SEC showdown for 1st place: USC, LSU to clash

LSU's Ben Simmons (25) leads the Tigers in scoring, rebounding, and assists, and is the likely No. 1 overall pick in this summer's NBA draft. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

He was an unknown back then, a ninth-grader from Australia playing one of his first games in the United States. But as Sindarus Thornwell and his teammates at Oak Hill Academy soon discovered, Ben Simmons wouldn’t remain an unknown for very long.

“No one knew who he was. No one on our team knew who he was. Our coach didn’t even know who he was,” recalled Thornwell, now a guard at South Carolina. “He just came out by surprise and started blocking and dunking. ... We were like, ‘Who is this kid?’ He impacted the game. If they didn’t have him, we would have won.”

Now everyone knows about Simmons, a 6-10 freshman at LSU, who arrives at USC on Wednesday as the SEC’s third-leading scorer and the likely No. 1 overall pick in this summer’s NBA draft. His visit adds another layer of luster to what’s already a big game, with sole possession of first place in the conference on the line at Colonial Life Arena.

Simmons, named first-team preseason All-SEC before he’d played one college game, has more than lived up to the hype. He’s shooting nearly 58 percent, despite taking 82 more field goal attempts than anyone else on LSU’s roster. He’s averaging 19.4 points, 12.3 rebounds and five assists per game, all team highs, and is as well-rounded a player as the league has seen in some time.

“He drives (the lane) like a professional, under control, surveying the court, and he’s dying to see where the help (defense) is coming from. ... He sees that help coming, he rarely passes it to the wrong guy. That’s the dilemma of it,” said Gamecocks coach Frank Martin.

“He’s a problem. He’s a problem. Because if you don’t help, a 6-foot-10 driver, slasher, highly-skilled guy becomes a problem to defend from a scoring perspective. If your help is undisciplined, he’ll make you pay every time.”

Simmons has been aided by a supporting cast that’s been reinforced since LSU lost at College of Charleston in November. The Tigers (15-8, 8-2 SEC) are 11-4 with both guard Keith Hornsby and forward Craig Victor, the former missing time with a hernia injury and the latter becoming eligible after transferring from Arizona.

But Simmons, a 225-pound point-forward who draws comparisons to the likes of LeBron James and Magic Johnson, makes it all tick. He’s been held to single-digits in scoring just once this season, and “is the most talented passer at his size that I’ve had to coach against,” said Martin, who faced the likes of Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin during his years at Kansas State.

“We’ll just try to disrupt him,” Thornwell said. “Guard him the best way we can. Don’t let him get a feel, and just do what we do. The only thing we can do is control what we can control, and that’s our effort in guarding him and making things difficult for him.”

There’s also a bigger picture to consider. Thanks to their upset Saturday at No. 15 Texas A&M, the Gamecocks (20-3, 7-3) enter Wednesday’s 7 p.m. contest one game behind the Tigers in the SEC standings, with a chance to seize first place with a head-to-head victory.

“We’re trying not to get excited, because it can always change,” Thornwell said. “We can always go into a slump, and momentum can switch. We try not to get big-headed or anything like that. We try to stay in the moment.”