WASHINGTON, DC (WAFB) - The LSU basketball team spent Thursday morning preparing for Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup against Michigan State.
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The Tigers are the outliers in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament. They are joined in Washington, DC by the likes of Duke, Michigan State, and Virginia Tech. On paper, they’re not the favorites to advance.
But the game isn’t played on paper. The Tigers aren’t playing against the rich basketball history of Michigan State, just the current Spartans. And, interim head coach Tony Benford has faith that when the ball’s tipped Friday night, his players will continue to prove why they’re a championship contending team.
“We’re excited to obviously be in the Sweet 16; our guys have worked hard all year to put ourselves in this position,” said Benford. “I’m really pleased with the leadership we’ve gotten all year from Skylar Mays and Tremont Waters and those guys have kind of set the example through a lot of adversity that these guys have gone through all year.”
Coach Benford just talked about you as an extension of the coaching staff. How do you take that when they talk about that? How much freedom have you gotten this year, maybe, not necessarily recently?
“I would say - I was sitting behind the curtains when he was talking, so I would say my leash is pretty long,” said Waters. “They allow me to play my game, obviously, run the team. And they trust me with the ball in late-game situations. And they trust that I’m going to make the right reads for my teammates as well.”
Skylar, can you talk - the other players as well - how you’ve used the adversity as a motivating factor to get to this point?
“It started with Wayde in September, him passing away, and we have definitely used it as a driving force in what we’ve been able to do this season,” said Mays. “And, we give a lot of the credit in the wins we’ve had to him. And obviously, with what happened with Coach Wade, we just see it as an opportunity to prove ourselves when chips are down. So, I think we’ve done a tremendous job of that. And it’s going to continue to drive us as we move forward.”
LSU’s opponent is one that does just about everything well. Michigan State is top 10 in the country in rebounding margin, assists per game, and scoring defense. The Spartans are also more equipped with veteran experience. LSU has faced and beaten some tough opponents this year, like Kentucky and Tennessee, but the Spartans will take the Tigers’ best effort yet.
“We in DC baby, so it’s nothing like being out here in the Sweet 16," said guard Ja’Vonte Smart. “Hopefully, win a game and be able to play in the Elite 8.”
“It’s a blessing to be here,” added forward Emmitt Williams. “Lot of people dream to be here. I never take anything for granted because you never know. Tomorrow is not promised and I say everything is a blessing.”
“It feels great; Sweet 16,” said guard Marlon Taylor. "I never thought I’d be here.”
'Why not us?’ Where does that come from?
“Just being counted out and playing against teams we’ve beaten before that a lot people didn’t think we’d beat, just the little things and the big things, just like I said before, playing how we played and being counted out,” said forward Naz Reid.
You can watch LSU take on Michigan State on CBS at 6 p.m. Friday.