LSU welcomed the lights. The tigers embraced her. They wanted to be hunted.
After all, you can’t start a national title defense by chasing the transfer portal and bringing in the country’s best recruiting class to fly under the radar.
The Tigers were a petri dish of modern college basketball under the microscope of watchful eyes, a near-historic accumulation of talent on one roster under coach Kim Mulkey. It was as big as could be. Tigers fans were greeted at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for the first practice of the season on a giant video screen that read in bold letters: “COME WATCH THE SHOW.”
But two months later, we’re still not sure if it’s a drama, a comedy, or a tragedy.
The seventh-seeded Tigers host No. 9 Virginia Tech on Thursday night in a game that should be described as the best game of the week, one of the few primetime games on ESPN this season. instead of? We’re not talking about the match. We’re not even talking about basketball.
We’re talking about the other show. Everything else revolves around the defending champions.
We’re talking about the mysterious absence of LSU star Angel Reese, and Mulkey’s vague and terse responses to inquiries about the situation. We wonder 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 sat on the bench in the middle of 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 is training with the team or not. We don’t know why Kateri Paul didn’t also make the trip to the Cayman Islands Classic. We don’t know if the two absences are related or not. We do not know why Mulkey refused to give any real clarity on these issues, even if that was enough to suppress rumors and speculation.
We knew LSU would get the best shots of its opponent this season. But LSU has now created problems for itself as well.
Mulkey isn’t the first coach in history to bench a star player and be asked about it. There are fair questions to ask in these situations: What happened? How long will these players be out? Are there conditions that must be met for return?
Mulkey stated in the post-match press conferences that the media had no right to know these answers. That’s a perfectly fine response. This might be the best response for a team with this level of exposure and star power.
But what Mulkey should know — as someone who has led major programs for nearly 25 years, from a time when few people covered women’s basketball, to today’s relatively thriving media landscape — is that a microscope magnifies the image. Anything you say will be analyzed and dissected. And then it will spread like wildfire.
When the Tigers were without Reese three days after the Kent State game, Mulkey said, “Angel is a part of this basketball team, and we hope she’ll be back on the team soon. I won’t answer any further than that.” Three days later, after saying the public had no right to know if Reese was training with the team, Mulkey was asked about her training style. “You always have to deal with locker room issues,” she said. She later added: “It’s like a family. If you discipline your kids, do you think we have a right to know that? That’s a family in that locker room.”
So, doesn’t the media have a right to know? or Do Does this have anything to do with locker room and discipline issues? During Reese’s 4 1/2-game absence, Mulkey and LSU allowed those words to stand and ponder, without clarifying the phrases or taking them back. Her verbal breadcrumbs have led to the most obvious endpoint: rumors.
Mulkey has repeatedly said she protects her players.
But is it really protecting them to leave so many things open to interpretation, knowing full well where vague statements lead? Do you understand – even though she says she doesn’t use social media – the kind of rumors that will spread the longer they drag on without some sort of clarity, closure, or set end date? Is it protective of the other players on her team to have a dominant conversation about this extremely talented group that is so focused on something other than its quest for a national title?
There may not be a perfect way to handle any of this, but if it had clearly stated how long Reese would be sitting out and categorized it in some way, it would have helped limit the speculation. Besides losing key players, there are now also questions about how Mulkey handled (or mishandled) the situation.
Assuming Rhys and Paul eventually return, everything will be checked from now on. Every time the Tigers look disjointed on the field. Every time Mulkey yells at one of the players, especially if it’s Reece or Paul. Every time LSU seems out of sync or uninterested.
These small moments become a kind of heaviness that can follow a team like a shadow throughout the season. But that’s the thing about shadows, they appear where the sun shines brightest. And that’s exactly where LSU wanted to be.
The Tigers wanted to highlight this. They wanted eyeballs. They wanted people to watch.
They got exactly that. And now?
show must go on.
(Photo by Kim Mulkey and Angel Reese: Grant Halvorson/NCAA Images via Getty Images)
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