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The Ben Simmons bump?

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Ben Simmons' long-term LSU impact (3:06)

Recruiting reporter Jeff Borzello joins ESPN's Phil Murphy to discuss the precedent of a transcendent recruit joining a program outside college basketball's top, top tier and leaving for the NBA after one season. (3:06)

David Patrick was driving to work last Tuesday when he turned on one of the local sports stations. The hosts were discussing LSU's basketball team, which was playing Wake Forest that night.

In many college markets around the country, that would be the norm. But it struck Patrick, the fourth-year LSU assistant, as surprising for one reason: LSU's football team had a bowl game on Tuesday night.

Sure, the Tigers were only 8-3 this season and were playing in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl, but still, they're a top-25 team and one of the best football programs in the country. Yet the topic of discussion during most of Patrick's drive was LSU's basketball program.

The school even moved up the time of LSU's game against Wake Forest so fans could go watch the basketball team and still get home in time to watch most of the football game.

"That would never happen two years ago," Patrick said. "I don't know if that happens without Ben [Simmons]."

The story of Ben Simmons going to LSU is well-known at this point. The Australia native first burst onto the basketball scene back in 2012 at a basketball camp in California, then came over to the United States to live on a permanent basis in 2013. He played at Montverde Academy in Florida for two-and-a-half seasons, committing to LSU early in his junior year of high school.

Simmons chose the Tigers over the likes of Kentucky, Kansas and Duke, but LSU had the biggest connection of any school in the country: Simmons' godfather is Patrick, who has known Simmons' father since Patrick was 13 years old. Patrick joined head coach Johnny Jones' staff at LSU in 2012.

"If he wasn't here, I wouldn't be here," Simmons told ESPN.com last summer. "It's family to me. People say that, and I say, 'Yeah, I chose here because my family is here.'"

Simmons, the consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2015 class, picking LSU instead of one of the nation's bluebloods grabbed plenty of attention, and the 6-10 point forward ended up as the focal point for the country's No. 3-ranked recruiting class. Fellow five-star prospect Antonio Blakeney and top-50 prospect Brandon Sampson followed Simmons, as did Arizona transfer Craig Victor.

The expected breakout season for LSU hasn't exactly transpired thus far -- the Tigers sit at 8-5 -- but Simmons has cemented himself as the clear No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft. He's averaging 20.5 points, 13.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists through 13 games, including an unbelievable performance against North Florida: 43 points on 15-for-20 shooting, 14 rebounds, seven assists, three blocks, five steals. Simmons' first career SEC game was nearly as impressive: 36 points, 14 rebounds and four assists in a road win at Vanderbilt.

"I think the national perception has been great," Jones said. "I think he's done a tremendous job in terms of handling it."

Despite the team's struggles on the court, Simmons' impact on the basketball program as a whole is already apparent. The Tigers are being discussed on a nightly basis -- and they're working to make sure that continues once Simmons leaves.


Transcendent recruits, unheralded programs

When measuring the potential impact a consensus No. 1 prospect can have on a typically less-than-elite program like LSU, you'd be wise to consult history. Except that there isn't much to consult.

You can go back to Kevin Durant (No. 2) committing to Texas in 2006, but the Longhorns had reeled in three five-star-caliber players in the two prior classes, and Rick Barnes and T.J. Ford had led them to a Final Four in 2003, so there was some pedigree.

Perhaps the best, and most recent, proxy is eventual No. 1 NBA draft pick Anthony Bennett committing to UNLV back in 2012. Bennett wasn't the consensus No. 1 prospect in the class (No. 7 at ESPN) and he's nowhere close to Simmons' talent level, but he was among the best prospects in the country and chose the Runnin' Rebels over Kentucky, Florida, Oregon and others.

The comparison goes a little further, too.

LSU has made four Final Four appearances, with the last one coming in 2006 and two appearances coming in the 1980s. The Tigers haven't won a national championship, but they've had quite a few NBA players come through Baton Rouge. There was also a high point in 1991, when Shaquille O'Neal won national player of the year honors. LSU has had four first-round picks since 1993.

UNLV has also made four Final Four appearances, with a title coming home to the desert in 1990. Interestingly enough, the Runnin' Rebels also had their last national player of the year in 1991, with Larry Johnson winning the honors. Prior to Bennett, UNLV had only one first-round pick since 2000.

"Parents and AAU coaches, they remember Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson," UNLV coach Dave Rice said. "They knew the glory days of the '90s. Once we had the No. 1 pick, now kids did."

What do the next few years have in store for LSU? We can look at the UNLV program post-Bennett for some potential guidance.

Since Bennett, Rice and the Runnin' Rebels have reeled in eight ESPN 100 prospects, including five-star recruits Rashad Vaughn, Goodluck Okonoboh and Stephen Zimmerman. UNLV is recruiting on a national scale, going well outside the West Coast for high-level prospects. Okonoboh was from New England, top-40 prospect Dwayne Morgan was from Baltimore, top-five small forward Derrick Jones is a Philadelphia native and top-50 2016 prospect Jaylen Fisher hails from just outside Memphis.

Rice has also essentially built a fence around Findlay Prep -- Bennett's high school -- and Bishop Gorman, keeping Christian Wood, Rashad Vaughn, Stephen Zimmerman and Justin Jackson in the state. Only Zimmerman is a native of Vegas, but landing prospects once they enter Nevada for high school is huge for the program.

"Once you get that first guy that becomes not only a top pick, but the No. 1 pick, it makes the next guy that much easier," Rice said. "[Kids ask], 'If I come to UNLV, can I be a first-round pick?' Well, we had the No. 1 pick. It takes away any argument.

"He didn't come to us as the No. 1 pick in the draft," he continued. "He breaks out his freshman season, plays 35 games for us. It helped our brand and helped us recruiting for years to come."

LSU hasn't suddenly picked up commitments from multiple five-star prospects since Simmons' signature, but there has been a clear impact. Blakeney (No. 15) and Sampson (No. 39) both joined the Tigers' 2015 class well after Simmons' commitment, as did Victor, who played sparingly at Arizona but is averaging 14.0 points and 4.8 rebounds through four games in Baton Rouge.

In the 2016 class, LSU was one of the finalists for elite guard De'Aaron Fox (No. 7), who eventually committed to Kentucky. The Tigers also pursued the likes of Jonathan Isaac (No. 9) and Mario Kegler (No. 32), players who ended up at Florida State and Mississippi State, respectively.

With that said, Jones and his staff cultivated a five-man recruiting class, with the entire quintet signing during the early period. Four-star Skylar Mays and three-star Wayde Sims are the lone high school prospects, but they also picked up junior college transfers Duop Reath and Branden Jenkins as well as Australia native Keiran Heyward.

"Duop is one of the top junior college players in the country," Brad Winton of JUCORecruiting.com said. "Jenkins is not too far behind. Both have a chance to be impact guys next year."

"This was the first time we've been able to sign five early," Patrick said. "That came with the momentum of our [2015] recruiting class, with Ben being on the icing on the cake. The attraction of having the No. 1 player in the country come to LSU makes it somewhat cool to at least look at it. That doesn't happen a year ago without Ben. It's easier to pick up and call kids throughout the country. We resonate as a basketball school, not just a football school."

Like UNLV with Bennett, it helps that LSU isn't coming completely out of nowhere on the national basketball scene. The Tigers have six players currently in the NBA and have had at least one player drafted in nine of the past 10 years. Simmons was the fourth McDonald's All-American to commit to LSU in the past five years, joining Blakeney, Jarell Martin and Johnny O'Bryant III.

"Add Ben being the No. 1 player on top of those McDonald's All-Americans, it helps bring down the barrier of 'Can you make it from LSU?'" Patrick said. "The younger generation is able to tie those guys with Ben, and when we sit at the table and discuss ex-LSU players, we can talk about LSU being a tradition."

The real payoff for LSU could come in the next few years, much like it did for UNLV. Both 2016 commits came from the state of Louisiana, and there are plenty of intriguing prospects that Jones is looking to keep home. It already worked for three-star junior Cedric Russell, who committed to the Tigers more than a year ago.

ESPN 60 forward Galen Alexander leads a solid group of juniors from Louisiana, joined by the likes of guard Josh Anderson and forward Brandon Rachal. There's also a major prize in the 2018 class, with elite guard Javonte Smart hailing from Scotlandville Magnet High School in Baton Rouge. LSU is doing its best to keep Smart -- and the other top prospects -- home for college.

Combined with the national reach of Simmons' hype, LSU is hoping for consistently bright days on the recruiting trail.

"The state of Louisiana has very good young talent coming through, that [in the past] might have left the state," Patrick said. "With Ben Simmons here, these freshmen and sophomores are able to come see him play and see us play. I'm trying to keep these guys home.

"Coast to coast, AAU or high school coaches might have a sophomore that likes LSU. I think it helps that we're on ESPN, Plays of the Week, something mentioned about LSU basketball or Ben Simmons. Every night we play is coming across the ticker, and kids are able to see us every night on their television screen."

There's a key difference between Bennett and Simmons, too -- at least from LSU's perspective. Bennett has struggled since entering the NBA, and was even the first No. 1 pick to play in the NBA Development League. Bennett going to UNLV might not resonate with prospective recruits too much longer, so the Runnin' Rebels will need their recent five-star prospects to pick up the slack. Simmons seems like a shoo-in to be an NBA star and his presence should help the Tigers' brand for a longer period of time.


'Football school' seeks dedicated hoops fans

The LSU marketing department began discussing their plans for the 2015-16 sports season in February, and they knew Ben Simmons would be a major part of the upcoming campaigns.

Eventually the idea of "25/7" was formed, representing the extra effort LSU student-athletes are putting in. It wasn't hard to figure out the next layer of it, though: 25 is Simmons' number and 7 is the number of Leonard Fournette, the star LSU running back who last week scored five touchdowns in the Tigers' bowl game to cap a season in which he ran for nearly 2,000 yards.

Fournette is a player whom Alabama head coach Nick Saban called "one of the best running backs we'd ever seen" back in October -- and Simmons was placed alongside Fournette to promote LSU athletics. The Tigers clearly knew what they had in Simmons.

"I think when they get those top recruits, when they step on campus, we give them everything possible to give them the opportunity to have success," deputy director of athletics Eddie Nunez said. "And not just them, their team. Our approach was to give him a spotlight."

"It shows that there is a strength here in the athletic department, when you have someone as special as Leonard Fournette, someone as special as Ben Simmons," Nunez added, also mentioning LSU baseball player Alex Bregman, who was the No. 2 pick in the 2015 MLB draft.

The "25/7" marketing push kicked off with the "25 is Coming" campaign, which put the focus squarely on Simmons. It was a season-ticket-sales campaign that was "featured throughout the Baton Rouge community via print, billboard, online and social media advertising," according to a school release back in May.

"When you have, and not just Ben, any time you have players of that caliber coming into your program, with the build-up and the excitement that accompanied Ben, fans are already hyped up," said Matthew Shanklin, the assistant athletic director of marketing at LSU. "You want to incorporate those ideas into your messaging."

Through the first half of the season, there has been a clear boost in attendance. Last season, LSU ranked No. 50 nationally in attendance, bringing an average of 8,897 people to home games. The eight home games in November and December averaged 10,134 people per game.

Moreover, keep in mind these games were against the likes of McNeese State, Kennesaw State, South Alabama, North Florida, Gardner-Webb, Oral Roberts and American. The lone home game against a team ranked in the top 140 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings was in late December against Wake Forest.

"I think one of the main things that you look at: One, we came off of a NCAA tournament, first time since 2009," Jones said. "I think you put that along with the top recruiting class and then the No. 1 high school player in the country, helped us sell more season tickets than they have over the last 20 years. Their opening night crowd was the biggest since Shaq's first game of his last season here. So It's created an environment, a nice buzz, especially here in Baton Rouge."

Life on the road has also been an adjustment for the Tigers.

"When we travel, we have security this year," Patrick said. "Because of the fans waiting in hotels, we can't get out of shootarounds. That's been different. Since we got here, until now, [the increase in interest] has been phenomenal."

It's hard to argue that Simmons, and the marketing campaign focused on him, isn't directly responsible for the bump in attention and attendance. He's the biggest story in college basketball, and people are coming out to see him.

"Over the course of time, the type of hype is different," Shanklin said. "With Ben, because of what he did on the high school level, it carried forward more than the other players. ESPN [made] Ben the centerpiece of everything they did on the high school level. ... It's not just what LSU did, it's what everybody did. It was a different scenario; he had already been plastered everywhere."

Nunez added: "Anything we do with basketball is heightened just because of Ben Simmons. In the past, we've done campaigns, but this kid is just a special kid. The extra attention, it's great for the program, great for the national media. Great for everybody."


How not to capitalize: The LSU story

Of course, LSU has been in this position before -- and wasn't able to capitalize on the success of its individual players. Going deep into the Tigers' history, Pete Maravich was one of the best college players of all time and Bob Pettit was considered one of the five best players in the NBA for a decade.

More recently, the early '90s saw LSU and head coach Dale Brown have two of the best college players of the time period. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (known as Chris Jackson in college) was a two-time All-American and averaged more than 30 points per game as a freshman. He was chosen No. 3 in the 1990 draft. Perhaps the most celebrated name in LSU history is Shaquille O'Neal. He won national player of the year honors in college, was the No. 1 pick and was the face of the NBA for a time after Michael Jordan retired. In fact, Abdul-Rauf and O'Neal played on the same 1989-90 team as eventual first-round picks Stanley Roberts and Geert Hammink, as well as McDonald's All-American Jamie Brandon.

"I think [the expectation] was, 'This is the year, we got the national championship,'" Brown said of the star-studded 1989-90 team that went an underachieving 23-9 and bowed out in the Round of 32. "Bear Bryant was the master at diminishing the upcoming season and the talent; I embraced it. But when you don't win the title, it's a failure. That's the way the system is."

Focusing more on the latter two, there wasn't a significant bump from getting Jackson and O'Neal. LSU never made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament during O'Neal's career, and after making it in 1993 -- the year after O'Neal left -- the Tigers went through a six-year NCAA tournament drought. In fact, Brown went just 67-79 in the five years following O'Neal's career before retiring in 1997.

To be fair, there was certainly a recruiting boost. No. 1 point guard prospect Randy Livingston and No. 1 shooting guard prospect Ronnie Henderson entered the fold in 1993, but Livingston played only 29 games over three seasons due to injuries, while Henderson fell to the late second round of the 1996 NBA draft despite first-team All-SEC campaigns in 1995 and 1996. There was also elite local prospect Lester Earl, who played only 11 games at LSU before being kicked off the team and transferring to Kansas. (As an aside, Earl also accused an LSU assistant coach of making cash payments to him while in high school. The NCAA cleared the assistant of violations. That assistant? Johnny Jones.)

There's clearly a gap in the domino effect between a No. 1 pick and consistency in the win column. It's not enough just to get a top prospect and hope it magically turns into multiple five-star recruits and then wins and championships. Circling back to UNLV, despite an influx of talented prep prospects, the Runnin' Rebels haven't made the NCAA tournament since Bennett went to the NBA and are just 47-30 in the two-and-a-half years since he left.

In a conversation recently, Brown recalled meeting with legendary UCLA coach John Wooden for four days in 1972 when he picked Wooden's mind on everything in the sport. The main thing Brown remembered were the three keys on being a successful coach. The first was practice simplicity with repetition, and the third was not to try to be a coaching genius.

The second? You must have superior players to everybody -- with a caveat.

"But all of those players should put the team above themselves," Brown said. "They can destroy a team if they don't. That's true about great players. Great players that put the team above themselves are superstars, but there are stars where statistics mean more [to them] than the team."

In other words, stockpiling elite five-star prospects is great for headlines -- but you need the right mix of chemistry and talent in order to be successful.


Winning helps too

The Ben Simmons era at LSU has been a mixed bag thus far. Simmons has solidified himself as the No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft, increasing the gap between him and everyone else since the beginning of the season. He's having a historically good season from an individual standpoint.

On the other hand, Simmons' individual success hasn't resulted in wins too often this season. The Tigers are off to their worst start since 2010-11, a season in which LSU finished 11-21 overall and 3-13 in the SEC.

Normally, LSU struggling to start the season wouldn't draw too many eyeballs. But because of Simmons, the Tigers' slow nonconference has been discussed as one of the bigger disappointments in college basketball.

"The wins and losses are so much more than they have been in the past for us," Patrick said. "They don't care that you don't have guys or guys are out. They think, 'When you have the No. 1 prospect in the country, you're supposed to win every night.'"

With a healthy Keith Hornsby and an eligible Craig Victor, the Tigers were starting to turn things around before last week's loss to Wake Forest -- but this season is about more than that. The hope is that Simmons will be meaningful to LSU for more than just one season -- even if he's expected to leave for the NBA in another three months.

From a recruiting standpoint, from a marketing standpoint, from an athletic department standpoint, this season can be looked at as a year-long sales pitch that began last spring.

"It shows that it's possible here," Nunez said. "We have all the resources to be successful here. We've had individuals that have gone to the NBA and had success. The success is there, and it has the opportunity to continue that success."

LSU is doing everything it can to capitalize on the momentum of Ben Simmons, but will the Tigers be able to build off the hype? The next few years will tell.