Kemba Walker proving that he’s the nation’s best player

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On Sunday afternoon, Jimmer Fredette was announced as the Naismith Award winner, one of the six National Player of the Year awards that get handed out.

As of the end of the regular season, that choice looked correct.

As of now?

Well, frankly, not having Kemba Walker as the Player of the Year just seems silly.

If you couldn’t tell, the difference has been what Kemba Walker has done during the Big East and NCAA Tournaments. He’s been sensational. He’s averaged 26.3 ppg, 5.0 apg, and 5.4 rpg. He’s thrown his team on his back and carried them from ninth place in the Big East to the Big East tournament title and, quite possibly, the national title come Monday night.

There has been no one in the country better than Kemba over the last month. But does that mean he was the best player in the country this season?

No, it doesn’t. What people are forgetting right now is just how average Walker was during the middle of the Big East schedule. Not all of that was his fault, however. The Big East is a grind. While the league as a whole underperformed in the NCAA Tournament, that doesn’t change just how tough it is to go through a Big East regular season. Its been said many times over, but there was a lot of good in the Big East, but not a lot of great.

It may be more difficult to play a schedule that is loaded with a lot of good. Nights off in Big East play were few and far between. Five teams didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. One of them was Seton Hall, who had as much talent on their roster as anyone in the middle of the Big East’s pack. Another was Rutgers, a tough, physical group that played as hard as their head coach Mike Rice is emotional. Providence had an all-american on their team in Marshon Brooks. Hell, even DePaul played a pressing style under Oliver Purnell that put quite a bit of wear and tear on the legs of their opponents.

The Big East schedule wore on UConn’s youngsters. Alex Oriakhi, Jeremy Lamb, and Shabazz Napier were incredibly inconsistent during that stretch. It put all kinds of pressure on Walker to make every play. It forced him to become over aggressive at times, as he was playing selfishly at times.

That hurt his numbers. But it also prepared the youngsters for the bright lights and pressure and physicality of the tournaments.

Kemba is not a different player than he was during February. If you think he is the best player in the country right now, than he was probably still the best player in the country during the regular season. Guys like Nolan Smith and Jimmer Fredette simply had better, and probably more consistent, seasons than him.

Kemba Walker is playing his best basketball right now, but that is a result of his supporting cast playing as well and as consistently as they have all season long.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.