Here is a thing that is true: On Tuesday night, when he walked on the Maravich Assembly Center floor in Baton Rouge, La., LSU freshman Ben Simmons had, in his first 11 games, averaged 13.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists.
Here is another thing that is true, per ESPN Stats and Information: No college basketball player has averaged 13.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists for a full season in the past 20 years.
Here is another thing that is true: Simmons also averaged 19.1 points per game in those first 11 games.
Here's another: On Tuesday night, when Simmons walked off the Maravich Assembly Center floor, his team was 7-5.
Here are a few more: That 7-5 record was amassed against a schedule well outside the top 200 in the RPI strength of schedule math. Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency formula ranks the Tigers' schedule 316th. There are 351 Division I college basketball teams. LSU has yielded .992 points per possession to that schedule. LSU's "best" win came against Oral Roberts. LSU's second-"best" win was over North Florida. LSU's RPI is in the mid-100s.
Which brings us, finally, to one last thing that is true: LSU just isn't good.
This is worth pointing out because Simmons' talent is genuinely blinding, and it obscures more than his own defensive flaws. This week will be a perfect example. On Saturday, LSU will open its SEC campaign at Vanderbilt. In the next few days folks will tick off the various structural exterior challenges ahead: The Tigers' soft schedule, their lack of quality wins, the SEC's so-so start, how losses have chipped away at the restorative possibilities of having Vanderbilt and Kentucky on your schedule, the bad luck of drawing those teams so early in the SEC season (the Tigers host Kentucky on Tuesday) and how that timing creates even more pressure. Folks like us will assert that the Tigers need to take advantage of these opportunities, that they need to beef up their NCAA tournament résumé now, that Jan. 30's home date versus Oklahoma could prove massive.
Underneath it all will be subconscious expectation: A team with a star like Simmons will eventually, somehow, figure things out. A guy like this can't miss the NCAA tournament. It just doesn't compute.
Except that right now, none of that stuff matters. Because right now, LSU just isn't good.
If it wasn't for Simmons' presumed place as the 2016 NBA draft's No. 1 pick, if he wasn't so individually brilliant and historically productive, no one would consider the Tigers in the context of the NCAA tournament. Johnny Jones' team would be just another ho-hum 7-5 squad with a few strengths and many flaws and a nonexistent at-large profile, another innocuous team likely headed to the NIT. If it wasn't for Simmons, LSU wouldn't be noteworthy at all.
Simmons is there, though, and that makes LSU's start doubly noteworthy. It leads to bizarre, cognitively dissonant questions: When was the last time the top overall pick didn't play in the NCAA tournament a few months before he was drafted? When was the last time the top draftee ended his career having never gone to the Big Dance? When was the last time a head coach ended a season more certain about his star player's No. 1-overall status than the security of his own job?
That's where this is headed. Does that mean it can't change? No. LSU could improve mightily in the next few months. Why not? It could pull an even more extreme reprise of Kentucky in 2013-14 and figure things out, like, a few days before the start of the SEC tournament. It could topple a banged-up Vanderbilt in Nashville on Saturday, and upset a beatable Kentucky team on Tuesday. This time next week we could be talking about the Tigers' stunning turnaround. No possibility seems too strange.
But right now? When you strip out everything you know about LSU's best player, and shed all the unspoken baseline assumptions therein, and you just take the Tigers for what they are at this moment, you get a questionably coached team that looks disjointed and disorganized against even semi-competent opponents. You get sporadic, easily exploited defense. You get poor rebounding and worse outside shooting. You get zero counters to create spacing or minimize the Tigers' well-known weaknesses in the key moments of close games. You get seven unremarkable wins and five bad losses. You get a team projected to end Simmons' lone season with a 14-17 record.
You get a team whose biggest problem is not RPI calculations or top-50 wins or conference strength but the much simpler truth that it just isn't very good at basketball.
"Don't get it twisted: Buddy Hield can still shoot the ball. He's essentially the best high-volume shooter in power conference college basketball this year, making 52.9 percent of the 6.4 3's he's attempting per game. The difference for Hield as a senior is that he can score in other ways, and it's making his 3-point shot more effective than ever. A year ago, Hield took only 29.9 percent of his shots at the rim (per Hoop-Math) while jacking 7.4 3's per game at a 35.9 percent clip. This season, 44.7 percent of his shots are at the rim, and he's upped his conversation rate from 55.7 to 61.2 in the process.
Virginia fan "eatapenny" commemorates the two-year anniversary of what he and other Hoos fans apparently refer to as "The Tennessee Game", 2013's 87-52 home loss to the Volunteers, and the fabled Joe Harris-Tony Bennett summit that followed. Since then, the reigning back-to-back ACC champs have lost exactly eight times in 69 games -- and by the same combined margin (35 points) as that loss to Tennessee. Wild.
Fun fact: South Carolina's men's AND women's basketball teams are undefeated. Also kind of wild!