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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

Is Oscar Tshiebwe the Best Rebounder Ever?

Even in today’s era of apositional weirdos, basketball stardom is informed by certain biases. You need to score a lot, ideally by hoisting tough shots over a defender’s outstretched arms. Your passes need to be infused with smartness and surety. But most of all, you have to dribble. On the most basic level, dribbling creates a certain degree of self-sufficiency, an ability to go out and make shit happen. This is why the balls themselves are made perfectly round to bounce predictably and why basketball is a cooler sport than netball. Dribbling is the most elemental part of being a great player; it’s the foundation of almost all on-court self-expression and actualization. Just as opposable thumbs separate man from beast, dribbling is what separates Steph Curry from Seth Curry. 

Conversely, Oscar Tshiebwe, the University of Kentucky’s center and the presumptive National Player of the Year, would prefer not to do that stuff. This is not to say that his game is devoid of skill or nuance, but rather that he plays basketball with a judoka’s sensibility. He has never taken a three-pointer across his three years of college and is hitting just 34 percent of his jumpers from any distance; he has a grand total of 30 assists this year, against 54 turnovers. Whereas his contemporaries in the National Player of the Year race are swashbuckling scorers with deep bags of floaters or post moves, Tshiebwe dominates through physicality and instincts. 

When Tshiebwe is on the court, he’s going to get the ball, preferably by force. He’s arguably the best rebounder in the history of college basketball; his 15.3 rebounds per game are the most that any player has racked up since at least 1992. On a game by game basis, his rebounding totals boggle the mind—of the 26 games in which a player has had 20 or more rebounds this year, Tshiebwe is responsible for five of them; he’s led Kentucky in rebounding in 27 of their 28 contests; in just 27 games, he set a school record for rebounds in a single season. Although rebounding isn’t quite held in the same regard it once was, Tshiebwe represents a convincing counterargument for its enduring value. Despite unremarkable shooting percentages and shot profile, Kentucky has the nation’s fourth best offense in large part because Tshiebwe ensures that they have so many more opportunities for offense; their 38.4 percent offensive rebound rate is second-best in the nation while his own personal 20 percent offensive rebound rate is better than that of 10 entire teams. 

As such, Tshiebwe’s best trait is that his offensive production is almost entirely additive; while most players demand some degree of schematic accommodation, Tshiebwe produces 16.4 points per game of pure gravy. He converts lobs and dump-offs when given the chance, but nearly half of his points are unassisted putbacks that are the result of his offensive rebounding—thanks to his soft touch and insatiable rebounding bloodlust, he’s basketball’s preeminent composter, turning waste (i.e. missed shots) into something productive and good (i.e. points). In this sense, Tshiebwe is a new kind of star, precisely because he’s so unlike the normal conception of one.