College basketball has often been enlivened by stars who turn average teams into worldbeaters. Larry Bird took Indiana State to the national finals in 1979. David Robinson and Navy made it to the round of 8 in 1986. Elena Delle Donne led little Delaware to the round of 16 in 2013.
Now Ben Simmons, the 19-year-old freshman superstar, is looking to make some magic at his surprise college choice, Louisiana State, which last season made the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament for the first time in six years.
So far, things do not look too good. The way things are going, L.S.U. may wind up on the bubble — the N.I.T. bubble.
Individually, Simmons, a 6-foot-10 forward, is living up to his billing as the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, coveted by the Lakers, the Sixers and other struggling N.B.A. teams with an eye on the lottery.
At 14.8 rebounds a game, he leads the nation, and with 2.5 steals a game ranks 16th, alongside the little guys like the heralded Providence guard Kris Dunn. He has played only eight games, but looks like one of the best college players in years.
Simmons is averaging 19 points a game; his top effort was an eye-opening 43 on 15-for-20 shooting in a wild up-tempo game against North Florida on Dec. 2.
But the result of that game reveals more about L.S.U.’s fortunes this season. Playing at home against a team far from a national contender, L.S.U. trailed by 8 at halftime and won by 11 points, 119-108.
Simmons grew up in Australia, where his American father, Dave, was playing pro basketball, then moved to Florida for high school ball. There was some surprise over his college choice. “I know a lot of people will be struck by me deciding to go to L.S.U., but that’s where I felt most comfortable,” he told ESPN. Family connections might have played a role. David Patrick, Simmons’s godfather and a former teammate of Dave Simmons, is an assistant at L.S.U.
Expectations for the team were fairly high: The Tigers were ranked 21st in the preseason Associated Press poll, largely on the strength of having Simmons.
But they have started 4-4, losing to Marquette, North Carolina State, Charleston and Houston, none of them considered a top 50 team.
L.S.U. is rated just the 12th best team in the Southeastern Conference in Jeff Sagarin’s computer ranking. Over the last five years, the SEC has placed three to five teams in the N.C.A.A. tournament each year, leaving L.S.U. in a precarious position.
Of 351 Division I teams, L.S.U. ranks only 242nd in free throw percentage and, despite Simmons’s skills in the area, just 246th in rebounding. Defensively, the team may be worse. It surrenders 81.5 points a game, ranking 325th.
Simmons is purely an inside scorer, and the team has struggled to support him with 3s: It ranks 222nd in 3-point percentage at .324, and guard Antonio Blakeney, who has taken the most, is shooting .261.
There is some hope of improvement: The senior guard Keith Hornsby, the team’s leading returning scorer, played his first game of the season on Sunday after sports hernia surgery and scored 32, though L.S.U. lost to Houston anyway. (He is also a son of the musician Bruce Hornsby.) Craig Victor, an Arizona transfer, will be eligible soon as well.
But preseason enthusiasm has dimmed. Ben Simmons may turn out to be one of the best players to come out of L.S.U. when all is said and done, but his year on campus seems unlikely to make much history.