There’s a fairly huge football game being played at LSU on Saturday, but Wednesday it was basketball that literally held court.
About 40 NBA scouts sat along the sideline in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center and dozens of media, including a TV crew from the SEC Network and another crew working on a documentary.
Collectively, call it the Ben Simmons Show.
LSU’s phenom freshman, the consensus No. 1 prospect coming into college this fall, can deal with the spotlight. He’s done it for years.
His answers are smooth, polished, and not too revealing, hardly seeming to come from a 19-year-old’s mouth. He’s been practicing dealing with reporters since he was 12 or 13, playing an NBA video game which would query him to answer questions from the media after a big game.
“I’m enjoying all of it,” he said Wednesday. “Not everyone gets to do this.
“It doesn’t faze me.”
There are still moments when he wonders what all the fuss is about, though. Like all this attention is being lavished on someone else.
“I don’t think people really understand how I look at it. To me I’m just Ben from Australia,” he said.
He takes a Mini Segway scooter to class — “closs” is how he pronounces it, the English way, though most of his accent is straight American — and gets recognized, but even at 6-foot-10 he doesn’t think of himself as the big man on campus.
He knows who that is, a certain football player who wears No. 7.
“This,” Simmons said with a smile, “is his school.”
LSU has always been a football school and always will be. Basketball, with the big exception being 15 straight postseason appearances under Dale Brown, has been more of a feast or famine proposition. Throughout their history, the Tigers seem to either be reaching for the Final Four or languishing in the bottom of the Southeastern Conference standings.
But when basketball has been great, when certain dazzling talents have danced across the hardwood here, the sport has captured the imagination and dominated the sports conversation for a season or three.
Bob Pettit. “Pistol” Pete Maravich. Rudy Macklin. Chris Jackson. Shaquille O’Neal, Simmons’ favorite former Tiger.
Could Simmons’ name be added to that list? If he were to hoist the Tigers on his talented shoulders, even for just one season, and carry LSU to the Final Four, would they hang his No. 25 from the PMAC’s catwalk like they did for Maravich, Macklin, O’Neal and Pettit?
One thing’s for sure, none of those players had their number on an electronic billboard. Simmons first caught a glance of his number on one of them — part of a controversial preseason ad campaign by LSU — driving down a street shortly after he arrived in Baton Rouge.
“It was weird,” he said. “I turned around and it was gone.”
Sort of like Simmons himself may be.
No one expects him to stay more than one season because of the NBA riches that could await him. If he plays as expected, he could be someone’s lucky lottery No. 1 pick in 2016.
Still, he has a chance, a great chance, to turn LSU basketball into appointment viewing again, in the PMAC and on TV.
But especially in the PMAC.
“The only visions I’ve had of it are of it being sold out,” Simmons said. “If it’s not, I’ll be upset. Hopefully they’ll come out.
“Everyone is so happy and excited about the team, but we haven’t done anything yet.”
LSU coach Johnny Jones is embracing the excitement for his program that has bubbled up to a hot froth in this, his fourth season, at his alma mater.
“You’d much rather be on the side of high expectations in people thinking that you’re going to be very good,” he said.
“Our job is to play an exciting style of basketball and make sure that our kids are comfortable and enjoying it.”
The interview sessions were followed by a practice session in the main arena, where Simmons showed off his talents. The highlight was when he took a pass that skimmed just over the rim from the right wing, reached high into the air along the left baseline and slammed it home with one hand.
Of course, it’s not just Simmons who has to shine. He needs help in the low post from an improving Elbert Robinson and/or Darcy Malone, and mesh with wing players like Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby and fellow freshman Antonio Blakeney.
How long will that take?
“We’ll be learning all season,” he said.
It should be a fun experiment to watch unfold.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.