Ben Simmons leads strong SEC freshmen class not at Kentucky
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) There is always a heralded group of freshmen basketball players in the Southeastern Conference, and this year they’re not all at Kentucky.
The list starts with highly touted Ben Simmons at LSU, which has plastered the 6-foot-10 Australian’s face on billboards around Baton Rouge. Simmons, the No. 1 rated high school player last season at Florida’s Montverde Academy, isn’t allowing that to go to his head.
”It’s been so much of a blur for me,” Simmons said. ”I’m still me, but I’m also enjoying it. I’m not really caught up in the hype. But it’s been kinda funny to the guys – I’m just their teammate, just Ben the Australian kid that plays in America.”
Adding to the hype is Simmons’ selection as the SEC’s preseason player of the year, just the second freshman ever selected for the award (the first was Kentucky’s Julius Randle in 2013).
”I always want to be looked at as the best player,” Simmons said. ”I don’t want to be second; I want to be at the top of the list. But I just play the game; I don’t allow that stuff to get to my head.”
Simmons was also one of three freshmen voted to the SEC’s preseason all-conference teams. He was joined on the first team by Kentucky forward Skal Labissiere, and Mississippi State guard Malik Newman was named to the second team.
”Yeah, that kinda surprised me,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said of Simmons’ preseason award. ”Not because of his ability, but the amount of guys that are returning in this league who have games under their belts.
”I’m sure there are other people they could’ve chosen, but the fanfare, the excitement, that has built up around him, and the impact he made at the high school level, lend people to believe they could put him in that situation.”
Simmons, Labissiere and Newman are among a group of freshman expected to make an impact in the SEC this season – and not all are at Kentucky.
The Wildcats, however, once again had one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. Kentucky has six freshman on the roster, including five-star prospects Labissiere and Jamal Murray and Parade All-American Isaiah Briscoe.
The SEC ”teams have gotten better,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. ”But we’re the most inexperienced team in the country, coming back with the toughest nonconference schedule. It’s not fair to this team, but this teams wants that.”
However, the four- and five-star talent is spread out among the conference teams.
In addition to Newman, ranked the nation’s No. 1 shooting guard by ESPN; South Carolina signed McDonald’s All-America point guard P.J. Dozier; Florida landed shooting guard KeVaughn Allen and forwards Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone, Arkansas signed shooting guard Jimmy Whitt, and Alabama landed forward Donta’ Hall.
Texas A&M may have had the best freshman recruiting class outside of Kentucky, with four four-star signees: Centers Tyler Davis and Elijah Thomas, forward D.J. Hogg and shooting guard Admon Gilder.
”The freshmen are really talented,” Aggies guard Jalen Jones said. ”Those guys showed me on the overseas trip (through Europe in August) that they can really play. I’m expecting big things from them this season. Those rankings, it obviously means they were good in high school.
”But you’ve got to prove yourself at the college level.”
Simmons understands that.
”As soon as I get on the court, I’m just another player,” Simmons said. ”It’s a game. I might have a good game, I might have a bad game. At the end of the day, we all play. We have one goal, and that’s to win.”