LSU welcomed the spotlight. The Tigers embraced it. They wanted to be the hunted.
After all, you don’t begin a national title defense by stalking the transfer portal and bringing in the nation’s top recruiting class to fly under the radar.
The Tigers were modern college basketball’s petri dish under the microscope of watchful eyes, a near-historic accumulation of talent on a single roster under coach Kim Mulkey. It was as big as possible. Tigers fans were welcomed into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for the season’s first practice to a giant video screen that read in all caps: “COME SEE THE SHOW.”
But two months in, we’re still not sure if it’s a drama, comedy or tragedy.
The seventh-ranked Tigers host No. 9 Virginia Tech on Thursday night in a game that should be billed as the best matchup of the week, one of a handful of primetime games on ESPN this season. Instead? We’re not talking about the matchup. We’re not even talking about basketball.
We’re talking about the other show. Everything else swirling around the defending champs.
We’re talking about the mysterious absence of LSU’s star player, Angel Reese, and Mulkey’s cryptic, terse responses to inquiries about the situation. We’re wondering what all this might mean for a team that, on paper, was the most talented in the country coming into the year ranked No. 1.
There’s a lot we don’t know. We don’t know why Reese was benched midway through the Kent State game on Nov. 14 or why she hasn’t been seen in an LSU uniform since that night. We don’t know if she’s practicing with the team. We don’t know why Kateri Poole also didn’t make the trip to the Cayman Islands Classic. We don’t know if the two absences are connected. And we don’t know why Mulkey has refused to give any true clarity on these issues, if only enough to quell rumors and speculation.
We knew LSU would get each of its opponent’s best shots this season. But LSU has now created issues for itself, too.
Mulkey is not the first coach in history to bench a star player and be asked about it. And there are fair questions to ask in these situations: What happened? How long will these players be out? Are there conditions that need to be met to return?
Mulkey has stated at postgame news conferences that the media isn’t entitled to know these answers. And that is a perfectly fine response. It might even be the best response for a team with this level of spotlight and star power.
But what Mulkey should know — as someone who has been leading major programs for nearly 25 years, from a time when few covered women’s basketball to today’s comparatively burgeoning media landscape — is that the microscope zooms in. Anything she says will be parsed and dissected. And then, it will spread like wildfire.
When the Tigers took the floor without Reese three days after the Kent State game, Mulkey said: “Angel is a part of this basketball team, and we hope she’s back with the team soon. I’m not going to answer any more than that.” Three days later, after saying the public isn’t entitled to know whether Reese was practicing with the team, Mulkey was asked about her coaching style. “You always have to deal with locker room issues,” she said. She later added: “It’s like a family. If you do some disciplining of your own children, do you think we’re entitled to know that? That’s a family in that locker room.”
So then, is the media not entitled to know? Or does this have something to do with locker room issues and discipline? Through Reese’s 4 1/2-game absence, Mulkey and LSU have just let these words linger and ruminate, not clarifying or walking back the statements. Her verbal breadcrumbs have led to the most obvious endpoint: rumors.
Mulkey has repeatedly said that she’s protecting her players.
But is it truly protecting them to leave so much open to interpretation, knowing all too well where vague statements lead? Understanding — even though she says she doesn’t use social media — the kind of rumors that will swirl the longer this goes on without some kind of clarity or closure or defined end date? Is it protecting the other players on her team to have the dominant conversation about this wildly talented group being so focused on something other than its national title quest?
There might not be a perfect way to handle any of this, but had she clearly stated how long Reese would sit and categorized it in some way, that would have helped to limit speculation. Besides missing two key players, there are now also questions about how Mulkey is handling (or mishandling) this situation.
Assuming Reese and Poole eventually return, everything from here on out will be scrutinized. Every time the Tigers look disjointed on the court. Every time Mulkey yells at a player, particularly if it’s Reese or Poole. Every time LSU looks out of sync or uninterested.
These small moments become the kind of weight that can follow a team like a shadow through the season. But that’s the thing about shadows — they show up where the sun shines brightest. And that’s exactly where LSU wanted to be.
The Tigers wanted this spotlight. They wanted the eyeballs. They wanted people to watch.
They got exactly that. And now?
The show must go on.
(Photo of Kim Mulkey and Angel Reese: Grant Halverson / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)