MILWAUKEE (AP) — Kevin Nickelberry gathered his team together after practice on Thursday — his LSU team for only a matter of days, since Will Wade was fired last weekend — and delivered a simple message.
“I told them, ‘The most important thing for us is that we have both feet in the boat,’ " Nickelberry said.
It's all aboard for Nickelberry and the Tigers, who are hoping to sail out of some choppy waters when they face Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
The 57-year-old Nickelberry was elevated to interim coach when Wade was fired Saturday amid allegations of NCAA violations. Associate head coach Bill Armstrong also was let go.
Suspicion of wrongdoing has followed Wade since 2019 reports about leaked excerpts of an FBI wiretap that captured Wade speaking with a person convicted of funneling illegal payments to the families of college basketball recruits.
While stressing Wade's dismissal for cause was not an acknowledgement of agreement with any of the allegations, LSU said in a statement signed by school President William F. Tate and athletic director Scott Woodward that the men's basketball program had been operating "under an exhausting shroud of negativity.”
“A lot of people feel there’s a dark cloud around LSU basketball,” senior forward Darius Days said. “But that’s how it’s been since I got there. 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.”
The Tigers faced a similar situation in 2019, when Wade was suspended for the regular-season finale and the postseason. They ended up advancing to the Sweet 16 before losing to Michigan State.
“I miss him. Our coaching staff misses him,” Days said. “But we’ve got to continue doing what we’ve been doing our whole lives, playing basketball.”
Nickelberry had Days speak to the team because of his experience in 2019.
“He’s the one person that was here last time LSU was in this situation as a freshman when coach Wade wasn’t coaching the team, so he understands the pressure and the media and the expectations associated with it, and they were very successful,” Nickelberry said.
“So I asked him to go out and be my fullback. I’m slow, but I asked him to open up the hole. I can go in and try to put us in a position to be successful.”
Nickelberry is in his third season at LSU. But he had previous head coaching stints at Hampton and Howard. He also played a role in recruiting much of LSU's roster, so he has close relationships with several players.
“I didn’t think I would be a head coach again,” he said. “I was content being the assistant in my career. But God sometimes has different plans for you. And in this moment, this is what we can control this week.”
LSU went 22-11 this season, earning the No. 6 seed in the Midwest Region. It has dropped four of its last seven games, including a 79-67 loss to Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Wade's last game at the school.
The Tigers face another struggling team in 11th-seeded Iowa State, which has lost three in a row and doesn't seem to care too much about the turmoil surrounding LSU.
“Honestly, I just found out,” Iowa State guard Tyrese Hunter said. “I didn’t really pay attention to it like that. But at the end of the day, it’s not the players that got changed around. It’s the coach.”
The Tigers feel the same way. While acknowledging the changes on LSU's staff made this week “a little hectic,” forward Tari Eason said he thinks it has brought the team even closer.
“I feel like everybody’s doing their part to step up, all the assistant coaches, even the players, our leaders,” he said. “We’re just all doing our part to try to step up and try to fill that missing piece. ... We miss them. We’re just trying to all step up and rally together to make this a special run.”
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