Meyers Leonard had a tougher life than we thought


Meyers Leonard had a bit of a breakout season as a sophomore.

He increased his production to averages of 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds from 2.1 points and 1.2 boards as a freshman. While it would be difficult to consider Leonard’s season disappointing at face value, the bottom line is that the year was far from ideal. Illinois lost 12 of their last 14 games, a slide Leonard was unable to turnaround, and the enduring image of the Illini seven-footer was him in tears on the bench during a 23 point loss to Nebraska.

The enduring image you should have of Leonard is a different picture of him in tears:


This picture was taken when Bailey Leonard, Meyers’ brother, surprised him at a practice. Bailey has served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and Meyers had no idea that he was home.

The fact that the Leonards did not have an easy life growing up is not a secret. It has been widely reported that they were poor, that their father died when they were eight and six, respectively, and that their mother had a back injury that made it impossible for her to work.

But I’m not sure we knew the extent of their struggles until John Canzano, who covers Meyers’ new team, the Trailblazers, wrote this column on the new draft pick:

“There were times we really didn’t have anything,” Bailey said. “I remember Meyers frequently going to eat at other people’s houses because we may not have had enough food. I remember kids saying things like, ‘You can’t play with us because you’re poor.’ And I remember mixing and matching the few clothes we had because we were trying to make it look like we didn’t wear the same stuff to school every day.”

They lost their father. They lost their home to foreclosure. Their mother struggled with a back injury that was so debilitating she couldn’t sit through a basketball game. “I attended every one of Meyers’ games when I was a junior and senior,” Bailey said. “I knew that’s what he wanted. He needed someone there and our mom couldn’t do it. Her medicine kept her down a lot. After our dad passed away, people looked at us as different.”

The Leonard family found a place to live, but they had no furniture, limited running water and no electricity. They had a small battery-powered television that got three channels, they had blankets, and they had each other.

Said Bailey: “The three of us just slept on the living-room floor together.”

Leonard is an easy kid to root for.

Knowing where he comes from, the struggles his mother was having and the fact that he played last season while his brother was in Afghanistan should give you a different view of Leonard’s sophomore season.

Imagine what he’ll be able to do when he no longer has to worry about his family.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

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.