The Ben Simmons era, like so many times before in LSU basketball history, started with such hope and ended in such spectacularly bad fashion.
Simmons’ path to Baton Rouge began in 2012 when newly hired Johnny Jones hired David Patrick as an assistant, who was also Simmons’ godfather. The Aussie forward took an unofficial visit in October 2013 and, despite most predicting him to land at a blue blood, Simmons gave his verbal to LSU and made it official with a letter in November. When Simmons arrived on campus in the fall of 2015 he was the number one rated player in his class, and a lock for first overall pick for the 2016 draft.
On his own Simmons was an absolute baller his lone year with the Tigers. He averaged a double-double, with 19.2 PPG and 11.8 RBG, both tops on the team. He also led the team in field goal percentage, assists per game, steals per game and blocks per game. It was apparent that college teams had no idea how to stop a 6-10 point guard with speed, agility, rebounding skill, outstanding passing and great basketball IQ. The knocks? He was not a prolific scorer, due to a limited jump shot and three point skill, and was not a great rim defender, although he still led the Tigers in blocked shots.
Even as Simmons lit up the stat sheet every night, the team sucked. LSU started the year 21 in the AP Poll, by December they were out of the top-25 never to return. This wasn’t some late season collapse either, it was bad from the start. The Tigers entered conference play at 7-5 with losses to Houston, Marquette, Wake Forest, NC State and College of Charleston. When the team lost they lost BIG: 16 points to a Tennessee team that finished 12th in the conference, 20 points to Arkansas which finished 8th in the standings, and the biggest dud, a 33 point loss to Texas A&M in the third round of the SEC Tournament.
The root of the disaster stemmed from both coaching and players. Jones was a great recruiter but a suspect tactician. Under Jones the Tigers routinely played down to competition and blew large leads. Simmons’ season was no different. The roster was not the biggest help either. Center Elbert Robinson was a particular disappointment. Finding consistency out of Antonio Blakney and Tim Quarterman was difficult. Three-point specialist Keith Hornsby missed a chunk of the season due to injury. Arizona transfer Craig Victor also failed to live up to his high billing.
If you had to pick one game to encapsulate Simmons’ time at LSU, look to the 77-75 loss against Oklahoma. This game had everything. Simmons had a near triple-double, Quarterman flashed his upside going 5-5 from three, and Jones could not coach well enough to stop a 14-point Sooner comeback.
Of more significance though, was the faceoff between Simmons and eventual player of the year Buddy Hield. Hield, who had 32 points in the win, possessed the elite scoring upside that Simmons lacked. While Simmons had the game that enthralled scouts and coaches, Hield’s skill set captured fans and made highlights. In a game decided by points, assists and rebounds can get overlooked. If there is a section of the fanbase disappointed in Simmons, it is perhaps due to a preconceived notion the Tigers were getting a points machine in Simmons when that was not his game from the start.
Although Simmons literally carried the Tigers to any semblance of relevance throughout the season, it was apparent that by season’s end his energy and interest was declining. He was benched at the start of the Tennessee game for “academic issues,” stemming from the worst kept secret, something Simmons would later have no problem admitting to, that he was not attending class.
When Selection Sunday came around, the Tigers did not have a prayer of making the tournament and then declined the NIT bid.
Simmons declared for the NBA draft and both he and the Tiger program have pretty much ignored each other as much as possible. After the disaster of a season, Jones kept his job but was a dead man walking for the next and ultimately final season in Baton Rouge. Even without the Simmons season, it would be difficult to defend a fourth year coach going 2-16 in SEC play.
Ultimately, the net result of the Ben Simmons year is indifference. What perhaps speaks to just how bad a season it was is how little speculation after the fact there was about the fate of the team. You’d be hard pressed to find a player, a game, or just one moment where if something had gone the other way LSU might have made a season out of it. When you have a downright bad season you just try to move on.
One would hope that LSU and Simmons can eventually repair the relationship. The Simmons year in its whole is a failure, but its parts are some of the best basketball to take place in Baton Rouge.