To the casual American sports fan, Ben Simmons might indeed represent a ratings magnet for ESPN, thereby convincing the WorldWide Leader to broadcast a disproportionate amount of LSU basketball games this season.
It’s been rather conspicuous over the past month: Not only do commentators reserve a ton of airtime for Simmons, but ESPN does as well.
Yes, let’s not deny the obvious: Simmons is talked about to the exclusion or diminishment of other topics and individuals.
Buddy Hield is the favorite for NPOY, and had 11 points. Ben Simmons had 4 points. Halftime mentions: Simmons ~ 14, Hield = 0.
— Jeff (BPredict) (@BPredict) January 30, 2016
Yet, that’s just part of the story.
Not only are more words uttered about Simmons on ESPN broadcasts; ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU are making sure that Simmons receives those platforms, as opposed to the more niche programming slot found on SEC Network.
Since LSU began its SEC season on January 2 with a win at Vanderbilt, the Tigers have been on SEC Network only once: Jan. 16 against Arkansas. Every other game has landed on the mother ship, the deuce, or the U, save for a CBS game against Florida on Jan. 9.
Casual fans might not mind the Simmons avalanche, but for those who relish regular-season college basketball and want the biggest games on the most accessible networks (ACC markets sometimes have regional games pre-empted or otherwise re-directed, for example), LSU is certainly occupying way more airtime than its results and stature deserve. Fans hate it when a network or corporate entity tries to shove a product down their throat. Such is (and has been) the case with ESPN and Ben Simmons this season — not just in terms of the content of commentary, but in terms of the frequency with which LSU gets ESPN telecasts, relative to SEC Network games.
(Side note: LSU has 10 games left before the SEC Tournament. Five will be on a higher-tier ESPN family channel, three on SEC Net, two on CBS.)
Given the concerted attempt by an entrenched media juggernaut to force us to watch one product, it’s disappointing enough that LSU basketball has fallen short. However, the story of Ben Simmons (poorly served by Johnny Jones, it must be emphasized) is not the only thing you need to know about this LSU season.
In order to understand why this winter of college basketball in Baton Rouge is even more exasperating and excruciating than you think it is, you need to examine the whole of the SEC.
It’s true that South Carolina — expected to be better, but not THIS much better — has been a pleasant surprise in the 2016 SEC. It’s also true that no one should be surprised by the struggles of Arkansas, given the losses of Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls plus the offseason incidents which hampered the team’s attempt to rebuild. Yet, even when accounting for that surprise in Columbia and that “we already knew this would be bad” reality in Fayetteville, the SEC has disappointed this season.
Georgia, an NCAA tournament team last season (albeit because Mark Fox gamed the RPI), is not going to be an at-large team this season. Ole Miss will not repeat as an at-large team, wasting the talents of Stefan Moody. Kentucky could be a dangerous team in the NCAA tournament, but the Wildcats are staring at a non-protected seed (in other words, lower than 4). That’s not a typical Big Blue season. Then comes Vanderbilt, easily one of the three most disappointing teams in the country, rivaled by North Carolina State and these very same LSU Tigers we’ve been talking about.
That last sentence begins to underscore the larger reality engulfing Bayou Bengal basketball this season.
When one conference has two of the three most disappointing teams in the nation, that’s quite alarming. What’s more, though, is that if you were to briefly survey the national scene and offer preliminary seeding assessments, you would find it hard to give a top-4 seed to any SEC team other than Texas A&M. At this point, a 5 seed would represent a reasonable goal for Kentucky and South Carolina, and both of those schools will likely need to win a game of appreciable quality (Texas A&M representing a foremost example) to make sure they reach that seeding in a month and a half.
That last point invites this contradiction, too: If Kentucky and South Carolina do beat A&M, thereby snagging No. 5 seeds, A&M would probably fall to the No. 3 seed line, leaving the top two seed lines without a single SEC team this season.
This is not the renaissance the SEC was hoping for.
Just to put a finer point on things, it’s not as though the lack of highly-seeded NCAA teams is the conference’s only problem. The SEC can feel relatively confident about only four teams as far as at-large candidacies are concerned. That’s not a big haul. LSU might be the only team with a particularly reasonable chance of playing its way into the field over the next several weeks.
This climate of weakness in the SEC — the lack of highly-seeded teams AND the lack of quality depth — is what adds to the weight of LSU’s failure in 2016.
Let’s close with a few historical notes to complete this portrait of a lamentable LSU slog:
In the 1990s, SEC basketball was legitimately strong — perhaps not always robust enough to deliver six or seven NCAA teams in a given tournament, but loaded with big hitters. In 1994 and 1996, the SEC put two teams in the Final Four and won the national title. In 1995 and 1997, the league produced the national runner-up and had a second team in one of the top two seed lines on Selection Sunday.
Vanderbilt was a 3 seed in 1993.
South Carolina was a 2 seed in 1997 and a 3 in 1998.
Auburn was a No. 1 seed in 1999.
Wimp Sanderson made Alabama an NCAA tournament regular. Mississippi State tasted a pair of big-time seasons in 1995 and 1996. Arkansas flourished under Nolan Richardson. Tubby Smith reached the Sweet 16 with Georgia; guided the Bulldogs to a No. 3 seed in 1997; and then won the national title with Kentucky in 1998. Rick Pitino revived Kentucky and made three Final Fours in five seasons (1993-1997) plus back-to-back title games (1996 and 1997).
Even when that golden era in SEC basketball died, the conference could still come up with a good season every now and then. Consider 2002. No SEC team reached the Final Four, but the league produced four protected seeds. Alabama was a 2, Georgia and Mississippi State were 3 seeds, and Kentucky was a 4. Florida, just outside the ropes, was a 5. That’s nothing too special, but when your fifth-best team is a 5 seed, you’re still pretty good.
The point of all this? When any team falls short in the face of quality opposition, one shouldn’t be too harsh in evaluating performance or results. If a talented SEC team was knocked back by the opposition in 1996 or 2002, one could readily understand why (and how) such an outcome emerged.
Failing to make the cut against this year’s SEC, however? That’s a big part of what makes LSU’s shortcomings that much more glaring and hard to accept.