Saturday March 12th, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A dejected Ben Simmons rose from his seat at LSU’s postgame press conference and stepped off the podium. He slipped through a side curtain, swung left and made a beeline for the Tigers’ locker room, situated on the ground floor of Bridgestone Arena. By the time Simmons reached his destination, his LSU teammates, a suddenly befuddled group, had transformed the carpeted enclave into a quiet tomb.

Before speaking to reporters, Simmons dipped into a side room to shower. His teammate, guard Antonio Blakeney, sat planted at a nearby locker, clutching a piece of paper in his hand. Every few moments, Blakeney, still sporting an LSU jersey, shook his head. “Horrible,” he said. “This is bad, man.” He paused. “Man.”

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The box score in Blakeney’s grasp told an unfortunate tale: Texas A&M 71, LSU 38, a score that somehow inadequately describes just how inadequate LSU was during the SEC tournament semifinals on Saturday. Soon Simmons emerged wearing a white towel, and he made his way to a corner locker. He threw on a pair of LSU sweatpants, tossed his game-worn shoes to a staff member and plopped in a seat. Unsurprisingly, the freshman’s analysis was short and to the point. “We just got outplayed,” Simmons said.

In that, Simmons was right: Top-seeded Texas A&M (26–7, 13–5 SEC) had run Simmons and LSU (19–14, 11–7) out of the building at the SEC tournament. The Tigers looked every bit like an SEC pretender, one hardly worthy of playing for a conference title. And LSU didn’t just lose its shot at an SEC tournament title on Saturday. It likely watched its NCAA tournament hopes disappear along the way, a remarkable fall from grace for a team brimming with talent.

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But Saturday’s result comes with collateral damage, and it’s a fact all college basketball fans should mourn equally: Simmons, the presumed No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft, will probably never play in an NCAA tournament. The freshman is highly unlikely to return to Baton Rouge for his sophomore year. Simmons’s career isn’t quite over, of course, as the Tigers could still land in the NIT. But Simmons is a kind of generational talent tailor-made for March Madness. Now, the most popular sporting event in America will have to go on without the sport’s best player. And college basketball will suffer because of it.

If that truly is Simmons’s reality, if the freshman will never step on the court of an NCAA tournament site, that reality has yet to sink in. “For me, I just wanted to play and do whatever I can to win for my team,” Simmons said. “I didn’t tell myself where I was going to be, where the team was going to be. All I knew was, we were going to go out and work hard and try to get better every day.”

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Except LSU was a case study in inconsistency for much of the season. It showed the ability to beat tournament-caliber competition with eye-opening wins over Kentucky, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt during the regular season. But the Tigers also suffered a whopping six losses at the hands of sub-100 RPI teams. That’s why setbacks against College of Charleston, Tennessee and Wake Forest did more to define LSU’s season than the remarkable talent of Simmons.

But even then, few expected this—this—from LSU in the SEC tournament. On Saturday the Tigers shot a shoddy 21% from the field and trailed by as many as 40 points. LSU slogged through two lengthy stretches—15 minutes and eight minutes—without hitting a single field goal. Instead of shining with an NBA lottery pick in hand, the SEC’s No. 4 seed looked like a jayvee team getting hosed by varsity bluebloods. “We just couldn’t hit anything today,” guard Tim Quarterman said. “I don’t think there has been a game [like this] where just nobody has been on.”

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In the second half, the Aggies toyed with the lethargic Tigers, tossing a pair of alley-oops and riling up the A&M fans in attendance. Late in the game, frustration got the best of Simmons: The freshman slammed the ball hard on the hardwood, resulting in a technical foul.

Afterward Simmons was asked about LSU’s effort. Did you guys give up? Simmons shook his head. “There were points where they were just out-hustling us,” he said. For head coach Johnny Jones, whose job performance and late-game management came under fire quite often this season, his purpose on Saturday gradually devolved from winning to surviving. “I think it becomes more of an emotional thing and psychological, and you have to make sure that you keep them up,” Jones said.

It’s true that LSU dealt with its own adversity this season. The program weathered injuries to key players like senior guard Keith Hornsby and sophomore forward Craig Victor II for stretches, and on Saturday Simmons and Victor waded through foul trouble against the Aggies. But the Tigers spent much of this season getting out-hustled and wasting their perceived talent. Now all college basketball fans must pay the price, as the country won’t get the pleasure of watching Simmons bust brackets in March. How will the Tigers react to an invitation to the NIT? “Whenever they put us in,” Simmons said, “we’re going to go in and play hard.” But LSU didn’t do that against Texas A&M, when it counted most.

As Simmons sat at his locker on Saturday, student managers packed bags of game-worn jerseys. Two others ripped pieces of paper, scribbled with game notes, off a nearby whiteboard. LSU was preparing to leave Nashville, and no one knows its next destination. But this much is almost certain: the Tigers will be back at the SEC tournament one day, and Simmons likely won’t. Now, after perhaps the worst loss of LSU’s season, the freshman’s college career stands to end just as it started: Unfulfilled.

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