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Joe Boozell | | January 6, 2016

What’s it going to take for Simmons and the Tigers to go dancing?

  Ben Simmons is averaging 20.1 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game for LSU.

After suffering a loss to Wake Forest on Dec. 29, LSU was 7-5 with its best win of the season coming against North Florida. No disrespect to the Ospreys, but they’re 129th in KenPom’s current rankings. At the time, the Tigers’ NCAA tournament hopes looked laughable at worst and bleak at best.

Why should we care? Well, while Ben Simmons may not be the best player in college basketball right now (though that’s debatable), he's as talented as anyone. The NCAA tournament is a glorious spectacle no matter who participates, but the majority of college basketball fans will want to see Simmons in the big dance.

Things can change in an instant in college basketball. The Tigers, now fully equipped with a healthy Keith Hornsby and an eligible Craig Victor II, have notched a road win against Vanderbilt and a home win against Kentucky in the past week. The fact that they beat the Wildcats by 18 with Simmons only attempting five shots (granted, he made all five) shows how much potential this team has.

LSU sits at No. 52 in KenPom right now, and it still has a lot of work to do if it wants to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Johnny Jones’ squad is off to an excellent start in SEC play, and that’s going to need to continue.

The Tigers have 17 games remaining on their schedule excluding the SEC tournament – 16 of those are conference games, and the purple and yellow have a huge non-conference date with Oklahoma on Jan. 30.

So what’s it going to take for this team to go dancing?

  Keith Hornsby has absolutely lit it up for LSU since returning from injury.
We’ll use last year’s Ole Miss team as a model LSU can emulate to get into the NCAA tournament. The Rebels finished the regular season 20-11 and played their way into the First Four, beating BYU in the opening round before ultimately bowing out to Xavier.

As a whole, the SEC is slightly worse than it was last season. 2014-15 Kentucky is one of the best teams ever not to win a national championship, and Arkansas, Georgia and Ole Miss are down compared to a year ago. Texas A&M and South Carolina have perked up in 2015-16, but in terms of both star power and depth, the league was better last season.

Ole Miss went 11-7 in SEC play last season, but also notched non-conference wins against Cincinnati and Oregon (both top-40 KenPom teams). And it barely got in. So, yeah. LSU is going to have to be great in SEC play. But if these last two games are any indication, that seems entirely possible.

As long as LSU’s wins come against some quality opponents, going 12-5 in its remaining 17 games would seem to be enough to get LSU into the NCAA tournament.

RELATED: LSU’s schedule

KenPom projects LSU to go 8-9 the rest of the way, but that doesn’t take into account that the Tigers have looked like a different team with the additions of Hornsby and Victor II. They’re predicted to lose the following games: at Florida, at Texas A&M, at Alabama, at South Carolina, at Tennessee, at Arkansas, at Kentucky, and home against Oklahoma and Texas A&M.

Based on LSU’s two most recent outings, though, virtually all of those games look favorable with the exception of Oklahoma (though the Tigers have the talent to upset anyone).

Victor II has provided a defensive presence next to Simmons in the frontcourt that’s been absolutely vital for LSU. He’s not a shot-blocker, but he has great instincts in snuffing out opposing drives, defending ball screens and altering shots near the rim. On the season, LSU ranks 171st  in the country in defensive efficiency with a defensive rating of 100.3. With Victor II on the floor, that number plummets to 95.5, which would vault the Tigers up 91 spots in defensive efficiency.

MORE: Find out who's leading our Naismith Watch in early January

On the other end of the floor, Hornsby has been just what the doctor ordered to play alongside Simmons. The senior sharpshooter has connected on 47.1 percent of his 3’s this season and is averaging 16.3 points per game. He can create off the bounce, too, and he can make opponents pay if they close out too hard on him at the 3-point line.

Throw in Tim Quarterman’s improved play of late, and this LSU bunch has reason for optimism. But with several tough road games looming and little margin for error, do the Tigers have what it takes to make the NCAA tournament?

Maybe, maybe not. But seeing this guy play with his back up against the wall is going to be a really fun storyline to follow in January, February and March.

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