Ben Simmons' scheduled showcase turns into LSU Tigers' coming out

Simmons joins SC to talk win over Kentucky (1:18)

Ben Simmons explains the Tigers' approach to taking on Kentucky, what his role is with this LSU team and how he's grown since the beginning of the season. (1:18)

BATON ROUGE, La. -- They called it "The Convention." Its official name was the Champions Classic, but no matter. The nickname fit. On Nov. 12, 2013, a vast horde of NBA scouts and front office personnel swarmed the United Center in Chicago.

There, together, the hive would consume and digest a feast unlike any in recent college hoops memory: a regular-season matchup between Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Duke's Jabari Parker, the top two prospects in the sport, designed to answer the most important question at hand: How good are these guys, anyway?

Parker versus Wiggins marked the first time in the history of ESPN's recruiting rankings that the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked players in any class squared off in the regular season. You had to be there. Who knew when that might happen again?

Tuesday night in Baton Rouge was supposed to be that night. No. 1 Ben Simmons. No. 2 Skal Labissiere. An NBA draft showdown disguised as Kentucky versus LSU.

The Convention, Part 2.

But then the rest of the Tigers crashed the party.

Instead, Tuesday night saw LSU serve up something like a confirmation -- its first clear signal to the outside world that its 2015-16 season might offer more than Simmons' individual brilliance. Three days after a road win at Vanderbilt, LSU had its way with the No. 9-ranked Wildcats 85-67, in its most impressive and most balanced performance of a previously disheartening season.

"We have come together as a team," Simmons said. "We're jelling. Everyone got sick of what was happening and we all laid it out. We put our goals down, and everyone really stepped and contributed."

"What was happening," to put it bluntly, was a tragic waste. Despite historically efficient production from one of the best pure basketball talents of the past decade -- and the kind of player that shows up in Baton Rouge once every 30 years, if that -- the Tigers stumbled to a 7-5 nonconference record against a statistically weak schedule. They lost to Marquette, NC State, Charleston and Houston. Just seven days ago, the nonconference slog concluded with an ugly home loss to Wake Forest. It looked all but certain that the Tigers would miss the NCAA tournament.

They're hardly out of the woods yet. But on Tuesday, a supporting cast that had let down its rim-attacking, rebound-gobbling star on more than one occasion was more important than Simmons to LSU's win. Guard Tim Quarterman had his best game of 2015-16, finishing with a Simmons-esque 21 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists. Center Craig Victor made just 3 of his 11 field goals but got to the line 14 times, good for 15 points and 12 rebounds, filling the interior holes that left Simmons exposed in November and December. Keith Hornsby made two huge 3s on back-to-back possessions in the first half.

Those were the most telling moments: With nine minutes remaining in the first half, Simmons picked up his second foul. A Kentucky run seemed inevitable. Instead, the Tigers closed the half with a 37-27 lead. Simmons owned just two of those points.

"This team is growing," LSU coach Johnny Jones said. "Had this happened a month ago … I'm not sure exactly which way we would have possibly turned."

Discussions on confidence and trust pervaded the Tigers' postgame talk. And that stuff really does matter. Just as important, though, is sheer personnel: Getting Hornsby (who was injured in November) and Victor (who became eligible in the second semester) in the lineup has given the Tigers a 3-point shooting threat and a conventional two-way big, the two things they missed more than any others early on.

That will also matter in March, when the NCAA selection committee compares the full-strength Tigers to their early results. To even earn that comparison, LSU will have to sustain this newfound energy for months -- and prove that these wins over a hobbled Vanderbilt and a shellshocked Kentucky were not one-off bursts by genuine indications of skill.

Still, Tuesday was a surreal and impressive turn. A game billed for months as a showdown between the top talent in next year's NBA draft -- and then, thanks to Labissiere's drastic recent struggles, a game that was supposed to be the All-Simmons Show -- somehow turned into a redemptive showcase for every LSU player not named Ben Simmons.

Somehow, Simmons' poster dunks and unstoppable penetration and innate vision -- all on display Tuesday -- were less interesting than his teammates' combined contributions. Somehow, this disappointing team and its nonexistent nonconference record might not be worth burying after all.

"It's all about sacrifices," Quarterman said. "I think we've made a lot of sacrifices for each other and it's paying off."

Simmons requires no convention. The matter of his individual brilliance is settled. His team is another question entirely. After Tuesday, at least, it's a vastly more interesting question.