The College of Charleston student section started chanting “O-VER-RAY-TED” early Monday night inside the TD Arena.
They directed the words at LSU phenom Ben Simmons, the No. 1 recruit in the 2015 class and a projected lottery pick in next June’s draft, as he struggled through his first college game on an opponent’s campus.
Simmons missed 11 of 15 shots and committed seven turnovers, tarnishing a 15-point, 18-rebound double-double. The Tigers dug a double-digit deficit hole in the opening 10 minutes, trailed by 22 points at halftime, threatened late but lost to the Cougars 70-58.
“They just outplayed us,” Simmons said afterward. “They played with more heart. They were the better team tonight and I think they showed that.”
A near-capacity, raucous crowd of 4,761 fans came to see their beloved Cougars, who have shown signs of promise early this season. But also to watch a player pundits have compared to LeBron James, among others. Boisterous students formed a sea of maroon behind LSU’s second-half basket and bench. They waved the requisite oversized cutouts - Ron Burgundy’s face, a large brick, a spinning dizzy kaleidoscope of black-and-white - as Simmons and his teammates shot free throws.
It was a different scene for LSU early in the season.
The Tigers opened with three games at home in Baton Rouge, then dropped two on a neutral court in Brooklyn last week. They have only two road games on their nonconference schedule. Still, Simmons understands that his talent and reputation make him the object of opposing fans’ attention. The crowds will only be larger and louder later this season in Fayetteville, Gainesville and Lexington.
“I don’t really pay too much attention to it,” Simmons said. “I’ve just got to focus like I do on the court. It’s going to happen everywhere, I’ve been getting it a lot. It’s just a game to me I don’t care where I’m playing as long as I’m playing.”
On Monday night, there were at least 10 NBA scouts seated on the baseline inside the arena in beautiful historic downtown Charleston. Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho was among them. They saw a forgettable performance from Simmons, who last week against Marquette became only the fifth college player in the last 20 years to have a 20 point / 20 rebound game.
Simmons, 6-10, 240-pounds with long arms and strong shoulders, has a body built for basketball. He possesses the open floor vision of a point guard and rebounding tenacity of a Rodman.
“I think it was (former NFL coach) Bum Phillips a long time ago talking about Earl Campbell, and he said, ‘He may not be in a class by himself, but it doesn’t take long to call the roll,'” LSU coach Johnny Jones told the Sporting News recently. “Ben is one of those guys. In years to come, people will be comparing other players to his style of play.”
Simmons hit a 3-pointer - his first attempt of the season - from the right wing on the Tigers’ opening possession. But his next attempt suggested what kind of night awaited. It missed the basket by three feet long and left. He remained aggressive, accounted for one-fourth of the Tigers’ field goal attempts, yet rushed and forced attempts in the lane.
In one first half exchange, promising C of C freshman Nick Harris blocked Simmons, ran the floor and scored on a follow dunk. If Simmons does end up a multiple NBA All-Star, Harris will have a tale to tell his grandkids.
The Cougars also harassed Simmons in the open floor, following coach Earl Grant’s directive to keep six hands around him at all times. He entered the game with six turnovers in 172 minutes but committed one every six minutes against C of C.
As the final buzzer sounded, the students stormed the court and celebrated at midcourt. They joined Grant and his players, who were arm-in-arm, swaying and singing to the school’s alma mater. Folks wondered where this win ranked in the program’s history of significant upsets. Fans spilled onto King Street, buzzing with joy.
LSU talked about finding energy and playing for 40 minutes. Simmons’ postgame comments were terse and blunt. Losing three games in a row was not what he expected during his only year in college and he said the Tigers needed to play harder, and with more energy.
“But we just need to do it and stop talking about it,” he said.
The game was not an accurate reflection of Simmons ability. And it’s certainly unfair to project anyone’s professional potential based on 40 minutes. But it proved yet again that the first college road trip can get the best of any freshman.