Nobody knows what the hell is going on at LSU right now.
Their title defense has been a bumpier ride than anyone expected. Kim Mulkey reeled in the 2023 Morgan Wooten National Player of the Year Mikaylah Williams, McDonald’s All-American Aalyah Del Rosario and Louisville transfer Hailey Van Lith as additions to the preseason No. 1 team. More importantly, they were returning the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, Angel Reese. After an offseason of their stars enjoying the spoils of March Madness victory, the entire program has devolved into bickering between parents, accusations that Reese is failing classes, and Mulkey’s most detestable qualities after she showed little regard for potentially getting journalists and her team sick with COVID.
Following an underwhelming first half last week against Kent State, Reese was benched for the second half and hasn’t appeared on the court since. As a defending national champion whose celebrity extends beyond the confines of women’s hoops, LSU’s reticence to address the unfolding absence of Reese has been made a mess of by Mulkey. The coach’s unwillingness to bring clarity has spawned theories, watered rumor mills, and reminded everyone of the dichotomy between her coaching brilliance and incompetence as the voice of LSU women’s hoops.
LSU’s title defense started out poorly enough with a loss to unranked Colorado. But powerhouses Iowa and UConn were also upset and kept on chugging. There’s been no indication that Reese will be re-joining the team in the near future. Cryptic social media posts from Reese have gotten lost in the fog and ambiguous statements from Mulkey have only exacerbated the mystery.
The benefit of LSU playing drama-free basketball is that Mulkey can disappear into the background behind her marquee players when things are going well. As a crisis manager, she’s the worst we’ve seen since George W.’s FEMA director slept through Hurricane Katrina. Anytime Mulkey opens her mouth, it’s to make the worst noises possible. When Brittney Griner was trapped in a Russian prison, Mulkey refused to offer support. But if you asked her about COVID testing, or to defend her employer for brushing aside a sexual assault scandal, she becomes a relative motor mouth.
When asked to clarify Reese’s status after she was benched against Kent State, Mulkey chose to market the drama rather than support her player.
“I guess you better have a ticket to see, huh,” Mulkey quipped. “All right, you better get a ticket and see.”
After Reese failed to even appear on the bench against Southeast Louisiana Friday, Mulkey was much more acerbic, but refused to offer any details.
The problem is that Reese has always been a target of a certain demographic predisposed to associate her assertive demeanor with cockiness. Mulkey hasn’t helped her cause while Reese has vaguely addressed her absence through Instagram posts. Presumably, Reese will return to the court eventually. Outkick’s Glen Guilbeau reported that Reese’s suspension is part of an attitude adjustment. What attitude Mulkey is disciplining Reese for has been left up to interpretation due to Mulkey’s reticence to address the issue in a straightforward manner. In that vacuum of leadership, ancillary figures’ voices have crowded the space.
Last week, the mothers of Angel Reese and guard Flau’jae Johnson bickered through social media posts, leading to questions about Reese’s academic standing. Critics have turned this team into an indictment of the NIL era. Detractors of the rights student-athletes are enjoying have spent years in search of an example to single out. Women’s basketball is an easy target. Detractors can attack the quality of basketball, the athleticism in comparison to the men’s game, and yap about how NIL money has ruined college athletics with one hand and hold a tiki torch with their other.
In the meantime, LSU will roll through its non-conference schedule. By the time January rolls around, this saga will be long over, allowing Mulkey to disappear onto the sidelines where she and LSU are better served.
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