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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

Auburn’s Walker Kessler Might Be the Best Player in College Basketball

About 4.3 times per game, Auburn University’s Walker Kessler makes his opponent realize they’ve made a huge mistake. At  7’1 245-pounds, Kessler is a hugely imposing interior presence, leading the nation in blocked shots and block percentage; his 7’5 wingspan gives the impression that smaller guards could comfortably perch themselves on his arms, like a parrot on the shoulder of a pirate. A year after Auburn’s defense ranked a leaky 103rd in the country, Kessler has transformed them into an elite unit after transferring from the University of North Carolina during the offseason. With Kessler stalwartly manning the paint, Auburn holds their opponents to 50.6 percent shooting at the rim (the 10th stingiest mark in college basketball) and ranks as the 11th best defense according to KenPom, college basketball’s advanced stats nerd king. Having almost single-handedly transformed the Auburn defense, Kessler is the runaway favorite to be named the national defensive player of the year and a dark-horse candidate for the Naismith National Player of the Year.

Although Kessler’s averages of 11.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 0.8 assists per game compare unfavorably to the robust stat lines of Purdue’s Jaden Ivey, Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis and Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, no player in the country can match Kessler’s two-way dominance. He’s great in the most elemental, basic way possible: he seldom ever misses shots and he makes it nearly impossible for his opponents to make them. Kessler is the first major conference player since Anthony Davis to block more than four shots per game while also scoring more than ten per game on better than 60 percent shooting. Interestingly, Kessler’s per 40 minutes averages are almost indistinguishable from those of Davis whose one year at Kentucky is widely considered one of the greatest performances in recent college basketball history. 

What’s more, since the start of conference play, Kessler has been unquestionably the best player on what’s questionably the best team in the country; it’s impossible to imagine that Auburn would be 23-2 against a tough schedule if not for Kessler’s massive contributions.  Over his last eight contests, Kessler has racked up astonishing number against high quality competition, putting up 16 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks per game while shooting 68.8 percent from the field. 

Kessler’s impact extends well beyond the stat sheet; he fundamentally alters every aspect of the game. Opposing offenses are forced to permanently account for his presence at the rim, turning layups into floaters and floaters into pull-up jumpers. His offensive impact is subtler, but no less important. An imposing interior scorer and screener, Kessler provides important offensive lubricant, even if his own personal usage rate isn’t particularly noteworthy. Thanks to Kessler’s abilities as a dive man in pick-and-roll, Auburn’s guards Wendell Green and KD Johnson enjoy cleaner paths to the rim, forcing defenses to rotate to stop them, creating clean attempts from 3 for Jabari Smith Jr., a presumptive top three pick in this year’s NBA Draft. 

Accordingly, Kessler isn’t some monotasking rim protector; in fact, he might be the best player in all of college basketball.