team. I’m going to continue saying that we miss Coach Wade. We wish him the best. We just wish he was here with us.”
Wade, 39, may be banned from coaching by the NCAA for several years, but he is young enough to rebuild a coaching career.
Nickelberry said Wade did not address the team after his firing. Also fired Saturday was LSU assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Bill Armstrong, who was Wade’s assistant since his arrival at LSU in 2017 and recruited Days and the rest of the class of 2018 along with other members of the current team.
“This week has been a little hectic, obviously, with the changes in the staff, but I feel like everybody’s doing their part to step up and make this a special run,” sophomore forward Tari Eason said.
“There’s a lot of adversity in the world, so this is a tough situation for everybody,” said Nickelberry, a former head coach at Hampton and Howard who was an assistant with Wade at Clemson in 2005 and ’06.
“But right now, I’m charged with the responsibility of getting these young men focused on the task at hand, which is the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “We will get prepared like normal. No, we don’t have to make a lot of changes.”
LSU did win three of its last four games.
Nickelberry, 57, was asked about coming to a place three years ago that was under NCAA investigation as Days also knew four years ago.
“I don’t want to talk about anything regarding the investigation or anything,” he said. “I don’t know if that helps these young men. I mean, we could talk about that next week, within the future. I came here to help a friend (Wade), be a mentor, help him through a tough situation.”
The LSU-Iowa State winner plays on Sunday against the winner of No. 3 seed Wisconsin (24-7) and No. 14 seed Colgate (23-11), who play at 9:50 p.m. Friday on TBS.
“Unfortunately what’s happened has happened, and I can’t look back,” Nickelberry said. “They can’t look back. All we can do is look forward to the game.”