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NCAA Tournament Preview: West Region

The Favorites:

Tucked away in Spokane, Washington, Gonzaga (1 seed) has somehow become the premier program in college hoops. Since 2013, the Bulldogs have won the most NCAA tournament games of any team and transcended the West Coast Conference to become a national superpower. Last year, Gonzaga put together one of the greatest teams in modern college basketball history; they went 36-1 with that lone loss coming against Baylor in the Championship game. This year’s team isn’t quite at that level, but it was still the most dominant team in the country during the regular season by any conceivable metric; KenPom has their adjusted efficiency margin pegged as 5.5 points per 100 possessions better than any other team in the country. Although this team is tremendously balanced (all five starters average more than 10 points per game), the Zags’ real strength lies in their frontcourt—freshman big man Chet Holmgren is an all-world rim protector who shoots 41.2% from 3 and is the consensus favorite to be the first pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, and yet he’s still second-banana on the team to All-American center Drew Timme. Still, Gonzaga has dropped games against teams that can match their size and athleticism, losing to Duke and Alabama in November and to St. Mary’s in their last game of the regular season

If Gonzaga is the best team in college basketball, Duke (2) is undoubtedly the most talented. Come June, it seems likely that Duke’s entire starting five will be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, with Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin both going within the first seven-ish picks. Blitzing their way through an overmatched ACC during Coach K’s farewell tour, the Blue Devils are a phenomenally powerful and physically dominant squad, albeit an inconsistent one as well. Depending on the night, Banchero either looks like Duke Jabari Parker or Boston Celtics Jabari Parker; AJ Griffin is a turbo-charged sharp-shooter, and yet he’s often invisible down the stretch of games; the jumpers and defensive intensity of Wendell Moore and Trevor Keels wax and wane. Ominously, Duke has lost two of their last four games by double digits, sullying Coach K’s last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium against archrival UNC and then getting sliced apart by Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game. 

While Gonzaga and Duke deservedly hog the headlines, Texas Tech (3) is a no-nonsense juggernaut with the best defense in the country. In his first year as the Red Raiders’ head coach, former long-serving assistant Mark Adams has constructed a stingy, terrifying defense. “No-middle” has long been the prevailing defensive philosophy in Lubbock, but this year’s team transforms that into an immutable rule; the Red Raiders hermetically seal off the paint, allowing the fewest rim attempts per 100 possessions of any team in the NCAA Tournament. Offensively, Texas Tech is fairly pedestrian, but the individual gifts of transfers Bryson Williams, Davion Warren and Kevin Obaner help keep their attack aloft.

After starting slowly, Arkansas (4) has been among the 10 best teams since January 9th. No team in the country plays as fast nor as furious as the hogs, who surround their lone big man, Jaylin Williams, with four frenetic, aggressive guards and wings. Defensively, the Hogs have the third best defense in the country during their recent torrid stretch, ranking third in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency over that span. In particular, they’re elite pressuring the ball and force turnovers on more than 20% of their opponents’ possessions. Offensively, All-American senior guard JD Notae keys their attack and scores nearly 20 points per game. On the whole, the Hogs struggle to score in the halfcourt and are among the 50 worst three-point shooting teams in the country, but their shooting struggles are leavened by their ability to score in transition and get to the free throw line.

The Cinderella:

New Mexico State (12) has potentially the best wing in the region in Teddy Allen, their superstar shooting guard. As a unit, the Aggies are huge and physical, with not a single rotation player standing shorter than 6’4. They are the rare mid-major team that will not be at a stark athletic or size disadvantage against their power-conference opponent; the fifth-seeded UCONN Huskies are the best offensive rebounding team in the country, but the Aggies aren’t so far behind, ranking 33rd in that same metric. Really, though, the Aggies’ upset potential is the result of Allen’s greatness. If he plays well, they have a very real shot to win. It’s that simple. 

Prediction:

Arkansas (4) makes the Final Four, beating Texas Tech (3) in the Elite Eight.

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Sports Strength

SEC Tournament Preview

If the NCAA Tournament is March Madness, then consider this to be its pre-psychotic warm-up—in the run-up to Selection Sunday on March 13th, all 32 Division 1 conferences will stage their conference tournaments and reward the champion of their mini-fiefdom with a bid to the Big Dance. With tons of high-stakes games on tap over the course of six, this is the best and most disorienting part of the college hoops calendar. Luckily, we’re here to help. Here is our guide to the SEC tournament.

SEC Tournament Preview
Notable Teams:

Kentucky (27-4, 15-3 ;+190): For years, Kentucky has had a reputation for being a mercenary group of stud freshmen using the team as a waystation before their inevitable NBA career. Now, instead of poaching the best high school recruits, though, coach John Calipari and the Wildcats have set their sights on the transfer portal. Accordingly, the Wildcats are the first transfer portal superteam and might very well be the best team in the country. 

Auburn (25-6, 14-4; +260 to win): This season, Auburn earned the first #1 ranking in program history, topping the AP and Coaches polls in early January and late February. Led by Walker Kessler (the best defensive player in the country) and Jabari Smith (the favorite to be the first pick in the NBA Draft this June), Auburn went 15-3 in conference and locked up the SEC regular season title.

Arkansas (23-7, 13-5; +750 to win): After a shaky start that featured losses to Hofstra and Vanderbilt, the Razorbacks surged up the standings in the second half of the year. Over the last two months of the season, the Razorbacks went 14-2 and were the sixth best team in the country according to Bart Torvik.

Tennessee (23-7, 14-4 ;+330 to win): The SEC may be the most physical and athletic conference in college basketball, but the Volunteers have found success thanks to their undersized backcourts. While their frontcourt certainly offers ballast and muscle up front, Tennessee is ultimately driven by the play of Kennedy Chandler (6’0), Zakai Zeigler (5’9), and Santiago Vescovi (6’3). 

Notable players:

Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky: Oscar Tshiebwe is the most dominant rebounder in college basketball history. Averaging 17.3 points and 15.3 rebounds per game, he’s the odds-on favorite to win the Naismith National Player of the Year award. 

Jabari Smith, Auburn: Even if he’s not an especially expert ball-handler, Smith might be Kevin Durant’s truest successor. A slender 6’10 power forward who moonlights as an elite shooter, Smith is Auburn’s leading scorer with 17.1 points per game. As of late, Smith has been even better, putting up nearly 25 points per game over his last six games.

Walker Kessler, Auburn: Whereas Smith provides the scoring punch in Auburn’s frontcourt, Kessler is their defensive anchor. He blocks more shots than just about anybody ever—think: a bulkier, two-eyebrowed version of Anthony Davis’ reign of terror at the University of Kentucky.

JD Notae, Arkansas: There may be better guards than Notae in the country, but that number shrinks with each passing game. The SEC’s second leading scorer with 18.9 points per game, Notae is a tenacious, physical guard who can thrive both inside and outside the arc. 

Prediction:

Arkansas has been playing the best ball of anybody in the conference recently with wins over Kentucky, Auburn and Tennessee. Look for that to continue. 

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Sports Strength

The Arkansas Razorbacks Demand Your Respect

For the first few months of the season, the Muss Bus was busted— the tires were all flat, taillights were cracked, the paintjob were peeling, the transmission was irredeemably borked. On January 8th, the Arkansas Razorbacks dropped their fifth game out of their last six, losing to decided non-powerhouses Oklahoma, Hofstra (Hofstra!!!), Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. At the time, they were somewhere in the neighborhood of the 80th best team in the country with one of the worst defenses in the SEC; they seemed like the kind of squad who must unhappily endure the rest of the season because there’s no other alternative. 

After that 0-3 start to SEC play, though, head coach Eric Musselman and the Razorbacks have been nearly unbeatable. They’re 12-1 in their last 13 games with Quad One wins over Alabama, Tennessee, LSU and then-top ranked Auburn. Adjusted for the strength of schedule, Arkansas has been the fourth best team in the entire country during this stretch, according to Bart Torvik. 

During this dominant stretch, Arkansas has rediscovered the stifling defense that fueled their Elite Eight run last year; since January 9th, Arkansas has the best defense in college basketball. They’re a swarming, unrelenting unit, climbing into the chest of ball-handlers and turning each dribble into a chore. This ball pressure redounds throughout the rest of their defense, resulting in forced turnovers and contested shots—Arkansas forces turnovers on more than 20 percent of possessions and holds teams to the second lowest effective field goal percentage. Even if they don’t have a single fearsome rim protector like Christian Koloko at Arizona or Chet Holmgren at Gonzaga, they succeed because of their collective irksomeness. Across every position, the Razorbacks place a tremendous amount of stress on the offense, both cognitively and physically. 

Offensively, the Razorbacks opt for a simpler, more prosaic approach: they go fast and hope JD Notae breaks shit. Last year’s SEC Sixth Man of the Year, Notae is the conference’s second-leading scorer, putting up 18.7 points per game. He’s the archetypal, undersized college basketball bucket getter, slashing to the rim with angular, bruising drives and pulling up for gutsy jumpers. He’s a new-age Russ Smith or Frank Mason III; Kemba Walker without the rubbery handle and New York City kabbalism. Flanking Notae, sophomore big man Jaylin Williams is an athletic, funky point-center who offers a nice counterweight on the interior and at the elbows while Au’Diese Toney and Stanley Umude are athletic wings who can stretch the floor in transition. 

But despite their recent greatness, the Razorbacks still aren’t taken all that seriously. In the AP Poll, Arkansas is ranked 18th, below a Tennessee team that they just held to 48 points in a 10 point win. Bracketologists have them pegged as a prospective sixth seed, while putting Providence—a team that is universally considered to kinda suck—on the four-line; on Draftkings, Arkansas’ +1400 odds give them an implied 6.7 percent chance to make the Final Four, By this point, Arkansas has proven that they’re one of the best teams in the country. It’s a cliche that elite guard-play and defense win championships. Luckily, the Razorbacks have both.