As a showdown, Kentucky’s game at LSU on Tuesday was supposed to be college basketball’s version of Steph Curry-versus-LeBron James. The headliners would be the country’s most ballyhooed freshmen: Skal Labissiere of UK and Ben Simmons of LSU.
With the first of the teams’ two highly anticipated games at hand, let’s update Labissiere and Simmons. Keep in mind the fond memory of freshmen being eased into college basketball as complements to more established players. And once upon a time, freshmen were even — gasp — ineligible.
Going into this weekend, Labissiere’s struggles through all of 12 games are well-chronicled. Basketball observers say the subsequent flood of second-guessing has taken a toll on his psyche.
“I’m rooting for this kid,” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said recently. “Just talking to him, I like him so much. I think he’s hurting a little bit, too. I think he’s thinking and really hurting on the inside because he’s heard about all his projections. His teammates have heard about all his projections.”
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Those obsessed with the NBA Draft long ago proclaimed that Labissiere or Simmons would be the first pick in 2016.
Joe Dean Jr., who works as an SEC Network analyst, saw the same hurt and confusion in Labissiere.
“He’s lost some confidence,” Dean said last week. “He’s got that deer-in-the-headlights a little bit.”
Of course, Labissiere got off to a good start, averaging 14.7 points in Kentucky’s first six games. Then opponents learned to get physical with him. Labissiere didn’t score a point nor grab a rebound while fouling out in 13 minutes against Arizona State. He scored two points against Ohio State, and then played a season-low 10 minutes against Louisville.
“This has gone to the point to be way more than a physical or a skill issue,” said Jay Bilas, who will work the UK-LSU game for ESPN. “It’s a mental thing, and a guy who is kind of searching, and a confidence issue.”
Playing for Kentucky, where a double-dribble can agonize fans, has not helped.
“It’s hard when people are saying, ‘C’mon, relax!!!’” Bilas said. “They’re yelling at you to relax. It’s not an easy thing.”
Bilas likened Labissiere to a golfer who hooks a couple of drives out of bounds. Suddenly, the golfer thinks about the stance, the grip, the head staying down, the elbow staying in, the breeze, the trees, Louise.
“It’s not instinctive anymore,” Bilas said of the hypothetical golfer and the living, breathing Labissiere. “When he gets through this and gets to the other side of it, he’s going to be very good.”
Meanwhile, Simmons was averaging a double-double (19.3 points and 13.0 rebounds) going into Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt. He led LSU in 20 of the 27 statistical categories recognized by the NCAA.
His combination of size (6-10, 240) and full-court skill moves observers to make remarkable comparisons.
ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla called Simmons “a 6-10 (Rajon) Rondo.” Always the over-achiever, Vitale said Simmons was “like the Magic man” with “the body of LeBron.”
Of course, Vitale was referring to Magic Johnson, a comparison that gives pause. Except Fraschilla made the same comparison, although he was careful to point out he meant Magic Johnson as a freshman at Michigan State, not the Hall of Famer with the Lakers.
Dean called Simmons “the most intelligent 18-year-old player I’ve seen in a long, long time.” He said Simmons played like a 30-year-old.
“Like he’s been playing his whole life,” Dean said.
In a sense, Simmons has, being the son of a professional player in Australia. By contrast, Labissiere is a relative basketball novice, having grown up in Haiti and having played little since his sophomore year of high school.
Yet, Simmons, too, has not been above criticism. He was mildly chided for not taking a potential game-winning shot against Marquette in an 81-80 loss.
Then in the next game, Simmons did not take a shot until only 2:27 remained in the first half. He ended up taking only six shots in an overtime loss to North Carolina State.
(It should be noted, Simmons did grab 14 rebounds and hand out 10 assists in the game. ESPN tweeted that he became the first college player 6-10 or taller to have 10 assists and no turnovers in at least 20 years.)
Talk of Simmons needing to take charge erupted. Vitale said the player needed to be “more selfish.”
Sportswriter Randy Rosetta of The Times-Picayune wrote, “Simmons has to embrace his inner Jimmy Chitwood in certain situations. Let unselfishness yield to greediness by putting the Tigers on his back.”
Bilas said he disagreed with the call for Simmons to be more selfish. He likened it to criticism of James for passing at clutch time in NBA playoff series.
Yet, LSU had only a 7-5 record going into this weekend.
“The combination of scoring, rebounding, assists and steals, nobody is even close” to Simmons, Bilas said. “He’s really an outstanding prospect.
“But the only thing he hasn’t done is win. When you talk about a guy as the No. 1 pick and best player in college basketball, it’s a fair question to ask why doesn’t he win more. It’s a question I’m asking and I’m looking forward to finding out the answer.”
Besides being too unselfish, another Simmons shortcoming is shooting. If Simmons were a good shooter, “we’d have to rule him ineligible,” Dean quipped.
A companion complaint about Simmons’ shooting is that he does not play enough with his back to the basket.
In the second half against North Florida, Simmons went to the post and scored 25 points. He finished with 43 points, the most by an LSU player since Shaquille O’Neal had 43 against Northern Arizona on Dec. 28, 1991.
As coaches like to say, it’s a process. Teams and players get better as a season unfolds. CBS is banking on it. The LSU-UK rematch in Rupp Arena is on Senior Day.
It’s only the second time since 1999 Kentucky does not end a season with a game against Florida. CBS wanted Labissiere vs. Simmons on its final regular-season telecast, which serves as an Hors d’oeuvre for the network’s NCAA Tournament coverage.
Does character matter?
When he was Georgetown College’s athletics director, Eric Ward promoted a nationwide effort to restore sportsmanship to the games we play and watch. Now, the commissioner of the Mid-South Conference, he still speaks out when players, coaches, referees and fans stray from the ideals of fairness, civility and good manners.
The many examples of bad sporting behavior should have long ago made Ward permanently hoarse.
Instead, he merely sounded discouraged last week.
Of course, Rick Pitino’s exit from the Rupp Arena court last weekend provided a fresh reason to speak to Ward. Because he was on vacation in Florida, he had not seen the amateur video of Pitino responding to taunting fans with a hand gesture.
When told about the gesture and how it was difficult to say with certainty what Pitino gestured, Ward shifted the conversation to a larger issue. He sounded ready to give up the noble effort to make good manners a part of athletics.
“It’s difficult to say with any conviction there’s much character left at certain levels of athletic competition,” he said.
Rather than criticize Pitino, Ward voiced disappointment with the general public for shrugging at the possibility of a 63-year-old man making an obscene gesture. That’s not to excuse supposedly adult fans taunting a 63-year-old man.
“As a society, we’ve become greatly desensitized to these kind of behaviors,” Ward said. “You see them so frequently now. And we see our heroes acting in ways we never would have imagined (a generation ago).”
Examples of bad behavior, within and outside of athletics, in recent years include:
President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress interrupted by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., yelling, “You lie!”
Video showing high school football players blindsiding one of the officials. Later, it was revealed the players were following a coach’s instruction.
Donald Trump (need anything else be said?).
“It’s frustrating,” Ward said. “But I kind of feel like it’s what we deserve because we don’t hold people to a higher standard.”
‘The good fight’
Earlier this decade, Georgetown College staged an effort it called Champions of Character. The school hoped to call attention to the importance of coaches teaching their players good sportsmanship. The message of the lecture series: Winning is not everything.
After one public session, Georgetown President Bill Crouch made a startling declaration. He told the audience of mostly college students that sports did not build character. Sports did not even reveal character. Sports, he said, damaged character.
“We don’t care what it takes,” Mid-South Conference Commissioner Eric Ward said last week. “Just win. It’s winning we value. Not how you win.”
This is especially true at the higher levels of athletics where millions of dollars, fame and lavish lifestyles are at stake.
“People don’t spend the amount of money they spend to watch character,” Ward said. “Hopefully, we can continue to fight the good fight at the lower levels.”
On Friday, UK Coach John Calipari said his players needed to stop trying to make eye-catching plays. Instead, they should make fundamentally sound plays.
Don’t do the difficult. Execute the easy.
Then you take a look at UK’s media guide for this season. On the inside and outside cover pages, you see Tyler Ulis and Dominique Hawkins making behind-the-back passes; Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe doing a crossover dribble between their legs, and Alex Poythress, Derek Willis and EJ Floreal reaching back to load their dunk-you-very-much throw-downs.
Then again, off-the-backboard layups and two-hand chest passes aren’t nearly as photogenic. Calipari, the marketing major, would understand.
To Eloy Vargas. He turned 27 on Wednesday. … To Aminu Timberlake. He turned 43 on New Year’s Day. … To Randolph Morris. He turned 30 on Saturday. … To Irving Thomas. He turned 50 on Saturday. … To Tyler Ulis. He turns 20 on Tuesday. … To Isaac Humphries. He turns 18 on Tuesday. … To Larry Stamper. He turns 66 on Wednesday.