Brooklyn, NY – There are stat sheet stuffers and then there’s LSU freshman Ben Simmons who brought his do-everything game with him to the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn on Monday night to lead the LSU Tigers against the Marquette Golden Eagles in the opening game of the Fan Duel Legends Classic.
With over 50 NBA scouts in attendance to mostly lay eyes on Simmons, the multi-positional Australian native showed off the many dimensions to his game by scoring 21 points, collecting 20 rebounds, assisting on seven baskets and making two steals as he played all 40 minutes. Despite that herculean effort, Simmons and the Tigers failed to hold a late lead and lost to an inspired Marquette team, 81-80.
From winning the opening tap against Marquette’s 6-11 center Luke Fischer to passing to teammate Jalyn Patterson for the potential winning shot with seconds left in the game, Simmons showed why he was named the Southeastern Conference preseason player of the year and to numerous preseason All-American teams.
Blessed with a sinewy athletic frame reaching to 6-10, Simmons excels in transition where his speed, strong ball handling ability and long strides allow him to gobble up the court. Individual defenders have little chance of stopping him on the break, and when a secondary defender gives help to contain him, Simmons is a willing passer. About the only thing keeping Simmons from posting a triple double was the cold shooting of his teammates who converted only 37 percent of their shots.
Simmons was quoted in an offseason article saying what he most loves to do on a basketball court is set up his teammates to score. That’s exactly the way he played on Monday night. Despite serving as the Tigers’ de facto point guard with the ball in his hands more than any other LSU player, Simmons took only fourteen shots, making six.
He showed true rotation and a soft touch at the free throw line making 9-of-11 attempts, but Simmons was reluctant to shoot outside the paint. A left hand dominant player, Simmons is adept at using both hands to shoot and scored his two most impressive baskets on the night shooting right handed.
He scored LSU’s first basket of the game catching an inbound pass from under the basket just inside the free throw line and converting a right-handed jump hook with a high release very few players playing in any league could contest. Then in transition, Simmons beat the Marquette defense driving left to the rim, switched the ball to his right hand and went across his body for the throw down.
Primarily a man-to-man defensive team, the Golden Eagles employed their man defense all game and mostly assigned Henry Ellenson, their own freshman star, to guard Simmons. Ellenson gave a gallant effort attempting to slow down Simmons, but while his 6-11 frame matched up with Simmons in size, Ellenson lacked the foot speed to contain Simmons on the dribble. Plagued by foul trouble both halves, Ellenson was limited to 28 minutes before fouling out with 1:56 left in the game.
“There was a lot of spotlight on us two, but it’s a team game in the end,” said Ellenson. “I have a lot of respect for Ben’s game. He’s a powerful driver.”
Ellenson used his time on the court to show scouts why his name is being floated as a possible one-and-done player. The Wisconsin native played an efficient game scoring 16 points on 11 shots and collecting a team-leading eleven rebounds. Shooting with as much confidence as he has so far in the early season, Ellenson made both his three-point shots and put his soft touch on display shooting from mid range.
He did, however, leave points at the free throw line missing the front end of two second half one-and-one opportunities in going 2-for-4 overall from the line.
Simmons downplayed the match-up with Ellenson. Asked after the game if his juices were flowing a little quicker presented with the opportunity to play against another elite player from the same freshman class, Simmons answered, “Definitely not. It’s just another game to me, another team that we have to beat. Clearly we didn’t do that.
“I think it was a good lesson for the team,” he continued. “I’d rather lose now than later. For us, it’s just a learning curve.”
Marquette brought a 1-2 record into the game and was coming off an uninspired effort in losing 89-61 to Iowa on November 19. In an effort to re-energize his players, Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski dipped into his bag of coaching tricks.
Instead of holding practice after the Iowa game in Marquette’s state of the art practice facility named after legendary Marquette Coach Al McGuire, he moved workouts to the Old Gym on campus where McGuire’s teams used to practice. While steeped in tradition, it’s still an old gym without the conveniences of the Al McGuire Center.
Then upon the team’s arrival in Brooklyn, believing his players could benefit by a return to their basketball roots, Wojciechowski conducted a practice under the lights on an outdoor Brooklyn playground.
The change of practice venues must have worked because the Golden Eagles looked transformed in sprinting out to a 10-0 lead. The second year Marquette coach also inserted two new starters–forward Sandy Cohen and guard Traci Carter–into the starting line-up. Relegated to coming off the bench, former starters Duane Wilson and Jujuan Johnson responded when their numbers were first called early in the first half.
Wilson and Johnson each scored 16 points in their reserve roles. Johnson touched other parts of the box score by collecting five rebounds and assisting on three baskets. The junior wing player from Memphis penetrated cracks in the LSU defense to get to the rim and also connected from distance making both of this three-point shots.
After leading nearly all of the game, Marquette found itself down 80-79 with 13.8 seconds left to play. Wojciechowski used a time out to diagram a play for Johnson to received the ball on the wing and drive it to the basket. Fouled on his way to the hoop, Johnson stepped up the line and calmly swished both free throws to put the Golden Eagles back up, 81-80.
“Those were manly free throws,” said Wojciechowski.
With time left for one shot, LSU Coach Johnny Jones had the ball just where he wanted it–in the hands of Simmons. “I came down and saw the defense on my left and right and saw Brandon (Sampson) open. He passed it back to me and I passed it to Jalen (Patterson.) I trust Jalen a lot. His shot just didn’t fall,” explained Simmons of how the final seconds played out for the Tigers.
Fischer was the first to Patterson’s missed shot and tapped the ball toward center court as time expired, earning a hug from Wojciechowski as both walked off the court. With LSU ranked 23rd in the AP poll and 19th in the USA Today poll, the victory marked the first win for Wojciechowski against a ranked team in his second year at the helm of the Marquette program.
“I think our guys responded,” said Wojciechowski as the Golden Eagles evened their record to 2-2. “We have a lot of growing up to do, and you don’t grow up without earning things. You don’t get accomplishment or achievement without earning things.”
Marquette improved its record to 3-1 all-time against LSU. The first match-up between the schools took place in the 1970 NIT not far from the Barclay’s Center in Madison Square Garden. Two of the iconic figures for each school participated in the game as Al McGuire coached Marquette to a 101-79 victory over the Pete Maravich led Tigers.
Marquette’s win propelled it to the championship game on Tuesday night against Arizona State, winners of the nightcap game against North Carolina State, 79-76. The game will match the coaching wits of two former Duke point guards in Wojciechowski and Sun Devils Coach Bobby Hurley. LSU and North Carolina State play for the consolation championship.
This article was written by Tom Osowski, a correspondent and scout for NetScouts Basketball. You can subscribe to our RSS feed from the upper right corner of our home page, follow us on Facebook, or on twitter.
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