When Australian basketball prodigy Ben Simmons committed to the LSU program in October 2013, it felt like Johnny Jones had taken the next step in the quest to build a perennial NCAA Tournament program.
Delusions of grandeur clouded the minds of every Tiger basketball fan as LSU welcomed not only the transcendent talent of Simmons, but also fellow five star recruit Antonio Blakeney, Arizona transfer Craig Victor and Baton Rouge native Brandon Sampson as newcomers in 2015.
Then reality set in.
Victor was ineligible for the first eight games per NCAA transfer rules and senior guard Keith Hornsby started the season injured…then got injured again near the end of the season. After starting 4-4, LSU basketball is now on the verge of one the most disappointing athletic seasons in recent memory. Critics of the program this season have cited lack of leadership, team chemistry and coaching ineptitude as reasons for the Tigers current demise.
It seems like only yesterday, fans of LSU basketball were dreaming of a deep NCAA Tournament run, cutting down basketball nets and Luther Vandross’ “One Shining Moment.”
Before the head scratching 13 losses, the injuries and the daily SportsCenter updates on ESPN, LSU basketball fans were pumped for the upcoming season. Coming off its first NCAA Tournament appearance in six years, LSU basketball fans packed the Pete Maravich Assembly Center all season to witness the transcendent Aussie talent in his single collegiate season.
LSU alumnus Nick Hart said he “relished the opportunity to watch the best player in the country” in person.
“I was very excited with Ben coming to the LSU program because I have always wanted LSU to really commit to the basketball program like it had with baseball and football, and it was a step in the right direction,” Hart said.
Simmons’ presence kept the college basketball world’s eyeballs on Baton Rouge all season long.
Basketball pundits were interested to see if this generational talent could carry a non-traditional basketball power to success. LSU fans hoped Simmons would help erase the memories of another disappointing, championship-less football season.
Casual LSU basketball fans became super fans, and super fans became fanatics. For the first time in ages, there seemed to be a buzz around the LSU basketball program.
“I’ve definitely been more interested in LSU basketball this year than any other,” LSU basketball fan Mitch Gregory said. “I’ve tried to make time to watch every game possible this year and have kept up with our standings and how opponents have done throughout the week.”
Gregory became so engaged with LSU basketball this year that he even started researching and comparing current LSU basketball statistics to past seasons.
“I don’t advise looking up these depressing statistics,” Gregory joked.
LSU’s at-large NCAA Tournament hopes were likely dashed after being dismantled by Kentucky in Lexington last weekend, falling to 18-13, but the Tigers are still alive for an automatic bid to the Big Dance if they should win the SEC Tournament this weekend.
If the Tigers miss the NCAA Tournament and Ben Simmons becomes the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA Draft, the freshman superstar will become the first player to accomplish this infamous feat since Mychal Thompson in 1978 at Minnesota.
“My view of Ben Simmons as a basketball player is that he is a generational talent.,” Hart said. “It’s incredible to watch him play, and I have to say that there are so many things that he does that many people probably miss. Sure he has some flashy plays, and makes some great finishes, but there are countless things that he does before those plays that shows how much he understands the game of basketball. Sure he has his moments where you just wish he said sorry teammates, I have to do this myself, but more often than not, as my friend Maximus Decimus Meridius says ‘Are you not entertained?’”
Though LSU basketball has struggled more than expected, Gregory said his view of Ben Simmons is still the same as before the season began.
“(Simmons is) a special player that should be appreciated,” Gregory said. “I put the results of this season more on poor coaching than on Ben Simmons.”
Other LSU fans, such as John Blackburn, believe Simmons “has not lived up to the hype.”
“I think he needs to stay put for another year, with another coach at the helm,” Blackburn said.
Simmons is averaging nearly 20 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two steals per game this season, leading LSU in all four categories. Simmons also ranks in the top five in the conference in those four categories as well.
The Ben Simmons LSU chapter is not over yet, but already his legacy is being debated among Tiger fans.
“I think his legacy will remain the same regardless of whether the team makes the (NCAA) tournament or not,” Hart said. “He is the most talented player at LSU since Shaq, but he didn’t have the pieces around him.”
“I’ll remember (Simmons) as a great player that was really exciting to watch, but who could not overcome some coaching deficiencies,” Gregory said.
“Sorry to say this, but not even close to great,” Blackburn said.
Jones said after the Tigers final regular season home game against Missouri last week that he’s “thoroughly enjoyed” coaching Simmons this season.
“A lot was put on the table for him,” Jones said. “I have to say he exceeded my expectations of the way he’s played and performed and the level that he’s been able to do that in handling whatever has come his way.”
Simmons’ jersey may never hang in the rafters of the PMAC and his statue may never join Shaq, Bob Pettit and the soon-to-be-erected Pistol Pete outside the arena, but there’s no denying the young Australian put LSU basketball back in the spotlight, if only for one season. Simmons’ true effect in Baton Rouge may not be known for many years to come.
Could he join Shaq as an outspoken global ambassador for the LSU brand or will Baton Rouge be a mere footnote in his biography one day? Only time will tell.
“The only thing he’s done was made this program better,” Jones said.
Follow Andrew Alexander on Twitter @TheOtherAA.