The reigning champion LSU Tigers remain without Angel Reese, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, after she was absent for a second straight game Monday. There is no word on a return or why she is away from the team, and big games loom on the calendar for the Tigers in the coming nine days.
“I’m going to give you the same answer. Angel was not in uniform tonight, and Angel is a part of this basketball team,” Mulkey said. “And Angel will be back sooner than later.”
Reese has not played in the past two LSU games, nor has she been with the team. Mulkey would not say if Reese has been practicing with them. She last played against Kent State on Nov. 14, when she was benched in the second half. Neither Mulkey nor Reese has given reasoning as to her absence while speculation and attacks run wild on social media.
Reese has not been available to reporters and has been largely silent on her social accounts. She posted to Instagram on Saturday a photo of the LSU gym and to X, formerly Twitter, on Sunday, “please don’t believe everything you read.”
No. 7-ranked LSU (5-1) is embarking on its Thanksgiving tournament trip, during which it will play in the Cayman Islands Classic against Niagara (2-2) on Friday and Virginia (3-1) on Saturday. Next week is the Tigers’ most anticipated nonconference game of the season against No. 9 Virginia Tech, a Final Four rematch.
Mulkey demurred giving an answer Monday as to whether the “whole roster” will be traveling to George Town, Cayman Islands. After a moment, she quipped, “I don’t even know if I’ll go. I might wake up and be sick.” She was later asked if she has decided if Reese will travel to the tournament.
“If I have, I wouldn’t tell ya,” Mulkey said. “You’re not entitled to that information. OK?”
It is not unprecedented for star collegiate players to miss games due to a plethora of reasons, but it is unprecedented for one to be away from the team without any basic explanation. Coaches often use a catch-all of, for example, “illness,” “personal reasons” or “undisclosed violation of team rules.” The latter can run the gamut from missing a team meeting to more serious issues.
Candace Parker, the former Tennessee superstar and three-time WNBA champion, recounted in her new documentary the time legendary head coach Pat Summitt benched her after she missed curfew ahead of a homecoming game in Chicago. In recent years, many other programs, such as South Carolina, have disciplined players for violating team rules. It is often an open-and-shut matter.
Reese is one of the most profitable collegiate stars in name, image and likeness (NIL) deals, with a valuation of $1.7 million, which ranks eighth by valuation site On3. The first NIL deals were signed in July 2021, and questions remain regarding how coaches and players are handling the deals when it comes to locker room chemistry and culture. With NIL and the transfer portal, collegiate athletics look far different than when coaches such as Mulkey first entered the profession.
Mulkey said no when asked if this season has “proved to be different” than anything before in regard to building chemistry, and she continued with remarks about “locker room issues.”
“You always have to deal with locker room issues. That’s just part of coaching,” she said. “In 40 years, I can never think of a time where I didn’t have to deal with issues. That’s what coaches do. Sometimes y’all know about them, and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you want to know more than you’re entitled to know.
“I’m going to protect my players. Always. They are more important. It’s like a family. Let me ask you this: If you do some disciplining of your own children, do you think we’re entitled to know that? That’s a family in that locker room.
“Those kids are like my children, and I’m not gonna tell you what you don’t need to know. And that’s just the way I address things.”
The Tigers are up against a stretch of nonconference games featuring their only top opponents of the season outside the season opener against Colorado. Virginia went 15-15 last season and returned three of its scorers. The Cavaliers were picked to finish 10th in the ACC.
A week later on Nov. 30 is the Final Four rematch against No. 9 Virginia Tech in Baton Rouge for the ACC/SEC Challenge. LSU won 79-72 in Dallas, behind a game-high 27 points from point guard Alexis Morris, who graduated, and a 24-point, 12-rebound double-double from Reese. They both played nearly every minute of the Final Four contest.
How Angel Reese, Kim Mulkey got here
The Tigers are enduring a rocky start to their repeat title hopes after loading up in the transfer portal. The preseason No. 1 team lost to then-No. 20 Colorado 92-78 in a lackluster outing on the opening night of the season. Mulkey voiced more concern with the effort than the loss itself.
“You live with a tough night offensively,” Mulkey said. “What I don’t live with is [lack of] guts and fight and physical play. You’ve got that dog in you, and I thought we didn’t have it tonight.”
Reese had 15 points and 12 rebounds but was 6-of-15 from the floor in 30 minutes. Mulkey didn’t single out any bad performances, but she did give credit to freshman Mikaylah Williams (17 points) and sophomore Sa’Myah Smith (16 points) for doing “all they could.”
“We needed more than just those two to have a little bit of fight within,” Mulkey said.
The Tigers bounced back with two wins against teams in the bottom 20 of the 2023-24 final NET rankings. In a one-possession game at halftime with Kent State, Mulkey sat Reese for the rest of the second half. Kateri Poole, a starter on the national championship team, was also benched that full game. Mulkey declined to explain why they did not play.
“I could, but I won’t,” she said. “It was just a coach’s decision.”
Williams scored 42 points, including 32 in the second half, and Aneesah Morrow, a transfer from DePaul playing in Reese’s place, found her groove in the 109-79 win at home.
Reese has not played since. LSU won on the road against Southeastern Louisiana 73-50 on Friday and at home against Texas Southern 106-47 on Monday. Poole played five minutes in the SE Louisiana game, a third of her season average, and participated in warm-ups of Monday night’s game but did not take the court in the game despite the blowout.
Angel Webb Reese, Reese’s mother, and Kia Brooks, the mother of sophomore guard Flau’jae Johnson, got into it on social media in the days after the Kent State game. Alumni, including Morris, also posted messages involving themselves in the drama in the first few days.
Reese, who is in her second year with LSU after transferring from Maryland, helped recruit Morrow and guard Hailey Van Lith, a star guard with Louisville, in the transfer portal to bolster LSU’s chances at a title and develop the game’s first “super-team” using transfers. Adding new pieces always takes time to build chemistry, and the Tigers had to build it in key places after both their center and their point guard graduated.
Morrow averaged 13.5 points and seven rebounds in her two recent starts and is averaging 13.3 and 5.8, respectively, over six games. Van Lith is averaging 11.8 points and 4.6 assists. Williams, a top recruit in the class, leads LSU with 19.2 PPG, shooting 56.3% overall and 56.7% from 3 on a team-high 30 attempts. Reese averaged 17 PPG and 13 RPG while shooting 46.9% over her four games.