ESPN worked hard to pump up the hype for LSU and Kentucky meeting, trying to make it about Ben Simmons against the world, but the Tigers have talented players in Tim Quarterman and Craig Victor who were just as good, putting the brakes on for those trying to gush all over the favorite to be the number one NBA draft pick in five months.
Simmons wasn’t bad, and was overall dominant against a once again slightly overrated Kentucky team, losing for the third time this season and a first in SEC play, going down 85-67 against a noisy-as-ever crowd at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, packing the place with over 13,500 fans. He scored 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, one of three LSU players finishing the game with double doubles. Tyler Ulis of Kentucky called out himself and his teammates for not making enough of an effort. John Calipari talked about his inside players simply not being good enough on a night like this.
Quarterman, the junior who is averaging 12.1 points and 5.1 rebounds this season, finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists, his first double digit scoring game after five in a row of nine points or less. Craig Victor had 15 points and 12 rebounds, now averaging 13.7 points and 6.2 rebounds this season. He didn’t start playing until midway through December, which is a big reason why LSU started playing well only closer to 2016. They’ve won five of their six games with him, and are 9-5 overall this season.
But this night, at least part of it, was about Simmons finally getting a big stage to show how good he is. The result? ESPN declaring he’s the best freshman in the one-and-done era is probably something of a reach, but the 19-year old out of Melbourne is certainly a special player. Not just his ability to do a lot more than what most big men can do. Unlike other stars, he doesn’t seem to try and force himself on the game and makes way if there are hotter players. He was 5-for-5 from the field and is shooting 58.7% this season, averaging 20.1 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game.
Kentucky? It’ll be another fall down the rankings for them as their long streak of SEC wins is over. It’s a team with talent, undeniable talent, but there’s nothing new about that. Not every group under John Calipari came together and turned into something special and this was another example of one of their weaknesses – struggling against teams that are strong in the middle, giving up 16 offensive rebounds. Ulis and Jamal Murray combined to score 44 points, but the rest of a team built on guys dreaming about the one-and-done escape looked nothing like a group that should be in the Final Four a few months from now.