Transcendent star or overhyped, just hope Ben Simmons’ season doesn’t end in irrelevance

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BROOKLYN — The nation got its first really good look at college basketball’s biggest star on Monday night, as LSU freshman Ben Simmons — the No. 1 recruit in his class and the current favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft — lived up to the hype he’s garnered through the season’s first two weeks.

That’s saying a lot, mind you.

Simmons gets compared to LeBron on a daily basis.

So it’s no small feat when I say that he lived up to the hype of being compared to the best basketball player this planet has ever seen, even if it is for one game. But on Monday night at Barclays Center, Simmons looked every bit the part of a potential No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. He finished with 21 points, 20 boards, seven assists and two steals, numbers that would have been even more impressive had the rest of the Tigers shot better than 35.6 percent from the floor.

He was phenomenal. There’s really no other way to put it. He was unstoppable in transition. His vision and passing ability was on full-display. He attacked the offensive glass. He even took a critical charge on his freshman counterpart, Marquette’s Henry Ellenson, late in the game, a play that fouled Ellenson out and earned LSU a crucial possession.

It was a pleasure to watch, thrilling enough that LSU-grad Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants made his way to Brooklyn to see it.

And it was all for naught.

No. 23 LSU lost to the Golden Eagles in a fun-but-brutally-sloppy game in the semifinals of the Legends Classic, 81-80. The two teams spent 40 minutes running up and down the floor in what felt like a heavyweight clash at Peach Jam, the biggest and best AAU tournament of the summer.

Pretty, it was not, but given Simmons’ skill-set, it was the perfect setting to showcase what he can do.

“We know the potential in how good ben is and what he’s capable of providing for this team,” LSU head coach Johnny Jones said.

He’s at his best in the open floor, when he can grab a defensive rebound and go coast-to-coast. Given the fact that he’s 6-foot-10, he can hold his own on the defensive end of the floor playing at the four and, if he has to, the five. It creates all kinds of matchup problems for opponents. There were long stretches where Marquette was forced to have 7-foot center Luke Fischer guards Simmons.

That’s why things like this happen:

“He’s a very unique and talented player,” Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “Because of his size and athletic and ability to handle the ball, he’s a unique matchup.”

Just how unique and talented he truly is has been a topic of debate. It’s clear that he’s a terrific prospect. I’m not even sure his doubters would argue that. But whether he’s one of, if not the best prospect in a down draft year or the kind of player that can transform an NBA franchise for the next decade is a debate that will rage on for a long time. Through the NBA Draft, into his rookie year, perhaps beyond.

Whether or not you truly embrace the debate, the truth is that this is what draws people to sports. He’s a special talent doing special things in a game that can be watched on any TV, tablet or cell phone in the country. When he goes for 21, 20 and seven in that setting, he’s going to be talked about. He’s going to trend on twitter even though the Patriots are playing on Monday Night Football at the same time. And everyone is going to have an opinion on him. Is he the best since LeBron? Is he a Lamar Odom clone? Royce White? Shawn Marion?

But more than anything, he is a topic of discussion, one that will draw eyeballs when he plays on a stage like this.

The question, however, is just how often he will play on a stage like this.

Let’s call it like it is: this LSU team has questions they need answered. The Marquette team they lost to on Monday? They entered the game 1-2 on the season. They lost to Belmont at home. The beating they took against Iowa last week was as bad as any loss we’ve seen this season. Their only win came over IUPUI. At home, in overtime.

“We’re so far from being a finished product,” Wojciechowski said. “We have a lot of things that we have to work hard to earn.”

The Tigers are talented. No one in their right mind will argue that. But fair or not, Johnny Jones has a reputation for fielding teams that fail to play up to their talent level. It’s far too early to say that’s happening again — if anything, Marquette has been the underachiever this month — but there is a reason why a team that has a talent like Simmons surrounded by the likes of Antonio Blakeney, Tim Quarterman, Brandon Sampson and, eventually, Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor is barely sneaking into the AP top 25.

They were not in our top 25 this week, and they’ll no longer be in the AP top 25 when the new poll comes out.

In other words, as it stands today, this isn’t a team that’s expected to compete for the SEC title; giving the likes of Vanderbilt and Texas A&M a run for a top two finish would be considered a success. They’re not a team expected to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, not if Simmons can play this well in a loss to a team picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big East.

“We can’t ask him to put up those kind of numbers night in and night out,” Jones said. “He was forced tonight to be in a position to put up 21 and 20.”

And therein lies the danger of a one-and-done talent going to a school outside what is considered to be the traditional contenders. Simmons isn’t the only one learning that this year; Malik Newman is struggling to find his way on a bad Mississippi State team. Stephen Zimmerman is a projected lottery pick on a projected NIT team. Even Ellenson is in danger of fading into the obscurity of being on the wrong side of the bubble.

It draws to mind Michael Beasley*.

*(I realize that I’ve compared Simmons to three guys — Odom, White and Beasley — who don’t, shall we say, have sterling off-the-court reputations. That’s not an insinuation that he’s a knucklehead off the floor; no one I’ve spoken too believes that to be the case at all. He just happens to have a game that’s similar to guys that carried red flags with them.)

If you don’t remember, Beasley was a revelation during his one season at Kansas State. He averaged 26.2 points and 12.4 boards and was good enough that the Chicago Bulls actually considered picking him over hometown hero Derrick Rose. But he was also on a team that finished 21-12 overall, never threatened for a league title, lost in the first round of the Big 12 tournament and the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament.

They were, more or less, irrelevant nationally, an after thought in a year where four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four.

And my fear is that Simmons is heading down that same path, that his one season of college basketball will be boiled down to the two games where he gets a chance to square off with Kentucky.

The beauty of the 2015 season was that the best teams in the country not only were the most recognizable, they also had the most relevant players. It extended to the Final Four, which included the two best players (Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor), the two most talented teams (Duke and Kentucky) and the two guys everyone thought, at the time, could be the No. 1 pick (Okafor and Karl Towns).

That won’t happen this season, not unless LSU and Kris Dunn’s Providence team find a way to win four straight games this March.

Does that mean Simmons made a mistake going to LSU?

Of course not.

Family matters to him — his mother and father were both in attendance in Brooklyn on Monday night — and he’s playing this season on a team where his Godfather, David Patrick, is an assistant coach. It’s a great story, one that will deservedly be retold over and over again, particularly if he can manage to carry LSU to a big year.

But it would be a shame if his one season at this level ends anywhere other than Houston.

Edey scores 21 as No. 24 Purdue beats No. 8 Duke 75-56

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – Zach Edey and No. 24 Purdue shook off a slow start. When No. 8 Duke tried to rally in the second half, the Boilermakers finished strong.

Edey had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Purdue beat Duke 75-56 on Sunday in the championship game of the Phil Knight Legacy men’s tournament.

Fletcher Loyer scored 18 points for Purdue (6-0), and reserve Caleb Furst finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

“I feel like we weren’t getting the looks we wanted early. As we settled into the game, we kept our poise and kept getting the shots that we wanted,” Edey said. “They were making some tough twos at the beginning of the game, shots we’re OK with all season.”

The 7-foot-4 Edey was 7 for 13 from the field and 7 for 8 at the line. He was named tournament MVP.

“They have the most unique player in the country,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said of Edey. “He’s a hard guy to prepare for because there’s nobody else like him.”

Duke (6-2) shot 36.2% (21 for 58) from the field. Tyres Proctor scored 16 points for the Blue Devils. Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach each had 14.

Ethan Morton had a steal and a dunk to help Purdue open a 58-41 lead with 15:37 left in the second half.

Duke countered with an 8-0 run, capped by two foul shots by Dariq Whitehead. But Furst made a layup and a jumper to help hold off the Blue Devils.

A hook by Edey and a 3-pointer by Loyer made it 68-56 with 5:03 remaining.

Duke got off to a 14-7 start before Purdue worked its way back into the game.

“I don’t feel like we came out bad today, but they matched our energy,” Edey said.

A 3-pointer by Brandon Newman pushed the Purdue lead to 46-28. A late run by Duke cut the Boilermakers’ lead to 46-35 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: It looked as if Roach had an issue with his left foot at one point, but he went back into the game. Scheyer said Roach had hurt his toe.

Purdue: Although neither team had great offensive games, Purdue was the better team from range. Purdue made seven 3-pointers to just two for Duke.

UP NEXT

Duke: Hosts Ohio State on Wednesday.

Purdue: Visits Florida State on Wednesday.

No. 18 Alabama beats No. 1 North Carolina 103-101 in 4 OTs

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – Mark Sears had 24 points, five rebounds and five assists, and No. 18 Alabama sent top-ranked North Carolina to a second straight loss with a 103-101 victory in a quadruple-overtime thriller on Sunday in the third-place game of the Phil Knight Invitational tournament.

Jahvon Quinerly added 21 points off the bench for the Crimson Tide (6-1), who knocked off the top-ranked team for the first time since upsetting Stanford in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

“I was losing track of how many overtimes we were in there at the end,” Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats said. “A lot of credit to our guys. I thought they showed a lot of character when we could have folded.”

Charles Bediako had 14 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks, while Brandon Miller also scored 14 points.

Caleb Love led the Tar Heels (5-2) with 34 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals. Armando Bacot contributed 20 points and 10 rebounds, and R.J. Davis had 19 points and nine rebounds in the second four-overtime game in North Carolina history. The other was a victory over Tulane in 1976.

“At the end of the day, Alabama made one more play than we did,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “I walked in the locker room and a number of the guys had their head down and I told them to pick their head up. I’m just as disappointed (as the players) in terms of the final outcome, but I couldn’t be any more proud about the way they competed.”

Bediako gave the Crimson Tide the lead for good on a layup with 26 seconds remaining in the fourth overtime.

The Tar Heels, who lost to Iowa State in the semifinals, led by as much as eight in the second half before Alabama came back to tie it. The Crimson Tide retook the lead on a pair of free throws from Gurley with 2 minutes remaining, and later tied with another free throw from Sears with 51 seconds remaining in regulation.

Alabama starting forward Noah Clowney took a hard fall on a dunk attempt four minutes into the first half and had to be helped off the court. He did not return.

The Crimson Tide were 16 for 38 (42.1%) from 3-point range, with Sears making seven.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: The Tar Heels figure to take a deep drop in the Top 25 poll.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide bounced back nicely following their loss to No. 20 UConn in the semifinals, beating a top-ranked team in the regular season for the first time since a 66-64 victory over eventual national champion Arkansas on Jan. 8, 1994.

UP NEXT:

North Carolina: The Tar Heels travel to Bloomington to face No. 11 Indiana on Wednesday.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide return home to face South Dakota State on Saturday.

Clingan lifts UConn past Iowa State for Phil Knight title

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – Donovan Clingan had 15 points and 10 rebounds to power No. 20 UConn to a 71-53 win over Iowa State in the championship game of the Phil Knight Invitational on Sunday night.

Tristen Newton scored 13 points for the Huskies (8-0), who went 20 for 25 at the free-throw line. Alex Karaban and Andre Jackson, Jr. each had 10 points.

Osun Osunniyi led Iowa State (5-1) with 14 points. Tamin Lipsey had 12 points and Jaren Holmes finished with 11.

“They were the more aggressive team,” Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We wanted a physical game. We didn’t want a physical game with them getting the rebounds and then also us putting them on the foul line. Lesson that we’ve got to learn is we need to embrace being the aggressor at both ends of the floor at all times.”

The Huskies had more offensive rebounds (20) than the Cyclones had total rebounds (19), and capitalized on that disparity with 20 second-chance points.

“Those guys are tough,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “T.J.`s an excellent coach. They grind people up. To outrebound them, it just speaks to how tough we were.”

Clingan, who was named tournament MVP, scored eight points to help UConn to a 38-28 lead at the break.

Iowa State closed to 53-48 on Holmes’ 3-pointer midway through the second half. But Karaban made a 3 and a dunk, and Newton’s jumper made it 60-48 with 7:13 remaining.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies couldn’t have asked for a better showing in Portland, winning all three of their games.

Iowa State: The Cyclones picked up nice wins over Villanova and top-ranked North Carolina in the earlier rounds but ended with their first loss of the season.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies return home to face Oklahoma State on Thursday.

Iowa State: The Cyclones return home to face North Dakota on Tuesday.

No. 3 UConn rallies past No. 9 Iowa to win Phil Knight title

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – Azzi Fudd scored 24 points to rally No. 3 UConn past No. 9 Iowa 86-79 Sunday in the championship game of the first Phil Knight Legacy women’s tournament.

“It really was difficult to play against these guys,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “I don’t think we felt really good about ourselves at halftime. I thought we came out in the third quarter and really took control of the game.”

Fudd had plenty of help, with Aaliyah Edwards (20 points, 13 rebounds) and three other Huskies (5-0) scoring in double-figures. Edwards was named MVP of the tournament.

Iowa (5-2) star Caitlin Clark had 25 points, and Kate Martin added 20.

Edwards got UConn off to a strong start, scoring 10 points while the Huskies built a 20-14 edge.

Clark and the Hawkeyes then surged with a 13-2 run to begin the second quarter and led 41-35 at halftime. Clark scored 17 points in the first half.

Martin hit a 3-pointer in the third quarter for a 52-41 lead, but UConn countered with 11 straight points and led 61-57 entering the fourth.

Iowa opened the final quarter with nine straight points for a 66-61 lead, but the Huskies countered and pulled away in the middle of the period, leading 79-70 after Carolina Ducharme’s 3-pointer with 3:42 left.

“Azzi Fudd really came to life in that third quarter,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “I was really pleased with our first half. If it wasn’t for that third quarter, but yes, we play four. And we missed some shots in the fourth quarter that we usually make.”

BIG PICTURE

Iowa: Iowa dominated the battle of the 3-point line for much of the game. The Hawkeyes made 13 3-pointers to only eight for UConn.

UConn: Sunday was a tale of two halves for Fudd. Fudd started the game 1 for 8 from the field but was red-hot in the second half, going 9 for 11.

UP NEXT

Iowa: The Hawkeyes will host N.C. State on Thursday.

UConn: The Huskies will host Providence on Friday.

No. 22 Tennessee beats No. 3 Kansas 64-50 for Atlantis title

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Tennessee’s players proved to be determined defenders and relentless rebounders, along with having the kind of toughness to ensure the reigning national champions would have little chance to get comfortable.

It was all enough to give the 22nd-ranked Volunteers a title of their own, along with the blueprint that coach Rick Barnes hopes they follow the rest of the year.

Santiago Vescovi scored 20 points while Tennessee locked down on third-ranked Kansas in a 64-50 win Friday night in the championship game at the Battle 4 Atlantis, snapping the Jayhawks’ 17-game winning streak.

Vescovi hit five 3-pointers as the tournament’s most valuable player for the Volunteers (5-1), who dominated the glass, overcame their own turnover troubles and made the Jayhawks work for clean looks. And for the third time in as many days, Tennessee won without leading scorer Josiah-Jordan James (knee soreness).

Perhaps that’s why reserve guard Zakai Zeigler, who had 14 points and four steals, showed up wearing sunglasses to the postgame news conference after the Volunteers had danced and hollered through the on-court trophy ceremony.

“We know if you can’t stop the man in front of you, then you’ll have no shot at winning the game,” Zeigler said, adding: “We just like to play defense, and we just happen to be good at it.”

The Vols held the Jayhawks to 32.1% shooting, bothering them with size and length around the rim. They also took the ball right at the Jayhawks with 5-foot-9 Zeigler leading the way, down to him refusing to let go of a jump ball and trading words with 6-8 forward Jalen Wilson.

Zeigler’s night included a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock at the 7-minute mark to push Tennessee’s lead to 56-38. He followed with another big one from the right wing with 4:42 left after Kansas had closed within 11.

Wilson and Joseph Yesefu each scored 14 points to lead the Jayhawks (6-1), who shot 28.6% in the first half and never warmed up. They made 5 of 21 3-pointers in what was an all-around rough night, from losing starting guard Dajuan Harris to fouls with 9 minutes left to failing to keep the Vols off the glass (45-27).

“We played a team tonight that was older and more mature and obviously played stronger and tougher,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We didn’t handle the situation near as well as what I would hope a poised team would.”

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers opened the tournament with a win over Butler, then grinded through an overtime win against Southern California in Thursday’s semifinals. This time, Tennessee played in front the entire way en route to its first title in three tries at the Atlantis resort.

“I think the main thing from the whole week was stay together through tough times, that’s what you’ve got to do,” Vescovi said.

Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have an easy first two days in the Bahamas. First came a battle to the final minutes with North Carolina State. Then came Thursday’s overtime win against Wisconsin on Bobby Pettiford Jr.’s last-second putback. But they never looked in any type of offensive flow this time with their smaller lineup.

“I feel like if we were able to get them out of place and not just have them standing there, waiting to contest a layup, that could’ve gave us some better chances at finishing at the rim,” Wilson said.

STRONG RUN

Tennessee held its three Atlantis opponents to 36.9% shooting and 15 of 59 (25.4%) from 3-point range. The Volunteers also averaged a +9 rebounding margin, ending with having Jonas Aidoo (nine) leading five players snagging at least six rebounds against Kansas.

“You can be a good defensive team but if you can’t be a great one if you give them second and third shots,” Barnes said.

SIDELINED

Beyond Harris’ foul trouble, the Jayhawks played most of the way without Pettiford, who exited midway through the first half grabbing at his right leg.

Afterward, Self said he would be out “for a while” with a hamstring strain.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers return home to host McNeese State on Wednesday.

Kansas: The Jayhawks host Texas Southern on Monday.