March 31, 2024 

LSU is sensational. Don’t let distractions get in the way

We don’t have to take Kim Mulkey or the trolls seriously

ALBANY, N.Y. — LSU-UCLA was the highest level of talent the Sweet 16 had to offer. The teams featured a combined five players who earned AP All-American votes and seven serious WNBA prospects. The two programs could not be more diametrically opposed, from their gameplay to their head coaches’ style.

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In spite of all that, what was the biggest narrative coming in? Tigers head coach Kim Mulkey getting mad at a reporter at the Washington Post.

There were plenty of other things to focus on during No. 3 seed LSU’s 78-69 win over the second-seeded Bruins in the Albany 2 Regional semifinal. The Tigers advanced to their second straight Elite Eight, behind outstanding performances from Flau’jae Johnson (24 points, 12 rebounds and three stocks on 77.9% true-shooting) and Aneesah Morrow (17 points on 62.3% true-shooting).

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Angel Reese dominated the paint despite standing four inches shorter than her Bruin counterpart, Lauren Betts, to the tune of two blocks and four steals while managing foul trouble. Last-Tear Poa is playing double-digit minutes despite being less than three weeks removed from getting carried off the court on a stretcher.

None of these stories received primary attention, though. That was reserved for what goes on off the court.

In the lead-up to tip-off, SportsCenter did not have a story on how the Tigers have learned to gel over the course of the season. Rather, they had one on the Washington Post’s profile of Mulkey from that morning. Reporters in the postgame asked Johnson one question about her performance, and Morrow was not asked about stepping up and scoring both times Reese had to leave in the second half with foul trouble.

Instead, they were asked why “it’s almost like the world is against y’all.”

Mulkey was asked just two questions about the game, in contrast to several questions about the Washington Post article, public perceptions of LSU and Easter Sunday celebrations. She spent much of that postgame condemning a Los Angeles Times column that framed the Bruins-Tigers matchup as one of “good versus evil,” a column which appeared to have enjoyed little attention until Mulkey brought it up. But after her press conference, it was front page news on ESPN.

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Feeding this discourse — heck, feeding most discourse around LSU in recent years — is a choice to supply it with oxygen. It is a choice to redirect that oxygen away from talking about Johnson’s evolution, about Hailey Van Lith learning that self-esteem comes from within, about Morrow adapting to Power 5-level play, about what Reese has described as being able to take a step back and facilitate for teammates more often.

The Tigers are one of the more talented teams in the history of the game, and they deserve to have their journeys and their play be the stories. It can be hard to do so when their head coach turns media sessions into the airing of her personal grievances.

With that said, Kim Mulkey does not have to be taken seriously. She does not have to be taken seriously when she encourages the NCAA to stop testing and masking for COVID. She does not have to be taken seriously when she refuses to treat Baylor’s epidemic of sexual assaults and subsequent cover-ups with the gravity it deserves. She does not need to be taken seriously when she threatens to sue the paper that brought down a sitting United States president, nor does she need to be taken seriously when she complains about reporters needing to be held accountable, considering she has only ever coached in sycophantic media markets.

Kim Mulkey does not need to be taken seriously on any topic other than the game of women’s basketball on the court and recruiting. To treat her seriously is to draw attention away from her players and toward her spectacle.

Stathead Stat of the Week

Ariel Atkins scored 36 points for the Mystics on Sunday. She was one point away from tying Elena Delle Donne’s franchise record for the most points in a game.

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LSU’s haters and trolls do not need to be taken seriously, either. A column referring to the Tigers as “dirty debutantes” and effectively calling them classless does not need to be taken seriously when it is written by someone who has only covered women’s basketball for two weeks. Those who choose to see LSU as a scourge upon the sport do not need to be taken seriously. Every minute spent paying attention to them is a minute not spent appreciating the most talented frontcourt duo in the country and their quest to defend the national title as a three-seed.

Fighting fire with fire only gets a firefighter fired. The most effective way to combat the flames is to deprive them of oxygen: Ignore the distractions and instead focus on the joy of Johnson blocking someone nine inches taller than her, and eventually those distractions will go away.

There is no arena in which cranks and trolls can be defeated by accepting their framing of the conflict. A basketball game is not the next frontier in the battle between good and evil, and a cranky coach is not going to take down the institution that helped fight the federal government to enter the Pentagon Papers into the public record, and no one is putting a gun to our heads and forcing us to pretend otherwise.

On Monday, LSU will take the court against Iowa in an Elite Eight rematch of the 2023 national championship game. It is only fitting that the Tigers must once again prove themselves better than the Hawkeyes to advance toward another title: Given the Caitlin Clark Mania sweeping the nation, a win would make LSU into legendary heel status. Let’s not let distractions get in the way of appreciating that.

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

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