LSU Tigers interim coach Tony Benford has led his team to the Sweet 16 following a 69-67 win over Maryland in the Round of 32. He joins Steve Fisher as the only two interim coaches to ever accomplish such a feat — Fisher did so with Michigan in 1989, and eventually went on to win a national championship that year.
Benford, who deserves high praise in his own right for leading an LSU team embedded in controversy and tragedy to this run, had glowing remarks about Tom Izzo, Cassius Winston and the Michigan State basketball program.
Per SpartanTailgate on 247Sports, Benford had this to say about Michigan State’s head coach and point guard when speaking on ESPN:
“You’re going against a Hall of Fame coach, one of the greatest of all time in Coach Izzo,” Benford said. “His record speaks for itself. It all starts with Cassius Winston. He’s a tremendous point guard. He reminds me of Kemba Walker. I was at Marquette when Buzz (Williams) was there. We played against Kemba Walker and UConn back then. His ability to score at all three levels. He’s got a great ability to shoot the basketball from three, great floater game.”
Benford comparing Winston to a player of Walker’s caliber shows the amount of respect and admiration he has for MSU’s star. Not only is Walker currently a three-time NBA All-Star (and All-Star starter this year), he lead the UConn Huskies to an NCAA national championship in 2011. I think this comparison makes sense. While Winston may never develop into an NBA superstar like Walker, Winston has had to carry this team and will his squad to hard-fought victories for the majority of the season. This is not unlike what Walker did throughout the 2011 tournament, where he was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player after averaging 23.5 points per game. Both players are also All-Americans.
Benford also defended Izzo’s actions after the whole Aaron Henry confrontation. On ESPN Radio, Benford had this to say on the situation (slightly edited for clarity):
“Well first of all, Coach Izzo is a Hall of Fame coach, I mean he’s one of the best coaches ever. I played for a great coach at Texas Tech, you know Coach (Gerald) Myers, and Coach Myers would challenge guys and challenge us, and I had no problem with that. I mean, I think that’s part of it, and if you look at society, kids aren’t being held accountable, and a lot of people aren’t being held accountable nowadays. That’s just part of the game and those kids when they go play for Coach Izzo or whoever, they know what the coach’s personality is, his style of coaching and so that’s just part of it.
“I just saw one clip of it, and I think if the kid or his parents didn’t have any problem with it, then that’s just part of what you sign up for because obviously every coach is just trying to maximize a kid’s ability and get the best out of them. That’s just part of coaching.”
The fact that Benford has been able to weather the storm of adversity and help lead LSU to the Sweet 16 is an amazing feat in and of itself. It’s been a trying season in Baton Rogue, to say the least. Benford was named interim coach on March 8, following the indefinite suspension of head coach Will Wade. A Yahoo! Sports report revealed that Wade discussed a “strong-ass offer” with corrupt college basketball middleman, Christian Dawkins, about a college basketball recruit, now known to be current Tiger freshmen guard, Javonte Smart. Smart was suspended for just one game.
In addition to this, the Tigers dealt with tragedy before the season even started. Back in September, just hours before LSU’s first practice of the year, LSU forward Wayde Sims was shot in the head and killed after a fight broke out near Southern University’s campus in Baton Rogue. The team has dedicated the season to Sims, and his number (44) has served as a tribute all season long.
Michigan State and LSU tip off at 7:09 p.m. on Friday in Washington D.C.