What Went Wrong for Ben Simmons, LSU After NCAA Tourney Hopes End?

Jason Franchuk@@harkthefranchukCollege Basketball Featured ColumnistMarch 13, 2016

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 12:  Ben Simmons #25 of the LSU Tigers stands on the court after being charged with a technical foul in the game against the Texas A&M Aggies during the semifinals of the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 12, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It seems so wrong...so cruel. Put it this way: Imagine a setting where a wonderful piano is on display.

And for months, the concerto never gets past "Chopsticks."

As of Saturday, that's how the college basketball world should feel, to some degree, with the final important and hoops-tragic symphony of the Ben Simmons experiment at LSU.

The Tigers at least reached the SEC semifinals, giving themselves one more shot (likely needing two wins) to resuscitate an unfortunate five months.

Somewhere, some Simmons lover will note he ended up with a double-double. Of course, keeping eyes on the prize requires any sane person to mention the 6'10" forward's numbers are often inflated spectacles in harsh realities. He had 10 points and 12 rebounds, again his team's top performer, but a 71-38 loss to Texas A&M ought to require even the freshman to take Greyhound back to Baton Rouge.

The Tigers are 19-14. We know the NCAA tournament doesn't technically take the 68 best teams—considering those smaller conference at-large bids and other upsets—but even by KenPom standards, LSU fell short: No. 86, stuck right between Akron and William & Mary.

So where'd it all go wrong?

Yes, this is the year of the older guys. Denzel Valentine of Michigan State. Virtually all of the key stars in the Big 12. Even the Pac-12 is led by a sophomore, Utah's Jakob Poeltl, who had first-round potential after last season but developed immensely as a sophomore. The same could even be said for Grayson Allen at Duke—and the rest of the Blue Devils' cohorts in the ACC—who are typically aged more fine than usual, with the likes of North Carolina's Brice Johnson and Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon.

What we're saying is, this wasn't really the year for Simmons to be the country's best player as we've expected freshmen of many recent years to turn into by March. We certainly aren't here to say, gosh, LSU should have made it to the Final Four.

But was an NCAA bid too much to ask? We don't think so.

And whenever a team underperforms, that blame naturally lays on two people: the coach and his best player. We'll obviously get to the coach, but here are a few reasons Simmons wasn't more successful.

Coach Johnny Jones

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - MARCH 11:  Head coach Johnny Jones coaches Ben Simmons #25 and his teammates during the second half of an SEC Tournament Quarterfinal game against the University of Tennessee Volunteers at Bridgestone Arena on March 11, 2016 in Nash
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Sometimes you've just got to call a coach out.

Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports did shortly after LSU's 71-38 loss to Texas A&M. Why not?

How on this green earth, and any of the grass that perhaps LSU football coach Les Miles eats, could Jones say his team was playing with "great energy" at halftime?

No assists and trailing by 22 points is great energy?

LSU handled a short-handed Tennessee on Friday night and turned around and did nothing against a very good Aggie team.

Jones was either sticking up for his guys or just plain clueless. Perhaps both to a great degree. There's no defending him on this one. The lethargy has been a huge fault.

LSU had a brutal three-game losing streak from Feb. 17-23 that basically put this team in a position where it had to go on a huge run (especially at the conference tournament) to have a chance of salvaging its season.

During the three-game skid, LSU made just 48 of 80 free-throw attempts, was outscored in the second halves by a cumulative 40 points and gave up more open layups than the first half of an NBA All-Star Game.

It allowed opponents to hit 51.8 percent of their shots (effective field-goal percentage) and really didn't seem to care where teams worked on the floor.

The saddest thing wasn't losing—it was not caring. Jones couldn't convince his team to care more, to play to their strengths and to be more of a unit. So at least that's on him. Maybe it was Jones who didn't have the energy.

Simmons' Godfather

Whoever drew Ben Simmons to LSU, rather than a powerhouse where he'd be coached well, deserves some blame, right?

That's on David Patrick, the assistant head coach, who played pro basketball in Australia with Simmons' father back in the day. Patrick is also Simmons' godfather, as noted by CBSSports.com's Jeff Borzello in 2013, when it looked conspicuous that Simmons was choosing a football power that hadn't even been to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2006.

This is a place known for producing Shaquille O'Neal and "Pistol" Pete Maravich. But come on, this was a one-year phenomenon, and rather than spend it at Kentucky, or even Duke these days, Simmons went with the most comfortable route.

In hindsight, maybe that was a big detriment to his development.

Mar 12, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; LSU Tigers forward Ben Simmons (25) is called for a technical foul after spiking the ball in the second half against the Texas A&M Aggies during the SEC conference tournament at Bridgestone Arena. Texas A&M Aggies won 71-
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

LSU was losing a couple of strong forwards, Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin, so Simmons could basically do what he wanted this year and be what he wanted to be. There was zero accountability.

Dana O'Neil of ESPN wrote a profile of Simmons before the season, noting:

Baton Rouge is hardly a destination for basketball luminaries. Of the top five ESPN 100 players in each of the past five recruiting classes, six went to Kentucky, five to Duke and two each to Kansas, UCLA and Arizona. The last time the top player didn't choose from this group was 2010, and Harrison Barnes didn't exactly go far out of bounds with North Carolina.

The Supporting Cast

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Simmons was expected to be The Man and just didn't have the guidance in varying levels.

His talents only controlled 28.3 percent of the possessions (which is barely in the top 100 nationally) on a team that was pretty balanced—some would say unfortunately so—as far as ball control. To a degree, he should've been more selfish, especially as it was clear teammates weren't capable of more.

Tim Quarterman was the same player this year as during his sophomore season, and he took far too many shots for a guy who only made 43 percent inside the arc. He missed 12 of his 14 shots against A&M and even tried eight threes when he's 34.8 percent from the arc. There were too many lost possessions, and his on-court relationship with Simmons always seemed more oil-and-vinegar than peanut butter-and-jelly as far as how they were supposed to complement each other.

Craig Victor also was used in a similar capacity. Fellow freshman Antonio Blakeney is a nice part, but he's not totally ready for prime time (he missed 12 of 13 shots against A&M).

He also didn't have Keith Hornsby. The senior wing required hernia surgery that forced him to miss a big chunk of the season's start, and then another aggravation forced him to miss the end run.

Hornsby played in 20 games with 19 starts this year after returning to the court on Dec. 13 at Houston, averaging 13.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in an average of 30.4 minutes per game. He shot 48.9 percent from the field and 41.5 from three-point range.

It's not that Simmons didn't have decent parts around him. They were simply not enough to maximize what Simmons—who still isn't a great outside shooter—brings to the floor at this stage in his career. He was only a 33.1 percent jump-shooter, according to Hoop-Math.com, and about the same from the three-point line at 33.3 percent.

The most obvious comparison to Simmons' situation is Cal. That's because the Golden Bears also unusually landed a top-flight freshman who spurned the traditional powers. It hasn't been perfect for Jaylen Brown or the Golden Bears as a whole. But it's been a lot better than at LSU. They also advanced to the semifinals of their conference tournament, but were ousted in overtime by Utah. They'll still go to the NCAA tournament with a 23-10 record (KenPom has them at No. 21).

Both the Tigers and Bears are, nationally speaking, good offensive teams and lousy foul-shooting teams. They are each very young. The difference lies in defense. Opponents have made only 44 percent of their shots against Cal (again, effective field-goal percentage), and that's fourth nationally.

Cal is not going to get many easy buckets off turnovers. But it does play solid in the half court, and Cuonzo Martin clearly gets more energy out of his group.

The bigger points may be key on-court leadership. Cal has Tyrone Wallace, a senior who considered leaving for the NBA early but had no problems returning and accepting less attention. The standout of last year's team seamlessly let Brown take over the brunt of the possessions, though the 6'5" Wallace was still at 27.9 percent of possessions (105th nationally) compared to 31.3 (No. 20) last year.

Simmons didn't have that "Robin" at his side.

Simmons Himself

Samantha Baker/Associated Press

It can't always be easy being a freshman, especially a seemingly invincible one.

Remember all of the fuss about Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins? Parker battled frustrating moments, and then his one-and-done college career at Duke ended with a loss to No. 14-seeded Mercer in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Wiggins made it a round further, but then he was a virtual no-show against Stanford (and even at that point, then-injured Kansas teammate Joel Embiid was considered the better player).

Simmons showed his potential on many occasions. He's going to make a fine pro. Maybe even better than those two.

But the writing was also on the wall early with losses to Wake Forest, NC State, Charleston and even Marquette, which was a showdown of terrific power forwards with Simmons facing off against fellow freshman Henry Ellenson. Simmons had 21 points and 20 rebounds that November night at Barclays Center, outdueling Ellenson barely, but his team still lost by a point because Ellenson (on a 20-13 team that won't make the tournament, either) had more help and cohesion.

Maybe he just knew, and then this winter became a season to endure and get on with his life—survive the hype machine in November, stay healthy, give himself a chance to become marketable and soon enough land the big contract and endorsement deals. And besides, it would be spring football at LSU soon enough. There may be disappointment expressed nationally, but he knew life in Baton Rouge would go on once football started.

The sadder thing is that he didn't care to know more. Simmons' failure to even earn a 2.0 grade point average in the fall semester eliminated him from contention for the Wooden Award as the nation's top player. Sure, he wasn't going to win it this year. But he should've been able to keep himself eligible.

Studying, like free-throw shooting, often comes down to focus more than anything. Yes, he's had a lot of obligations. Yes, he's going to be filthy rich soon and it didn't matter if he didn't read some freshman-level economics textbook.

It became about putting himself in a position to win. Simmons took only 11 shots and seven free throws against the Aggies on Saturday.

The truth is, tough and unfortunate stuff happens. That's the beauty and the agony of even getting into the NCAA tournament. It is not a sure thing, even for the country's best players.

Kyle Collinsworth of BYU—a triple-double machine—won't get to play in it as a senior because the shooting was too streaky around him, as was the defense. Gonzaga was nearly knocked out of contention, too, and that almost never happens.

Wichita State may not go, either, despite all of that history and a couple of amazing seniors. It battled injuries and inconsistency late in the year.

Simmons seemed to be working with a deck stacked against him. A coach who isn't known for getting the most out of teams. A group around him that didn't do much to alleviate his own young flaws. Simmons, himself, not making the most modest of grades, didn't have his head totally in it.

When push comes to shove, when it comes down to the NCAA tournament or NIT—and the good of the sport—there's a feeling out there that Simmons just didn't want it as badly as most college basketball followers did for him.

Stats are courtesy of KenPom.com, unless noted otherwise.


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