2016 has been quite kind to LSU.
Just 72 hours after dispatching Vanderbilt in Nashville, LSU picked up their first marquee win of the season, knocking off No. 9 Kentucky 85-67 in Baton Rouge.
The most promising part for LSU fans?
This win wasn’t simply a result of Ben Simmons doing things that no one else at the collegiate level can do.
The future No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft didn’t play poorly, mind you, as he finished with 14 points, 10 boards, three assists, two steals and a block while hitting all five of his field goals. But he played just 10 minutes in the first half due to foul trouble and spent the majority of the second half acting as a distributor and a decoy. I asked during the game whether or not Simmons had broken a sweat on Tuesday night, and I was only half-kidding. I don’t want to say he was coasting, but there certainly wasn’t the same aggressiveness that he had on Saturday at Vandy.
Simmons shot five field goals and six free throws on Tuesday night. He had 15 shots and 19 trips to the charity stripe on Saturday.
To a point, that’s an issue for LSU. They need Simmons to be a killer. They need him to be a guy that can take over games and that can bully any defenders that’s unable to guard him; technically, that’s just about every defender in college basketball.
But he wasn’t really needed on Tuesday. Tim Quarterman played his best game of the year, finishing with 21 points, 10 boards (six offensive) and seven assists. Quarterman is a guy who intrigues NBA scouts because of his size (6-foot-6) and versatility — like Simmons, he can function as a point guard — but he’s been erratic thus far this season. Getting him on track is just as important as getting Simmons to be aggressive on every possession for the Tigers in the long run.
What about Kentucky?
Is it time to start getting worried about them?
Because I think that it may be. Their front line just isn’t what we thought it was going to be. Not even close. Their four big men — Skal Labissiere, Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee and Isaac Humphries — combined for seven points, nine boards and 15 fouls on Tuesday night.
Their entire front line!
As a group they didn’t even record a double-double if you include fouls all while three Tigers notched double-doubles as they collected 16 offensive rebounds as a team. Part of that was because Lee played just five minutes due to foul trouble. Part of it was due to Isaac Humphries being less ready for the college game than Labissiere is. Part of the problem was, frankly, they played Ben Simmons.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Kentucky’s big men just aren’t as dominant as they’ve been in the past, and that puts the onus on their guards to be sensational every night, and they just haven’t been. Tyler Ulis is terrific, but he’s a kid that needs to be a distributor and a facilitator, the coach-on-the-floor kind of point guard. When he’s option 1B offensively, that’s a problem, especially when option Jamal Murray, option 1A, is so up and down.
When Murray’s cookin’, he’s as dangerous of a scorer as you’ll find in college basketball. But when he’s cold, they might as well be running John Calipari off of screens. He does make some highlight reel plays, but he also has head-scratching turnovers that can be momentum killers.
To keep things in perspective, they lost a road game in conference play to a team with the nation’s best player in a venue that always seems to give Kentucky trouble. Even with the margin — and 18 point loss — the sky isn’t falling.
But their ceiling is.
With each performance like this, it feels less and less likely that Kentucky will be in the national title conversation come Selection Sunday.