Sindarius Thornwell remembers the first time he saw him. He and his teammates at Oak Hill were playing Montverde Academy, and Montverde trotted out some gangly sophomore at forward.
“No one knew who he was,” Thornwell said. “He started blocking and dunking … he was young, so he was doing what freshmen do. Effort plays – dunking, rebounding, blocking.
“We were like, ‘Who is this kid?’ If they didn’t have him, we’d have won.”
Three years later, a lot of Ben Simmons’ opponents are saying that. But he’s in an LSU uniform, biding his time until he will most likely be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA Draft, and that means South Carolina will be the latest team to try to shut down him and the red-hot Tigers.
LSU has won six of its past seven SEC games and is alone in first place, while the Gamecocks are in a three-way tie for second, one game behind. The Gamecocks (20-3, 7-3 SEC) know what an advantage they have – they’re coming off their biggest win in years, a road victory over then-No. 8 Texas A&M, and they get the Tigers (15-8, 8-2) at home, where they’ve yet to lose this year.
While Frank Martin and his players have not been ones to look ahead at what could be, Martin made it clear that everyone knows what Wednesday’s game means – first place.
It’s there to be had, but Simmons, the SEC’s top rebounder, third-best scorer and an athlete that is drawing comparisons to Magic Johnson, will have something to say about it. Like Johnson, Simmons is a tall guy who can play point guard – and the problems he causes defenses has USC in the same situation as his other opponents.
“Kevin Durant was an unbelievable matchup problem because of his size and his ability to shoot. Blake Griffin was a difficult matchup because he was an athletic bull,” Martin said, ticking off similar players to Simmons. “(Michael Beasley) was incredible. His ability to score inside-outside, using either hand, grab 15 rebounds a game, was just incredible.
“Simmons has a little bit of all those guys. And he’s the best passer of all those guys I just described.”
He’ll play up top, which brings USC’s defenders out of the lane to try to keep him from driving. If he gets past the first man, the Gamecocks’ helpers will have to make a decision – step in front to take a charge, but risk leaving their man open for one of Simmons’ passes.
USC’s had a lot of trouble guarding kick-out passes to 3-point shooters (94 allowed 3-pointers in 10 league games) but the Tigers are a middling 3-point team (33.7 percent, tied for seventh in the SEC). Still, it’s not just 3-point shooters Simmons can pass to – the Tigers are loaded with Keith Hornsby, Tim Quarterman, Craig Victor and Antonio Blakeney. They struggled in the non-conference season, but that was while Hornsby was hurt and Victor, an Arizona transfer, was ineligible.
Led by Simmons, LSU is clicking. The Gamecocks’ defense, designed to force the Tigers into something they don’t want to do, is again on call.
“I think it’s going to bother him a little bit,” forward Michael Carrera said. “We might have something for him.”
The Gamecocks, like LSU, are trying to lock down an NCAA tournament berth.
Being able to say they beat a top NBA draft pick would look awfully nice.
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The next LeBron James?
Some compare Ben Simmons to LeBron James, others mention Magic Johnson, Kevin Durant or Blake Griffin. A closer look at the phenom:
Hometown: Melbourne, Australia
High school: Montverde Academy (Fla.)
Ht./Wt.: 6-10, 240
Strengths: An extremely unique talent, combining size and strength, with point guard vision and passing skills ... Has the size and skill to defend and play all five positions in the NBA ... Attitude/character one of his greatest assets ... Huge hands.
Weaknesses: Despite being a good scorer, he lacks a reliable jumpshot ... He is an above average leaper with strength, but is a notch (or two) below LeBron as a physical specimen, not necessarily a weakness.
Tigers vs. Gamecocks
Who: LSU (15-8, 8-2 SEC) at USC (20-3, 7-3)
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
Tickets: Available at the box office
LSU’s probable starters: G Tim Quarterman 6-6 Jr. (11.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg); G Keith Hornsby 6-4 Sr. (13.4 ppg, 2. rpg); G Jalyn Patterson 6-1 So. (5.1 ppg, 1.6 rpg); F Craig Victor 6-9 So. (12.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg); F Ben Simmons 6-10 Fr. (19.4 ppg, 12.3 rpg)
South Carolina’s probable starters: G P.J. Dozier 6-6 Fr. (7.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg); G Sindarius Thornwell 6-5 Jr. (12.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg); F Mindaugas Kacinas 6-7 Sr. (10.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg); F Michael Carrera 6-5 Sr. (14.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg); C Chris Silva 6-9 Fr. (5.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg)
Next game: The Gamecocks host No. 22 Kentucky at noon on Saturday.