And that's why I like Jay Bilas.
Not just because he called out Ben Simmons for making a blundering choice by going to LSU rather than to a place like Kentucky – or, specifically, Kentucky. (Though that in itself is downright likable.)
But because he has a clear vision of things and says what's on his mind. No gimmicks, no pandering, no Vitale-like playing to the crowd. He's been a player on the national level, at Duke. He clearly spent his time there going to class, not checking his draft status. Then he went to law school, so you know he's been trained to look at things clearly and analytically, and evaluate both sides of an argument.
ESPN has given him a microphone, and he rarely hesitates to use it, whether to point out a horrible technical foul call or to rage on what he thinks is wrong with college sports.
So what he said to/about Simmons is that he didn't do himself any favors by choosing LSU (apparently because of personal and family considerations).
Simmons is frustrated right now. LSU had a disappointing season. The Tigers will probably not make the NCAA tournament. Simmons had just been outplayed not only by Tyler Ulis, his main competition for SEC player of the year, and by Jamal Murray, his main competition for SEC freshman of the year, but also by Skal Labissiere, the other most highly touted high school recruit who vanished from the radar screen all season but has now begun reviving his reputation – and will be playing in the NCAA tournament.
He was declared ineligible for the Wooden Award because he didn't qualify academically. Embarrassing.
His freshman college season, which will be of course his only college season, was largely a bust.
And Bilas called him out for the decision he made:
"It’s fair to ask of Ben Simmons, why doesn’t he win more? Why wasn’t he able to take his team to the NCAA Tournament? I don’t put all the blame on him, all the responsibility on him [but] I think some of what this is doing is really signaling to the next Ben Simmons-type talent, you know, go to Kentucky. Because then you don’t have to listen to people questioning your character and whether you’re a winner. They’re just going to talk about your talent and how good you are because winning isn’t going to be the issue."
Will it all matter in a few months? Probably not. Simmons will be drafted first – or second, or third – by the NBA and will go on to a lucrative and successful career. He is that good.
But did he miss something along the way? Was it better to be a big star on a small team? Right now, that's not the way the conversation is going, and it's not just Bilas saying so.
I wonder if NBA scouts are wondering why, if he's so good, he couldn't elevate his team. It's probably a very small side issue, but right now at least it's in the water.
Karl-Anthony Towns, for one, is a good example of the other way to go. He might have been the Ben Simmons of a year ago. (Okay, that was probably Jahlil Okafor, but let's not get bogged down by detail.) He chose Kentucky even though he knew that Trey Lyles, for one, was also going there and that Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson were coming back.
The proliferation of talent on that team limited him to about 20 minutes a game of action, which kept his numbers down. (It was like the old Michael Jordan-Dean Smith joke: "Who held Karl-Anthony Towns to single digits in points and rebounds?" "John Calipari!")
But UK's 38-1 season grabbed everyone's attention. Before that, of course, Cal had already grabbed everyone's attention by [a] taking the team on a successful exhibition tour to the Bahamas; and [b] holding that who-else-but-Calipari? special-invitation-only display of his guys for the NBA scouts. So the spotlight was on Towns for eight months, during which he blossomed into the NBA's first pick by Minnesota, a pick that now is wildly applauded. Rookie of the Year stuff.
Would Towns have thrived somewhere else, developed his game, made the scouts notice? Sure. Perhaps at Duke – although Okafor didn't, particularly. But Towns didn't make the choice casually or for superficial reasons, as Simmons seems to have.
Look, Simmons may have loved being at LSU, loved playing for Johnny Jones (this is not about him!), loved his teammates, loved that gorgeous campus, loved the academics there, maybe met a co-ed and fallen in love.
But if his aim was to maximize his one season in college, to validate his individual potential and lead his team to wins and tournament success, it can't be regarded as a success.
And he has to know that if he'd chosen to go to Kentucky (or, to be fair, to Kansas or Duke or North Carolina or Virginia or Villanova or West Virginia or Michigan State), he'd be on the team overwhelmingly favored to win the national championship. Who knows, maybe even complete a 40-0 season.
For what any of that is worth.