JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- LSU coach Will Wade has had no contact with his players beyond a few text messages since he was suspended indefinitely earlier this month.
But his absence looms large over the program as the Tigers prepare to face the Yale Bulldogs in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday.
During the Tigers' media session on Wednesday, interim coach Tony Benford and his players fielded one question after another about how they will try to focus and ignore the distractions.
The school suspended Wade after reports that FBI wiretaps intercepted telephone calls between him and aspiring business manager Christian Dawkins, in which Wade expressed frustration about his inability to close what he described as a "strong-ass offer" for a recruit.
That recruit, Javonte Smart, ended up signing with LSU and was held out of the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt while the school investigated. Smart cooperated fully, and he was cleared to return for the SEC tournament last week.
Smart, who says he has no knowledge about the offer Wade was referring to on the wiretap, will play Thursday.
"It's tough; it's hard," Smart said Wednesday. "I'm only 19 years old, been through a lot all my life, and the last two weeks have been rough. But I'm always in the gym every day no matter what."
Smart said, at first, he had no idea how long the suspension would last.
"I always kept faith in God, but it started going longer, me sitting out, so I was like, 'I don't know,'" Smart said. "My teammates were like, 'Are you going to play?' I was like, 'I'm still waiting to see.' I kept the faith and kept pushing."
Smart scored 13 points in the Tigers' 76-73 loss to the Florida Gators in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, but players noticed they were not as cohesive on the bench as they had been.
Tremont Waters said players had a team meeting to get everyone focused headed into the NCAA tournament.
Wade, meanwhile, remains in Baton Rouge. Last week, he issued a statement asking for his job back, but he has declined the school's overtures to interview him as part of its investigation. Wade has been in contact with Benford and the assistant coaches as they work through the NCAA tournament game plan.
"We can't control the outside noise and what's going on," Benford said. "All we can control is our locker room and our huddle. And the players, they've taken ownership of the locker room. They're holding everyone accountable. ... So that's huge, when you can narrow your focus. They're aware of what's going on on the outside, but inside when we walk in those doors, hey, it's about preparing for Yale."
Still, players are aware that they have their detractors outside the building.
"We're the only team that can say we beat every team in the SEC," Emmitt Williams said. "That's amazing. It's because of Coach Wade and our team. We worked our butts off. I don't know why they're hating on us. I'm trying to come up with an answer, but I can't."
Smart says he received a recent text message from Wade that said, "Keep pushing."
"That's what we're going to do," Smart said. "We lost Wayde [Sims], our brother, at the beginning of the year, now we lost Coach Wade, so we have to keep pushing and come together closer and try to make a run."