One and none: The paradoxical legacy of freshman Ben Simmons' LSU career
How do we define what Ben Simmons has -- and hasn't accomplished -- and why do we care so much?
There he was again: Ben Simmons looking like he had no business wasting his time playing college basketball, calmly cruising to another really impressive personal performance, accumulating numbers that will amount to a historic individual season. Tuesday night's results: 23 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and a late foul-out -- his 19th double-double of the season.
All of it amounted to nothing. His team, LSU, lost 85-65 to an Arkansas squad that was below .500 when it woke up Tuesday. The Hogs dropped the Tigers to 16-12 and booted them, perhaps permanently, from this season's NCAA Tournament bubble. Another bad loss to another bad team -- LSU has now lost three straight and four of its last five -- so why are the Bayou Bengals even worth discussing anymore? Simmons and only Simmons, of course.
Never before in college basketball has so good a player on so bad a team held our attention for this long and for so many reasons. No. 25 has -- through faults not all his own -- already built one of the most contradictory reputations I can recall in this sport.
Years from now, we'll remember (or, perhaps, won't let anyone forget) Simmons' college career for two reasons. One of those reasons will be the fulfillment of his Freshman-of-the-Year performance, the gaudy numbers he put up while showing us the latest iteration of The Next Big Thing in Basketball. It's probably going to be a long time before we see another player, as a freshman, so casually stuff the stat sheet the way Simmons has this season.
But this solitary streak of dominance will not define Simmons at LSU. His incredible statistical output is going to be overshadowed by his underachiving team. The 2015-16 LSU Tigers seem incapable of getting out of their own way. They have failed to purely learn how to play together despite bringing so much talent to the court.
Simmons, even with his once-in-a-generation skill set, is not absolved from this, though he probably should be. LSU stinking has nothing to do with Simmons being a great player. But it's become a perception game, and as Simmons looks better and better, his team seems worse and worse. I think the ease in which the game comes to the Aussie-born baller has been lost a bit because of the noise caused by so many of LSU's unacceptable losses. There is irony in how great a distributor and willing a teammate Simmons is -- and how all of that gets discarded with the wind because of the guys swirling in place around him.
This dichotomy has created an odd side spectacle when watching LSU play. Your eyes stay on Simmons, and it's a performance within a performance. Magnets pushing against each other. It appears what Simmons is doing is removed from the team on the whole. You see him show off his array of skills, and it's obvious to anyone why he's so lauded. He's loping in to grab rebounds, controlling the ball in transition and seemingly taking six strides in 60 feet on his way to a graceful-but-forceful layup. He's seeing a play unfold three seconds before it happens, shooting a cross-court pass to the weak side and giving Tim Quarterman or Keith Hornsby a chance for an open 3.
And yet LSU is still trailing by 10 points.
The Tigers have lost five games to teams ranked worse than 100th in the RPI.
Simmons is a drastic talent incapable of carrying a team that has another potential NBA pick on the roster (Quarterman) and a fellow 2015 five-star recruit (Antonio Blakeney). Hornsby and Craig Victor have been in and out of the lineup this season due to injuries, but even with them in the mix this team never looked like what everyone thought it should be: top-25 good. It's just weird. I've never seen anything like it.
And, in the end, this underwhelming campaign, it's mostly going to fall on Simmons and nobody else. That is unfair, but the irony is, because Simmons is so great, our attention and memory will tie this season to him. Not to his teammates and not to his always-criticized coach, Johnny Jones. Simmons was to be the savior of LSU, but instead he's going to create a complex legacy of his own while adding to the curiously consistent pattern of former Tiger players -- college greats -- who never amounted to anything when it mattered most.
LSU is not a program with deep ties or lasting legacies in March. From a pure talent perspective, you could argue LSU has four of the 10 best players in SEC history, Simmons now included. But Pete Maravich never played in the NCAA Tournament. Chris Jackson, who might be the most overlooked/underrated great player in college basketball from the past three decades, went 1-2 in the NCAAs. Jackson's last season at LSU was also Shaquille O'Neal's first. They won one game together that tournament (1990). As for Shaq, LSU made the tournament every season he was there, but was never better than a 5 seed, got worse each season and failed to reach the Sweet 16.
Now Simmons' shortcomings at the team level will become the first major bullet point on what could wind up being a really good professional career. He is the projected No. 1 choice in June, which would make him the first player in the modern era of the NCAA Tournament to be selected first in the NBA Draft despite never playing in the Big Dance.
There have only been three players who never made the NCAA Tournament but still went on to be the No. 1 pick. All of them were taken in the 1970s, when the tournament was anywhere from 25 to 32 teams deep. Which is to say there was a level of reason to having an elite player not make the tournament; unless you won your conference, you didn't get in. Now there's no real excuse. If you're the best prospect in a sport of more than 4,500 players, you have no business not qualifying for a 68-team bracket.
The only players picked first to not play in the NCAA Tournament:
Mychal Thompson at Minnesota in 1978.
Doug Collins at Illinois State in 1973.
LaRue Martin at Loyola-Chicago in 1972.
Infamous No. 1 bust Michael Olowokandi, out of Pacific in '98, actually made the NCAAs with the Tigers the year before. And there's more bad pub for Simmons. Sports on Earth's Matt Brown compiled the past decade's worth of consensus top-three recruits in every class, according to 247 Sports. Only one of those players who went to college -- Nerlens Noel, whose injury submarined Kentucky's season in 2012-13 -- missed the NCAA Tournament. The other two players joining Simmons in the 2015 top three, per 247 Sports: Kentucky's Skal Labissiere and Duke's Brandon Ingram. Both of them are locks for the Big Dance.
The common thread with those players: the school they chose. There's a lot of Kentucky, Duke, UCLA, Ohio State and North Carolina in the list linked above. This personal Pyrrhic legacy Simmons has built will, in part, tell the story of college basketball this season. His college career will likely wind up being more of a cautionary tale than a blazing one. The only player in the past 30 years to earn All-American status without reaching the NCAA Tournament was Steph Curry in 2009. That was the season after Curry and Davidson reached the Elite Eight. Simmons won't have that. He'll have national awards attached to a soiled college experiment.
As Tuesday night's boring blowout drew to a merciful end, ESPN's announcers were reduced to speculating on the gobs of money Simmons is set to make in endorsements. Those contracts will be drawn up the second Simmons declares for the draft, an announcement that should come approximately five seconds after he sits at his last Tigers press conference following LSU's final loss of the season.
That loss will almost certainly be in the NIT tournament -- if LSU can qualify for that.
There has been some silly speculation in recent weeks that the NCAA Tournament could suffer some if Simmons isn't involved. The NCAA Tournament doesn't need Ben Simmons. It will be just as watched and popular that first weekend whether Simmons is in or not. LSU's absence only hurts the program's reptuation and tarnishes Simmons' college career. The Australian kid who took on the challenge of trying to change a program fell short of doing that, and in doing so built the most impressively unimpressive one-and-done career college basketball has ever seen.
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