Ben Simmons said it’s going to be just another game.
LSU’s phenom freshman point forward knows better than that. So does his prime opposite number in Saturday’s showdown with No. 1 Oklahoma: Sooners super guard Buddy Hield.
Hield tipped his talented hand last summer, when he shared the court at the Nike Basketball Academy with Simmons and fellow LSU freshman Antonio Blakeney.
“He told me and Antonio he’d have 46 against us,” Simmons said.
That’s kind of specific.
“I know, right?” Simmons said with a smile. “It’s not like, ‘about 45.’ ”
Hield didn’t call his number against then-No. 1 Kansas on Jan. 4, but he did hang 46 on the Jayhawks in an epic 109-106 triple-overtime Kansas win that stands as the best game of this or the last few college basketball seasons.
Saturday’s game at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center has a chance to at least rival that.
If he didn’t have a fairly important role to play, LSU senior guard Keith Hornsby said it would be the kind of game he would be glad to sit back and watch, remote in hand, as a fan.
“Just with the factors of two top-tier guys going up against each other,” Hornsby said. “That’s always glorified, highlighted, advertised in the press.”
Well, excuse us for being enthusiastic, Keith. But these kinds of matchups with this kind of offensive firepower don’t come along every day.
These are two teams that like the game best played full-throttle, 94 feet, basket for fast-break basket. Think a light version of LSU versus Loyola Marymount in 1990, a game with such rapid-fire scoring that play-by-play typist Debi Polito’s typewriter (yes, typewriter) burned up. Think an NBA all-star game, but probably with a touch more defense. Probably.
Think also about two potential future NBA all-stars, perhaps the biggest stars of this college season: Simmons and Hield.
On a Saturday of juicy matchups in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge — Kentucky-Kansas, Texas A&M-Iowa State, Florida-West Virginia — this game takes on a different luster because of the lead actors. It’s a rare shooting star kind of sighting to get a regular-season matchup between a pair of preseason All-Americans like these two.
Hield lifts his team with his leadership by example.
He was Big 12 player of the year last season, averaging a healthy 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. After deciding to return for his senior season, Hield’s game went supersonic. He enters the ring in the Deaf Dome averaging 25.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.
“He’s a great scorer,” Simmons said. “He puts up a lot of shots. He’s going to get his points, regardless. Hopefully, we can limit him.”
Limit one part of Simmons’ game, and he’ll do something else great. He’s third in the SEC with 19.8 points per game, first in the SEC (third nationally) with 12.7 rebounds per contest. He also ranks fifth in the conference in assists (4.9) and third in steals (1.8).
Against North Florida (43 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, five steals, three blocks) he came within two blocks of becoming the first college player to ever go “five for five:” five points, rebounds, blocks, assists and steals in a game. Anyone who suggests that Simmons’ season has been a disappointment is naïve or uselessly critical.
“He’s not a good jump shooter,” said Hield, speaking of criticism, “but he can attack you and get to the rim easy.”
Simmons tried to deflect some of the hype by reminding reporters that he and Hield probably won’t be guarding each other one-on-one. Not that it dampens the anticipation. Leonard Fournette and Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes didn’t defend each other in the Texas Bowl, but you still wanted to see whose offensive production would lead his team to victory.
In the end, Simmons admitted just a twinge of excitement about the game.
“It’ll be a memory I always hold on to. It’s going to be a fun night,” he said.
In a big-picture sense, the game is the best chance LSU (RPI of 79 as of Thursday) has to polish its NCAA tournament résumé to a high gloss. Oklahoma isn’t just No. 1 in The Associated Press poll but No. 1 in the NCAA’s ever-fluid RPI. With a tepid 7-5 pre-SEC record, this would be a plum the NCAA selection committee would find impossible to ignore.
On the other hand, a loss to the No. 1 RPI team won’t be fatal to 13-7 LSU’s NCAA hopes. It puts more of a premium on how the Tigers, currently a game out of first place in the SEC standings at 6-2, play in their last 10 regular-season games. But LSU has been riding that razor’s edge for much of the season.
In other words, it’s a game to be enjoyed by all concerned, not fretted over. So relish the star-studded matchup, the offense and what hopefully is a closely contested finish.
Just another game? Not on your life.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.