There are a ton of great freshmen in college basketball. Derryck Thornton and Brandon Ingram at Duke, Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere in Kentucky, Cal's Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown, Diamond Stone at Maryland, and Villanova's Jaylen Brunson are just a few of the diaper dandies expected to make a huge impact on the game and their teams this season.
Last night, we got an opportunity to see two of the top freshmen in the game go head-to-head. Sure, Duke vs. Kentucky gave us our first look at some of the much-hyped newcomers doing battle on the same court. But away from the spotlight onto the blue blood programs, last night’s Marquette-LSU game showcased two of the best freshmen in the country.
Marquette won a thrilling game against the newly ranked Tigers, 81-80, as Jajuan Johnson hit two free throws with 10 seconds left to give the Golden Eagles the victory. It was a huge win for Marquette, who were stunned by Belmont in the season opener and were coming off a trouncing at the hands of Iowa. It was the type of win that can help get the season back on track, and a signature win that will loom large come March, when Marquette will more than likely be sitting on the bubble.
Beyond the fact that it was a great game, there was the added treat of being able to watch LSU’s Ben Simmons and Marquette’s Henry Ellenson square off against one another. Neither would disappoint.
Simmons was the number 1 ranked player in the ESPN 100 and has been getting a ton of publicity, deservedly so. Ellenson has gotten considerably less fanfare, but was ranked 5 on the same ESPN 100 list. On the season, Simmons is averaging 19.3 points, 14.5 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game, while Ellenson is putting up 14.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.3 assists.
Simmons, as he has been doing all season, did a little bit of everything. He put up a monster line of 21 points, 20 rebounds, and 7 assists. He finishes around the rim, which you expect from a guy who is 6-10, but his other skills are mind-blowing considering his size.
We heard coming into the season about his guard-like skills, but words don’t do justice to what this kid can do on the basketball court. He routinely brings the ball up the court after a rebound, a huge advantage for LSU in the transition game. He has the ability to break down his defender off the dribble, getting into the lane where he either finds a high percentage shot for himself or kicks the ball out to an open man on the perimeter. In addition to his drive-and-kick ability, he can make fantastic passes in traffic in the post or from out near the three-point arc. Last night he threw a beautiful lob on a backdoor cut for an alley-oop.
Simmons has great vision, and has patience and knowledge beyond his years. He knows when to pull up and when to slow things down in order to reset the offense. And 9 out of 10 times, he's making the right play, whether that's taking a shot or finding the appropriate teammate. He seems to have all the tools. It is an absolute joy to watch him play basketball, this 6-10 giant with the skills of a 6-2 guard.
He did have one hiccup, which unfortunately for LSU came on the game’s final possession.
Simmons had the ball to the left of the key and drove to the basket. When a defender collapsed, he kicked the ball to the wing, the correct play. After Marquette quickly recovered, Simmons received a return pass at the high post. Here he chose to swing the ball to the other side of the key, rather than attacking the rim. Some have suggested this hints at a LeBron-esqe tendency to over-pass in the clutch, but I think it’s more just a young player learning end-of-game situations. It certainly doesn’t take away from what he did in this game or has been doing this entire season.
Meanwhile, Ellenson was not to be outdone on the other side. He put up a line of 16 points on 55% shooting, including 2 of 2 from three while pulling down 11 rebounds. Also at 6-10, he doesn’t possess the ballhandling or passing skills that Simmons does, though both skills are still are pretty good for a guy his size. Yet, his shooting touch is more refined, and he has the ability to step out beyond the arc and be a threat to hit a three. Unfortunately, he fouled out and was not on the floor for the final few critical possessions, but he is a very good player in his own right, and should be huge for Marquette as the season goes on.
It was an incredible game, and it was fascinating to watch these two great players ply their trade against one another, comparing their similarities and differences. Most importantly it was fun, and that’s what sports are all about.
Josh Naso aka The Silver Fox has a love for all things sports that borders on disorder. Here, he aims to share his thoughts on and passion for those sports with you.