“I’m going to protect my players,” LSU women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey told reporters Monday. “Always. They are more important. It’s like a family.”

That’s a standard line of coachspeak, and it’s a good principle, besides. Yet it’s hard to see how Mulkey has publicly done much to protect Angel Reese lately. The coach does not owe anyone specific information about why her star player has recently been absent from the team. But in not disclosing any details about the situation—not clarifying whether this is a personal matter or a suspension or something else—Mulkey and LSU have allowed speculation to run wild. That approach has only drawn more eyes to the situation. And it does not seem like it has protected Reese.

Mulkey has been vague in response to any question as to why Reese has not been with the team lately. 

Stephen Lew/USA TODAY Sports

Reese was benched in the second half of LSU’s win over Kent State last Tuesday and has not been with the team for either of the two games it has played since. The junior forward helped lead the program to its first title in program history last spring and shot to national stardom in the process. Her absence would always have been attention-grabbing (even over a relatively noncompetitive stretch of nonconference games). But how a program announces—or doesn’t announce—an absence can do an awful lot to shape the ensuing discussion.

After both games that LSU played without Reese, Mulkey gave a variation of the same answer, which didn’t answer very much at all.

“Angel was not in uniform tonight,” the veteran coach said. “Angel is a part of this basketball team, and Angel will be back sooner than later.”

That brief statement might have covered for … anything. It could be personal, disciplinary, physical or something different altogether. That could apply to something that lasts for one night or for one month. And it bears repeating: Neither Mulkey nor Reese nor LSU owes anyone specific information here. But if the program saw this as an in-house matter that it wanted to keep private, well, it didn’t help to use such deliberately vague framing. It only created more space for rumor-mongering. That seemed to be something of a theme here. When Mulkey was asked Thursday to confirm Reese’s status for the game Friday, she responded, “You’d better get a ticket and see.” That didn’t exactly quash the ongoing speculation. If anything, it only fed the fire.

On Sunday—two days after LSU went on the road to face Southeastern Louisiana without Reese—the junior posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, with a brief request for caution: “please don’t believe everything you read.”

The closest Mulkey has gotten to sharing any details came after LSU’s win over Texas Southern without Reese on Monday.

“If you do some disciplining of your own children, do you think we’re entitled to know that?” Mulkey asked a reporter who had tried to pose a follow-up question about Reese. “That’s a family in that locker room.”

Mulkey did not elaborate; it was not clear whether her mention of discipline was supposed to be entirely metaphorical or a more direct comment on the matter at hand. But the framing of her reply suggested a reading of the situation that seems at best uncooperative and at worst actively harmful.

Reese, who was an integral part of LSU’s title run last season, was benched in the second half of the Tigers’ game vs. Kent State last week and has not played since. 

Taylor Ballantyne/Sports Illustrated

It’s true that no one is entitled to know the details of the situation. But reporters are certainly entitled to ask. And if the program builds an information vacuum—a void that will naturally fill with speculation—the questions will only keep coming. Mulkey and LSU had a chance to set the terms of the narrative publicly here. If this is a disciplinary matter, or a personal situation or a temporary leave: Mulkey could have said that without violating Reese’s privacy or divulging any more about her program than she wanted to. That would not have stopped questions. But it would have at least given them a framework. Treating the situation like a routine matter rather than a mystery could have gone a long way. Instead? Mulkey waited for people to notice that one of the biggest stars in the game was missing from the team and then seemed annoyed that reporters had the temerity to ask questions about it. This will undoubtedly be a topic of conversation until Reese is back in uniform. But with a little more clarity, or a timeline or something, it might not have been such a big one.

LSU is scheduled to travel to the Cayman Islands for a tournament beginning Friday. Mulkey would not confirm Monday night whether her star forward will make the trip. That means Reese’s next few days will likely be just like the last few—a breeding ground for pernicious rumors, many of them deeply personal, about what she did or did not do to cause her absence from the team.

Is this Mulkey protecting her players? It might be in the end. But it sure doesn’t seem like it right now.