At the end of 2015, LSU was 7–5 and already seemed like an outside shot to make the NCAA tournament. Now in 2016, the Tigers have started SEC play 2–0 and have taken down Vanderbilt by eight and Kentucky by 18. Here are three thoughts on the Tigers’ 85–67 win over the No. 9 Wildcats in Baton Rouge:
It was as much about LSU’s strengths as Kentucky’s weaknesses
Kentucky has a big big-man problem. John Calipari has been tinkering with the Wildcats’ starting lineup, but he hasn’t settled on the right one yet. Against LSU, he started Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray at the guard spots with Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee down low. Poythress and Lee combined for 10 fouls, six rebounds, four points and zero blocks. Off the bench, freshman Skal Labissiere, a big-time recruit who has yet to live up to his estimable hype, scored three points on three field-goal attempts and had one rebound; and Derek Willis had six points and spent much of his time on defense seemingly bracing for whatever Ben Simmons might do next. Although Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray have developed into reliable offensive threats, they’re not good enough to carry this team to a Final Four without bigger contributions from the frontcourt. Labissiere seems to be playing with an extremely low confidence right now, and it’ll be up to Calipari to develop his future lottery pick into a star college basketball player. Kentucky needs all the help it can get down low.
Aside from Kentucky’s struggles, some of LSU’s success on Tuesday night was due to its own adjustments. The Tigers certainly played more aggressively on defense, hedging on ball screens and selling out against Kentucky’s talented guards. LSU also benefited from a return to form for junior Tim Quarterman. He had 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, his first double-double since the Tigers’ overtime loss to Houston. The Tigers need Quarterman to be more consistent—he had been shooting 32% from the floor in his last five games—to take some pressure of do-everything freshman Ben Simmons.
A win is a win for LSU’s résumé
Even if LSU won in large part due to the Wildcats’ off night, It still reaps all the rewards. The NCAA tournament selection committee doesn’t factor in “off nights” like it does injuries or absences when evaluating quality wins. That means this game is by far the Tigers’ top win of the season. And it comes on the heels of their second-best win of the season, at Vanderbilt. Kenpom.com ranks Vanderbilt No. 24 and Kentucky No. 16, so LSU has gone from zero top-100 wins to two top-25 wins in the span of four days.
Coming into this game, LSU wasn’t even on the bubble. Now it has the chance to cover over the ugliness of its non-conference schedule with a strong January. The Tigers will have chances to win at Florida (Kenpom.com No. 22), at Texas A&M (No. 21) and against Oklahoma. Beating the Sooners would definitely put the Tigers back in the NCAA tournament picture, but avoiding bad losses and winning those two road contests should be enough to get them back on the bubble. The struggle for the Tigers moving forward is how slim their margin of error is. In a weak SEC, they need to capitalize on every résumé-boosting win, as they did against Kentucky.
Ben Simmons is the best freshman in the country, and it’s not close right now
Skal Labissiere had plenty of buzz coming into the season, and was even projected as the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft over Simmons in several mock drafts. There isn’t any putting him in the top spot anymore. Simmons is certainly not a perfect player—that jumper still needs a lot of work—but he is by far the most talented prospect in college basketball. While Labissiere has struggled to stay in his lane defensively and to establish himself offensively in the post, Simmons has been showing off.
Against Kentucky, Simmons sat for about 10 minutes in the first half and only played 27 minutes total in the game. He took the fewest shots of any LSU starter (five), but still finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds, three steals, two assists and a block. He’s at his best when he grabs a defensive rebound and leads the Tigers in transition, but he’s also growing more comfortable in offensive sets and isolation situations. Although Duke’s Brandon Ingram has been improving, Ben Simmons has solidified his spot at the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in June, should he choose to declare. College basketball fans certainly hope that LSU continues to improve so that they can see Simmons in the NCAA tournament before he goes.