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LSU 90, Vanderbilt 82: Open Dores

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Led by a brilliant Ben Simmons, the Tigers finally looked like an SEC contender by scoring a decisive road victory.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

This was the LSU basketball team we’ve been waiting to see.

It might have been just in time to save the season.

All hail Ben Simmons, because the freshman finally looked like the offensive force he was expected to be, pouring in 36 points, grabbing 14 boards and aggressively taking the ball to the bucket all game. It set the tone for LSU on Saturday night. The Tigers weren’t going to waste another game.

Simmons made 16-of-19 from the free-throw line, drove to the rim at will, STILL involved his teammates and punctuated it all with some authoritative slams. In November and December, we saw him show off everything but his ability to take over a game offensively against a good team. Against the Commodores, he finally packed the scoring punch to complement his all-world passing.

Just like he predicated pre-game, Vanderbilt couldn’t guard him. It gave LSU a whole new dimension. Even though the Tigers didn’t get a slew of transition looks, Simmons served as a de-facto secondary break. He’d either finish at the rim, draw a foul or quick-start a round of passes that ended with a good look for somebody. Even in a defensive slugfest for 25+ minutes, LSU can hold its own like that and that should change the complexion of the outlook offensively going forward.

Yet LSU was only in said slugfest until they overwhelmed the Dores due to a much-improved defense. Don’t let the 82 points fool you. Vandy was shooting below 40 percent until they hit a flurry of treys in the game’s final minutes. They grabbed a season-low three offensive rebounds. Those second chances had destroyed some sound LSU defensive possessions this season but not on Saturday. Kudos to Simmons, Craig Victor and Tim Quarterman for swarming the glass. The final rebound tally? 40-29 Tigers. That’ll be key to replicate in SEC play.

Beyond Simmons, Keith Hornsby continues to pour in clutch buckets. Insert any cliche you want ("deceptively fast," "knows how to play the game," "a glue guy") and Hornsby is LSU’s version. He’s sound defensively, the Tigers’ best shooter, a mature player and always delivers maximum effort. Hornsby single-handedly kept LSU comfortable when Vandy got within a couple buckets, and he’ll be the dagger guy with so much attention paid to Simmons.

It won’t pop out at you via the stats, but Tim Quarterman also gave LSU a productive night. He made the right passes in transition, stuck his hands in the passing lanes and generally swarmed Vandy’s guard trio into a lackluster night. Credit Josh Gray for a similar defensive effort. Victor finished strong in the paint, and even Darcy Malone was decent enough off the bench. (Side note: Where is Aaron Epps though? Played six minutes and took one shot)

It was a total team effort, but Simmons was the catalyst in every way. I doubt LSU can win many road games without getting more scoring the ball from at least one out of Quarterman, Antonio Blakeney or Brandon Sampson, but Johnny Jones needs to go back to the well. Let Simmons establish an aggressive offensive game, maybe get the opposition in foul trouble and rely on an active defense to frustrate.

LSU isn’t ready to sniff the NCAA Tournament yet, but the game changes the dynamic of the season. There’s actually a bullet point on the resume and a reason to be confident. Vanderbilt entered the game as a top-20 team in the Ken Pom ratings, only losing to some stout competition. It’s likely the Commodores finish among the top 4 in the SEC.

With a truly decisive road win, the Tigers actually, finally look like they could join them.

Up next? Kentucky in the PMAC. Building on this with a win against the Wildcats would put this team right back in contention real quick.