Normally, I would applaud a player the caliber of Ben Simmons signing with a program like LSU. Especially, when he had offers from from the elite of the elite in college hoops. Kentucky, Kansas, and Duke all made scholarship offers to the 6′-10″ phenom from Australia. But, Simmons picked LSU. Not that the Bayou Bengals don’t have a nice tradition in hoops of their own. After all, ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich, a guy named Shaq, another guy named ‘Big Baby’, Chris Jackson (Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) and many others that went on to have successful NBA careers have all donned the purple and gold. The Tigers also have four (4) Final Four appearances (1953,1981,1986, and 2006) to boast about. However, LSU basketball hasn’t been all that relevant in recent years. So, for Simmons, the consensus number one-ranked player out of high school in 2015, to shun Calipari, Self, and Kryzewski was huge news. Simmons’ first and likely only season with LSU has been full of great moments and lots of mistakes. However, none of those mistakes appear as bad as signing with LSU in the first place.
So, What went wrong?
The Tigers entered into this season with high expectations. With Simmons coming on-board and after an NCAA Tournament appearance last season, those expectations seemed to be legitimate. There was even talk of a Final Four appearance. Much in the same way that Carmelo Anthony came in as a heralded freshman and led Syracuse to the 2003 National Title. But, the struggle was real in Baton Rouge from the opening tip of the season and things never seemed quite right. A lot of the blame for the Tigers’ mediocre season will fall in the hands of Simmons. Rightfully so. Freshman or not. However, more of the blame will and should fall into the hands of head coach Johnny Jones. LSU has lots of talent. Simmons, was no one-man show. Guys like Tim Quarterman, Craig Victor who transferred to LSU from Arizona, and Keith Hornsby all had experience and talent enough for this team to at least make the NCAA Tournament.
But, now that’s not going to happen.
Lack of team chemistry and cohesiveness were a huge problem that led to poor defensive play and mental lapses throughout the season. Fair or unfair, that’s the responsibility of the head coach. There were several games where LSU just didn’t seem prepared to play. That was most evident in yesterday’s embarrasing performance (71-38 loss) against Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament Quarterfinals. How the Tigers came out so flat in a game that they absolutely had to win to keep their NCAA Tourney chances alive is a total head-scratcher. LSU, scored 13 points in the first half and shot an SEC Tourney low 20% from the field. Their defense wasn’t any better as A&M had countless attacks on the rim with little to no resistance from anyone in purple and gold. Jones, obviously had a number questions to answer during and after the game. His answers were also a head-scratcher.
At halftime, in an interview with ESPN sideline reporter, Shannon Spake, Jones said his team had “Great energy”. Not sure what game he was watching and there’s no question losing Simmons and Victor to early fouls was a detriment. But, to say his team, down 35-13 at the half, had great energy didn’t seem like the appropriate thing to say. Even, if it was true. After the game, he had this answer to questions if the program was headed in the right direction?
“Absolutely.” At some point, you’re going to lose. Obviously, you don’t want games to unfold the way that it did today. We just didn’t make shots. “Again, I thought we got off to a great start,” he said. “Our guys did a great job of playing hard early, and then we got stuck on nine (points) and couldn’t get things going.”
LSU’s poor performance was more than not being able to make shots and it was the culmination of a disappointing season that’s going to end in the NIT. Meaning, college basketball’s premier showcase won’t get to showcase arguably one of the game’s best players. Not exactly what anyone would have predicted before the season.
Sure, when you breakdown Simmons’ game there are flaws. He’s not a great shooter from the perimeter or the foul line. He tends to have lapses of his own on both sides of the floor, he fouls a lot and he sometimes tries to do too much with the basketball. But, he’s also a freshman that’s had plenty of pressure on him from the day he set foot in Baton Rouge. For the most part, he’s handled it well. However, not well enough to get LSU to the ‘Big Dance’. And that’s a shame.
Again, I applaud Simmons for not choosing one of the ‘usual suspects’. But, unless the reason he chose LSU was for academics or another reason like having a good rapport with the head coach or certain teammates, it will ultimately be looked at as a mistake. How good would Kansas be with Simmons to go alongside Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden Jr.? How about forming an unbelievable dynamic freshman duo with Duke’s Brandon Ingram? Don’t even mention Simmons receiving dishes from Tyler Ulis or dishing the rock to Jamal Murray of Kentucky. All of those situations are exciting to think about and would have given the nation a look at Simmons in March Madness. Going to LSU proved not to be. Hopefully, for Simmons sake, there were positives to come out of his signing with LSU. Because, there is absolutely no positive not seeing him in the ‘Big Dance’.
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