November 20, 2023 

Is it time to worry about LSU?

Angel Reese's absence raising questions

LSU spent the college basketball offseason as the darling — a national championship, ranked No. 1, and gained two of the most dynamic transfers in the portal. But two weeks in to the season, everything has changed.

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After a brutal opening loss to Colorado and a couple of other scares, LSU now stands ranked No. 7 in the country. And beginning in the second quarter of LSU’s season, as Colorado started to pull away, the world erupted in chatter: is it time to worry about LSU?

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After loss to Colorado, next two games raise more questions

An opening night loss to Colorado definitely raised some eyebrows, but one loss against a solid team and the Buffaloes’ Jaylyn Sherrod on a tear doesn’t mean much for a whole season. However, the last two games are where more questions arise.

At halftime on Tuesday against Kent State, LSU found themselves up just two. Although Kent State is a solid team, the matchup shouldn’t have given the reigning champions a challenge. In the second half, star player Angel Reese did not play. Kateri Poole, who started on last year’s team, did not play the entire game.

When coach Kim Mulkey was asked about Reese and Poole staying on the bench in the second half, Mulkey declined to answer the reason, citing a “coach’s decision.”

On Friday, LSU returned to Mulkey’s hometown to play in-state Southeastern Louisiana University. Although the Tigers won handily, Reese did not travel with the team. The reasoning is unknown.

“Angel was not in uniform. Angel is part of this basketball team, and we hope she’s back with the team soon,” Mulkey told reporters after the game. “I’m not going to answer any more on that.”

Beyond Reese’s absence, the player’s parents and team alumni have taken to social media. Reese and Flau’jae Johnson’s mothers shared a pair of Instagram stories that appear to be clear attacks lobbed at each other. One of last year’s players on the championship team, Alexis Morris, also tweeted a series of cryptic insights slanting in Mulkey’s favor.

Reese herself chimed in on Sunday on X, formerly knowing as Twitter, with a post: “please don’t believe everything you read.”

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The upside

LSU is one of the most high-profile teams in the country, and it’s easy to descend into chaos over a championship team not playing as well as the world expects.

However, the most optimistic news for LSU is who’s stepping up. After the Tigers found themselves in danger at the half against Kent State, freshman Mikaylah Williams scored 32 points in the second half, carrying them to a 109-79 win. Williams’ 42 overall points set a record for most points scored by a freshman in LSU history.

Williams has already proven herself a critical asset to this team — leading the team’s scoring in the Colorado opener, which was her first-ever college game. She’s proving herself to be a generational talent and is playing at a rare level for a freshman. Beyond Williams, Johnson and S’Myah Smith are two returners who have been leading the team in scoring and defense.

Reese’s absence also creates questions surrounding transfer Aneesah Morrow. After taking a starring role at DePaul before a transfer down South in the summer, Morrow has had a bit of a slower transition into the SEC. However, she began to find her footing against Kent State and found her first double-double as a Tiger against Southeastern Louisiana in Reese’s absence.

Morrow’s talent is undeniable, but it speaks to the question onlookers have had since the moment she committed to LSU: how do the two carve out different skill sets on the court? At preseason SEC Media Day, Reese explained how she wasn’t concerned about the competing positions and double-doubles, explaining the team’s readiness to sacrifice individual stats for the team.

“I feel like everybody’s gonna have to sacrifice something whatever it takes to win,” Reese said in October. “One of us is going to have a double-double each night.”

And the Morrow question speaks to the larger state of LSU’s program. In their opener, Mulkey started three brand new players — Morrow, Williams and Hailey Van Lith — who have never played in the Tigers’ system. There are bound to be challenges at this point in the season for any team, and incorporating so many new additions is expected. It’s still November.

The Tennessee parallel

For SEC junkies out there, LSU’s woes may invoke some memories of Tennessee’s trajectory last season. Tennessee ranked fifth in the country preseason, lost their opener to Ohio State, and spent most of November and December in disarray.

Included in that time was losing starting center Tamari Key and a two-game suspension for transfer Rickea Jackson. At the time, the suspension felt monumental, but by March, barely anyone remembered it, and Jackson seemed integrated with the team on and off the court.

Tennessee didn’t go on to win a championship, but they did have an excellent second half of their season, losing just three games in SEC regular play and beating LSU in the SEC Tournament semifinals until their eventual Sweet Sixteen demise.

Tennessee and LSU are far from identical, but to suggest LSU’s season is toast before Thanksgiving is premature.

What LSU needs right now is to sort out their personnel issues, beef up on defense, and work on their chemistry. If Reese comes back and everyone can settle into their respective roles, they could be in a better spot than before after big minutes for younger players like Williams, Johnson, and Smith.

Everyone will be watching closely if Reese returns to the court Monday against Texas Southern.

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Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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