For three years in the late 1960s and early 70s, Pete Maravich was not so much a star as a supernova, lighting up scoreboards in once-sleepy gyms across the Southeastern Conference and turning LSU basketball into a phenomenon.
What Pistol Pete couldn’t do was turn his Tigers into champions. Despite averaging 44 points a game (still a record), LSU never won the SEC during his stay in Baton Rouge, which in those days meant no NCAA tournament. After coming up from the freshman squad to his father’s bedraggled varsity, Maravich led the Tigers to records of 14-12 and 13-13. His senior year, LSU finally broke through with a 22-10 mark and a trip to the NIT final four, its only postseason bid during a 25-year stretch of futility. The magic of Maravich had been wasted.
Flash forward a couple of generations and it looked like LSU was headed for a similar belly flop.
Freshman point forward Ben Simmons may be no Maravich, but he is a phenomenal talent who could have spent his one year of NBA prep at any basketball powerhouse he chose. Thanks to having his godfather as an assistant coach he chose LSU. In turn, pundits and observers chose the Tigers as a SEC dark horse and prime candidate to advance deep into March Madness.
Instead, LSU sputtered to a 7-5 showing in non-conference play, losing to every credible opponent, surrendering points at a frightening clip and solidifying the reputation of coach Johnny Jones (fairly or not) as a talented recruiter who produces underwhelming results on the court.
And just in time for conference play to heat up in earnest, Simmons went to Nashville and flipped the script entirely.
It wasn’t like Simmons had been AWOL before the Tigers’ 90-82 win at Vanderbilt. The likely No. 1 draft pick averages 20.5 points, 13.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game. But after deferring to his teammates almost to the point of absurdity in 2015, Simmons wasn’t afraid to grab the spotlight for himself in Memorial Gym. He drove to the rim whenever he wanted against the Commodores, and when he did it seemed to always end in a basket or a trip to the foul line, where he was a deadly 16-for-19. A talented Vandy team playing a strong game couldn’t find a way to stop him and in the end it couldn’t keep up. Simmons finished with 36 points and 14 rebounds in his SEC debut.
LSU still has a modest record, but the Tigers have a chance to revive their at-large tournament hopes. They have five games against the league’s three ranked teams, beginning with tonight’s visit from No. 9 Kentucky, and also host No. 2 Oklahoma at the end of the month.
More importantly, the Tigers have hope. And quite possibly a supernova in the making.
Game of the week: No. 9 Kentucky (11-2, 1-0) at LSU (8-5, 1-0), 8 p.m. Central today, ESPN – In the preseason, whoever didn’t think Simmons was the best freshman and budding top draft pick probably would have put their chips behind UK’s Skal Labissiere. But the Haitian center hasn’t been able to follow Colonel John Calipari’s secret recipe for one-and-done success. He’s averaging just 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, and has been steadily losing minutes as the Wildcats get into the meat of the schedule. That continued Saturday against Ole Miss (14 minutes) but he began to bust out of his slump with nine points, after scoring four points combined in the previous three games.
Alabama at Ole Miss, 8 p.m., ESPNU
No. 21 Texas A&M at Tennessee, noon, SEC Network
LSU at Florida, 12:30 p.m., CBS
Vanderbilt at No. 22 South Carolina, 2 p.m., ESPNU
Mississippi State at Arkansas, 2:30 p.m., SEC Network
No. 9 Kentucky at Alabama, 5 p.m., SEC Network
Georgia at Ole Miss, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network
Auburn at Missouri, 8 p.m., ESPN2
Kentucky – Can a Wildcat be underrated? Sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis has been the glue for UK, going off for 20 points, 10 assists and six steals in Saturday’s 83-61 dismantling of Ole Miss. Before that he had 21 points and eight assists in the win over Louisville.
Texas A&M – The best team nobody has seen is 11-2 and has the SEC Player of the Week, senior guard Jalen Jones. He went 9-for-13 from the field (4-for-6 from 3-point range) for 28 points in a 92-69 blowout of Arkansas.
South Carolina – The Gamecocks (13-0) are the only tournament-eligible undefeated team left in America (sorry SMU) and are coming off their most impressive win, 86-76 against Memphis. Impressive doesn’t equal pretty though. USC went 46-for-63 at the free throw line as five Tigers fouled out.
Florida – Wasn’t there supposed to be a drop off after Billy Donovan skipped town? The Gators played more than respectably during a rugged non-conference slate and never really were threatened in a 77-63 home win against Georgia. Florida finished a game under .500 last year and tied for eighth in the league, but seem poised to return to the big dance after a year’s absence.
Vanderbilt – Seven-footer Luke Kornet has been out nearly a month and still could be a couple of weeks away from returning as the Commodores seek to keep a promising season from souring. Vandy briefly looked like it could challenge Kentucky for supremacy during a pre-Thanksgiving run where it blew out St. John’s and Wake Forest and led Kansas much of the way, but the ‘Dores haven’t found a way to close out good teams since.
Ole Miss – After 50 years, we won’t have the Tad Pad to kick around anymore. Tad Smith Coliseum, the Rebels’ leaky replica of a coffee filter, hosted its last men’s game Dec. 22, an overtime victory against Troy. Alabama (which helps open the new Pavilion at Ole Miss on Thursday) now has the third-oldest men’s basketball arena in the SEC, behind Vandy and Georgia.
Alabama – No one can accuse Avery Johnson of not getting the most out of his talent. The Crimson Tide went 9-3 in non-conference play despite being last in the league in scoring, assists and rebounds.
LSU – The Tigers’ biggest weapon (non-Ben Simmons division) may be senior Keith Hornsby. He missed the start of the season while recovering from sports hernia surgery, but is averaging 17.5 points in the six games he’s played, including 23 at Vanderbilt. He went off for 32 points in his first game back, an overtime loss to Houston, but the Tigers have won four out of five since.
Georgia – The Bulldogs haven’t done a lot to build momentum after last spring’s NCAA Tournament bid. UGA is 7-4 and struggled to get shots off at Florida. Its only semi-impressive wins are against ACC also-rans Georgia Tech and Clemson.
Auburn – Marshall transfer Kareem Canty is fourth in the SEC in scoring (19.3 ppg) and tied for second in assists with Kentucky’s Ulis (5.9 apg). He makes nearly four 3-pointers a game for the Tigers, who live and die with the trey. Auburn easily leads the league in 3-point shots attempted (26 per game) and made (10 per game).
Tennessee – The Vols have a couple of respectable losses (falling to Butler and Gonzaga by a combined 15 points) but no real eye-catching wins in their 7-6 mark. UT was atrocious from 3-point range in an 83-77 loss at Auburn, going 3-for-28.
Mississippi State – Freshman guard Malik Newman has been merely good for the Bulldogs, who were counting on him to be outstanding in order to jump-start Ben Howland’s rebuilding job. His 13.3 points per game and 2.4 assists per contest will have to increase drastically for State to avoid a bottom-four finish.
Arkansas – The Hogs (6-7) are the only SEC team with a losing record but don’t blame senior guard Jabril Durham. An afterthought last year, the senior guard leads the SEC and is sixth nationally with 7.3 assists per game.
Missouri – The 7-6 Tigers already have a pair of three-game losing streaks, but only one upperclassman contributing significantly. Junior guard Wes Clark averages 10.1 points and 3.2 assists per game for Mizzou, which may not be able to save Kim Anderson’s job despite the fact he’s been there only a year and a half and took over after the messy departure of Frank Haith.
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