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Simmons confident LSU will raise game vs. tougher schedule

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) For all of his gaudy numbers, LSU freshman sensation Ben Simmons is still trying to figure out the best way to put the Tigers in position to win.

And now the schedule gets harder, starting with Tuesday night's tilt against Wake Forest, followed by the opening of Southeastern Conference play against Vanderbilt and No. 10 Kentucky.

It's possible the top NBA draft pick next year could miss the NCAA Tournament in what is widely expected to be his only season of college basketball.

With LSU at 7-4 and currently unranked, it would seem the pressure is rising on Simmons and Co., but the versatile 6-foot-10 forward expresses only eagerness and joy at thought of what lies ahead.

''I'm ready to play. I want to play the best, no matter who it is,'' Simmons said. ''So if it's Wake Forest, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, whatever it is, I'm ready.

''I get excited for that, hearing about guys going off for 30 or whatever it is, or teams crushing other teams,'' Simmons continued. ''I'm ready to play them.''

Through 11 games, he's averaged 19.1 points, 13.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists. He has blocked 15 shots this season. As of Monday, Simmons was the only Division I NCAA player to have a game with at least 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists six times this season. Two other players - Kahlil Felder of Oakland and Denzel Valentine of Michigan State - had four such games entering Monday.

Yet the Tigers lost four of their first eight games, before rattling off victories in their past three games against heavy underdogs Gardner Webb, Oral Roberts and American.

LSU also has been at full strength the past three games, with Arizona transfer Craig Victor becoming eligible to play. One game before Victor's insertion in the lineup, starting shooting guard Keith Hornsby, who is one of LSU's best outside shooters, returned from sports hernia surgery.

''It's great to have them back,'' Simmons said. ''Keith's playing well; Craig's playing well. We have a full squad now.''

Hornsby's outside shooting often creates more space for Simmons inside. Meanwhile, Simmons said he has more opportunities to block shots, rebound or guard opposing play-makers on the perimeter with the 6-9 Victor helping on the defensive end.

LSU head coach Johnny Jones described Simmons' defense in recent games as ''phenomenal.''

The availability of key players and improving team chemistry makes Simmons confident that LSU can start winning more even as the competition becomes more challenging.

''We're getting better. Every day we're improving and stepping up to teams that we have to play no matter who it is,'' Simmons said. ''No one came here to play people who aren't that good. Everyone wants to play the best and everyone on my team wants to do that, so we're ready.''

What makes the 240-pound Simmons stand out is his ability to run the floor on the dribble, his vision, instincts and passing. When combined with his conventional big-man traits - playing above the rim, blocking shots and rebounding - he has the ability to take over games in various ways, which is why he was a coveted recruit and a top pro prospect.

Simmons' only weakness seems to be his outside shot. He rarely even tries a 3-pointer, attempting only two this season, but hitting one.

''We can't ask him to do too much and we can't base everything on his stat line being scoring,'' Jones said. ''He can beat you in a lot of ways. He doesn't necessarily have to score or take shots for his team to win because he can create easy scoring opportunities for his teammates and he's not one of those guys who gets caught up and worries about how many points he's scoring.''

Simmons grew up in Australia, where his American father, Dave, played and coached professional basketball. Ben Simmons moved Florida for high school, playing for Montverde Academy. The national media spotlight found Simmons during high school, so the attention he now receives in college is not all that foreign or distracting to him, he said.

''I'm just focused on winning,'' Simmons said. ''If I've got the spotlight on me, that means my team's in it, too. So as long as they're playing well, everyone's looking at LSU and not just me.''