CRAWFORD | A tale of two freshmen: Kentucky's Murray is up, LSU's Simmons sits down
LSU's Ben Simmons has been rightly hailed as one of the best freshmen in the nation. But on Saturday in the SEC Tournament, Kentucky's Jamal Murray was the best freshman on the Bridgestone Arena court in Nashville.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WDRB) — Two freshmen played on the Bridgestone Arena court here in the SEC Tournament semifinals on Saturday. One got so much media love from a four-letter network all season that he sucked the oxygen out of the room for almost every other freshman in the nation.
The other hasn’t gotten the notoriety. He didn’t get voted SEC freshman of the year. He’s not discussed on every ESPN game, whether it involves him or not.
All he has done is score points and win. LSU’s Ben Simmons is good. I don’t want to use the over-wrought media attention he has gotten against him. But I’m here today to tell you: Kentucky’s Jamal Murray is a better college basketball player right now.
That doesn’t mean he’ll be a better pro. But if you had to pick one for the NCAA Tournament, no way I’d pick Simmons, even if ESPN gave me my own segment on “Outside the Lines.”
Inside the lines, Jamal Murray scored 26 points on 8 of 12 shooting Saturday, reaching the 20-point mark for his 12th straight game and making a three-pointer (3 of 7 of them, actually) for the 33rd straight in Kentucky’s 93-80 win over a gritty Georgia team.
Simmons went through the motions in finishing with 10 points and 12 rebounds on 4 of 11 shooting and lost his cool with a late-game technical foul ball spike in LSU’s 71-38 loss to Texas A&M — the lowest point total for any NCAA Division I team in a game this season. He wasn't a leader. He wasn't a role player. He wasn't much of anything.
In this tale of two freshmen, Murray is shooting imaginary arrows into teammates; Simmons is slamming the real basketball to the court and displaying body language that probably shouldn't be translated into print.
Murray was asked about his feat of a dozen straight games with at least 20 points. What’s that feel like?
“I’m not really thinking about it,” Murray said. “I’m just going and playing and trying to get open. I didn’t score for a long stretch, but I stuck through it and in time was able to get some good looks. I’m just trying to be a weapon.”
When Georgia was shooting the lights out to open the game, Murray was putting on his own show to keep Kentucky close. He scored almost a point a minute in the first half, finishing with 19. When Kentucky needed two big free throws late after taking a one-point lead, he nailed them with 7:45 left.
After Kentucky demolished Alabama in the opening game of the tournament, with Murray scoring 23 points, UK coach John Calipari said this about his freshman.
“The biggest thing people are not catching is he's starting to defend,” Calipari said. “Like he's staying in front of people. He's rotating. He's just -- he has come so far in the last two months, it's kind of scary. It's kind of like what Karl (Anthony Towns) did. Karl was this and that, and all of a sudden, by the end of the year, Karl was the number 1 pick. And it wasn't close, and it's proven to be right. And I will tell you now that on that board, this kid is moving in the right direction, and he has a chance to do whatever he wants. And he's on a team with Tyler Ulis and all these kids that have accepted what he is, and they know we need him to score points for us to be any good.”
“That’s just what he does,” UK forward Derek Willis said. “Jamal is a great scorer. And if he goes through a stretch where he’s not scoring, you have to watch out, because he can score a bunch on you in a hurry. He’s become a lot better player, really good at knowing where his spots are, at looking for other people, good at bringing defensive energy.”
Check out these numbers: Scoring average — Murray, 20.2 points per game, Simmons 19.2 points per game. Murray 46 percent from the field, Simmons 56. Murray has made 107 threes this season. Simmons made one. Simmons is a bigger player. He fills the entire stat sheet. He averaged 11.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists. He’s tremendous. Murray is averaging 5.1 rebounds and just a little over two assists per game.
But Murray is still playing, and Simmons is answering questions about whether he wants to play in the NIT.
“That kid has had so much pressure from the beginning,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “You know, I felt sorry for him because nobody can live up to what he’s been lifted up for. I mean, he’s 19 years old.”
I’m not writing this story to bash Simmons. It’s not his fault ESPN made him a focal point of its college basketball marketing campaign. And let's make no mistake, you put Tyler Ulis on a team with Simmons and he's probably sweeping the national awards. Maybe that's why the Jay Bilas point that elite guys like Simmons would be best off just going to Kentucky (or Duke, or North Carolina) makes a lot of sense. Then again, the freshman at Kentucky hasn't gotten the hype this season that Simmons has gotten.
All I'm saying is this: They might want to market this guy from Kentucky.
Murray is 15 three-pointers away from tying the national freshman record for made threes in a season. Who holds the record? A guy named Steph Curry, who hit 122 in 2006-07.
Murray may not be a Splash Brother, but he’s playing at least like a splash step-brother right now. His 33 games in a row with a three is a UK record. His 12 games in a row with 20 points ties a UK record set by Kevin Grevey. He was the freshman in UK history with multiple 30-point games. And Calipari has had a few decent freshmen. You can look them up.
He’s not getting the hype. But he’s delivering some big-time hope for Kentucky, as it tries to ramp up for a postseason run.
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