WITH SELECTION SUNDAY only days away, LSU's chances of reaching the NCAA tournament look about as good as the odds that freshman sensation Ben Simmons will return for another season in Baton Rouge. The Tigers' surest path to the Big Dance is to win this week's SEC tournament and earn the league's automatic bid. To do that they'll need to win three straight games in Nashville, something they haven't done since the calendar flipped to 2016. If they fail, Simmons, who has been compared to LeBron James since his days at Montverde (Fla.) Academy, will likely conclude his collegiate career in the NIT.
Will that harm Simmons's chances of being the first player selected in June's NBA draft? Since the 2005--06 season, the first for which the NBA's one-and-done rule was in effect, eight freshmen have been the No. 1 pick. Each one had played in the NCAA tournament, with four reaching the Final Four, and one, Kentucky center Anthony Davis in 2011--12, leading his team to the national championship. Both Memphis guard Derrick Rose in 2008 and Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns last year used NCAA tournament performances that were superior to their regular season play to help vault themselves ahead of fellow freshmen challengers and become the No. 1 picks in the draft.
"Normally, if you're good enough to go No. 1 overall, you elevate your team to the tournament," says an NBA scout. "Being a winner is important."
For much of the past two seasons Simmons, a 6'10", 240-pound point forward, has been the No. 1-in-waiting. The Melbourne, Australia, native was the consensus top prospect coming out of high school, according to rscihoops.com, and he has done nothing to diminish that exalted status. He has recorded 21 double doubles at LSU—best among major-conference players—and is averaging 19.6 points and 11.9 rebounds per game. But the Tigers' struggles this season—they're 18--13 overall and 11--7 in the SEC, and they have not been ranked since late November—has allowed a star from a contending team to emerge as a candidate for the first pick: Duke freshman forward Brandon Ingram.
Ingram and Simmons have disparate styles. Simmons has superior court vision, is a terror in transition and has a precocious feel for the game. The 6'9", 190-pound Ingram has more modest numbers than Simmons—he averages 16.7 points and 6.8 rebounds—but he boasts something Simmons sorely lacks: a reliable jump shot. Simmons has only taken three three-pointers this season (making one), while Ingram has been a 40.0% shooter on 5.3 attempts per game. In the modern NBA, where three-point shooting is more frequent and more important than ever, Ingram's jumper elevates his stock.
While the Tigers have struggled, the Blue Devils have surged. After falling out of the AP Top 25 in February for the first time since 2007, Duke won seven of its next 10 games and projects as a top five seed in the NCAA tournament. Once there, Ingram will have a chance to showcase his skills on college basketball's brightest stage and against some of its best competition.
"Any time you get a chance to play in the biggest games, it's going to help you," says Jonathan Givony, who runs the NBA draft website draftexpress.com. "Simmons is probably the favorite to go No. 1, but people who are saying it's a consensus don't really understand how this process works."
Neither Givony nor the two NBA scouts who spoke to SI said that they would be surprised if Ingram ended up leapfrogging Simmons in June. After all, if the NCAA tournament has a reputation for anything, it's for producing unexpected results.
While Ben Simmons looks headed for the NIT, Ingram will have a chance to showcase his skills on college basketball's brightest stage.
LANCE KING/GETTY IMAGES