There is good news, though not written in stone, for college basketball fans who like seeing the best players in the nation playing in the NCAA Tournament in March instead of lesser tournaments, or ...gulp... sitting at home.
LSU is trending toward inclusion in the field as we approach the end of January. Of course, that means Ben Simmons, the best freshman in the nation and a young man expected to be selected first in the NBA draft this summer, looks like he'll get a chance to make a run in the tournament with the Tigers.
Simmons scored 22 points and grabbed 14 rebounds but failed to dish an assist for the first time in his college career Tuesday night as LSU held on in the final minute to beat Georgia 89-85, improving to 13-7 overall and 6-2 in the SEC. Tim Quarterman also scored 22 for LSU and he and Simmons combined to get to the free throw line for 36 attempts, making just 23.
Let's be clear, LSU hasn't been the model of consistency this season. It's a very young team. So some of that is to be expected. It's still possible Simmons & Co. stumble and find themselves left out of the only tournament that really matters two months from now. They came very close to another ugly blemish on the resume Tuesday by squandering all but one point of a 14-point lead in the final 2 minutes, 30 seconds.
They certainly can't afford too many more losses and they don't figure to be a high seed unless a long stretch of wins is on the way. So far they haven't managed more than a three-game winning streak.
But the Tigers have a manageable schedule following this Saturday's home game with No. 1 Oklahoma and Player of the Year frontrunner Buddy Hield. The game against the Sooners is a huge opportunity for Simmons and his teammates to show they belong in the field and they don't necessariy need an upset to do that.It's also possible that the nation will be treated to a game featuring the top two selections in this summer's draft.
When it's over, the Tigers have a lot of winnable games remaining in what is shaping up as a down year in the SEC.
There have been times this season when it has been fair to wonder whether Simmons will get to experience March Madness. Watching the Tigers lose four of five in late-November and early December comes to mind. Lately, this team seems to be finding ways to win close games, even games that are closer than they needed to be like Tuesday.
Each of the Tigers past three victories has come by four points or less. If nothing else, at least Simmons and his teammates are making it interesting as we move into the months when more and more people start paying attention to college basketball.
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