BATON ROUGE, La. -- Ben Simmons was casually brilliant. Kentucky was just casual. On Tuesday night, thanks to a well-rounded performance from a suddenly improved supporting cast, the LSU Tigers blew out Kentucky 85-67 to earn their most important win, and seal their most crucial week, of a previously disappointing season.
Ben Simmons wasn't great, but he didn't have to be
The brilliance of Simmons, the 2016 NBA draft's surefire No. 1 pick, was the lone constant in LSU's disappointing nonconference season. Actually, check that: For most of the season, LSU's general vulnerabilities -- poor spacing, perimeter shooting, poor defensive rebounding, poor spacing -- were as reliable as its star's production. The Tigers' SEC opener, Saturday's road win against an ailing Vanderbilt team, was a minor glimpse of what might happen when Simmons is amazing (36 points, 15 shots, 14 rebounds) and the rest of his team is committed to defense and details. It was easily LSU's best win. It was encouraging. It was a start.
Tuesday night's outing was even better: The Tigers didn't need Simmons to score 36 points. For most of the first half, when Simmons played just eight minutes because of foul trouble and recorded four rebounds and two points, they didn't need him at all.
Guard Tim Quarterman's fearless (OK, reckless) approach to scoring was a liability in LSU's first 12 games. Against the Wildcats, Quarterman channeled what makes him great, his high work rate and interior intuition, into a focused, 21-point outing. Meanwhile, the additions of Craig Victor, a midseason transfer from Arizona, and Keith Hornsby, who missed the first seven games because of an injury, have helped add much-needed diversity to LSU's offense. Victor can bang in the post and play off pick-and-roll, and Hornsby is the team's best shooter.
The result? A second straight convincing win over a preseason SEC title contender on Tuesday and, maybe, a turning point for one of the 2015-16 season's most disappointing teams.
But don't get it twisted: Simmons is still pretty amazing
Simmons didn't have to be great on Tuesday, and for most of the night he wasn't. But late in the game, after LSU had essentially sealed its win, the dude on pace to be the first player in the past 20 seasons to average 20 points, 13 rebounds and five assists provided a few reminders of why that state of affairs exists.
There was that midair adjustment alley-oop early in the second half. There were the unstoppable isolation drives that left Kentucky's big men in a blender. There were brilliant, instinctive passes; Simmons is grabbing more rebounds per trip than all but a handful of players in the country, and passing is still his most notable trait. There were the quick hands on defense and the one-step-ahead sight.
Simmons didn't need to dominate from start to finish as he did on Saturday. He finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds andthree assists against Kentucky. Ho-hum, as he goes.
Yet there was never any doubt who really was the best player in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Kentucky just played its worst game of the season
The 2015-16 season has been an uneven one for the Wildcats, who have shown they are capable of handling Duke and of getting handled by UCLA, of being outplayed by a struggling Ohio State team one week before a competent win over Louisville.
Tuesday night's performance managed to compress that bipolarity into 40 minutes:
Kentucky's first half was its worst of the season, and there's no close contest. It scored on 13 of its 37 possessions, turned the ball over nine times and shot 9-of-28 from the field, 3-of-11 from 3-point range and 6-of-14 from the free throw line. There was no movement, no flow, no play-to-play engagement. And that general ethos carried over to the defensive end, where LSU, despite hardly setting the world alight in its own right, couldn't help but find open perimeter looks and easy finishes around the rim. UK trailed 37-27 at the half despite Simmons, who picked up his second foul with nine minutes to play, sitting for all but eight minutes and scoring just two points.
The Wildcats weren't immediately better in the second half. Alex Poythress couldn't keep himself from committing needless fouls, picking up his fourth with just under 14 minutes left and his fifth at the 7:29 mark. But they were, eventually, much sharper, more aggressive and much more cohesive on the defensive end. LSU's lead dwindled accordingly. It appeared that the Kentucky team that looked so sound against a good, if not great, Louisville team was slowly but surely waking up. The breakthrough seemed imminent. And then, it just never came.
At halftime, Calipari assured the broadcast audience that Kentucky was OK -- look how bad it had played, and it was only down by 10. It was a positive thought. It didn't work out. Whatever minor signs UK showed in the second half were quickly swept away.
LSU looked better. Kentucky just looked normal.