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Men’s Basketball: Potential NCAA Tournament Challengers — SEC

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Explaining the series:

In this series, I will be looking at the top few teams in each major conference. These are teams that might be NCAA Tournament foes (some of them will be regular season foes), and this series should serve as a viewing guide for non-MSU games you watch. These previews will not be quite as detailed or precise as an actual game preview, but rather serve as a benchmark for the matchup with each of these teams and important factors to keep an eye on for these teams. This process will “build-out” some of the initial sketches I provided in my final pre-season top-60 rankings.

Having examined the top teams in the ACC and the Big 12, we shift our focus to the SEC (before tackling the Pac-12, Big East, and others). When we get to any actual future matchups with the teams I do discuss, these previews can serve as a starting point and point of reference.

The SEC should be fascinating this season. Where Kentucky usually dominates the off-season and comes into any given season as the favorite, this year Tennessee is easily as exciting if not more so, LSU is right behind both of those teams despite their constant turmoil and underwhelming coaching, and Arkansas, Florida, and Alabama all presenting compelling cases as the fourth best team in the conference. Ultimately, this is a three-team race for the conference, and UK, UT, and LSU are the three teams that Michigan State would have to take most seriously as potential threats in the NCAA tournament, which is why we will focus on these three for this exercise.

Kentucky:

(No. 6 in my final pre-season rankings; No. 12 in Kenpom’s preseason rankings)

1 - Devin Askew, Davion Mintz
2 - BJ Boston, Dontaie Allen
3 - Terrence Clarke, Cam’Ron Fletcher
4 - Keion Brooks Jr., Isaiah Jackson, Jacob Toppin
5 - Olivier Sarr, Lance Ware

Strengths:

Kentucky has three very good guards in the three freshmen Askew, Boston, and Clarke. All three have solid height, athleticism, and skill; with Askew and Clarke being built for high major basketball and Boston a bit slight of frame. These three along with Sarr, the Wake Forest transfer, should form the core of the offense for Kentucky, with Mintz, a Creighton transfer, providing a veteran presence off the bench and probably the best three-point percentage on the team. Jackson, himself, may end up as the biggest strength of the team; he will be a game-changer and likely play at least half of every game. This team feels a bit less of a sure thing than some other Kentucky teams, but they have a ton of guys with terrific mentalities, and my guess is that this team will really come together.

Weaknesses:

This team does not, apparently, have overwhelming talent or size — only one seven-foot guy in Sarr (though Jackson may be the best rim-protector in the nation), and only two likely lottery picks in Boston and Clarke (though Jackson may work his way into that conversatio — and their shooting and depth will remain questions until they are resolved.

Key personnel:

Askew, Mintz, Fletcher, and Jackson. We should be fairly confident that Boston, Clarke, and Sarr will be high level performers. Sarr should be a very good stretch-center, with the ability to score from all over the court, and a solid contributor on defense. Boston has live-wire ball-handling and shot-creation ability and gets into passing lanes with his quickness, but may struggle with some more physically-developed players. Clarke is co-best-athlete with Jackson, but has more skill than he is sometimes credited with and just plays great winning basketball; he should be great in transition and a steady offensive player.

But Askew and Mintz must be great for this team to work. Askew is heady, competitive, strong, and a good shooter, but he lacks high end speed or quickness at the point-of-attack defensively. Mintz must shoot the lights out all year, and do a solid job facilitating and calming the freshmen when he comes off the bench (John Calipari would be wise to always keep at least two of his veterans — Brooks Jr (so.), Mintz (sr.), Sarr (sr.) — on the court at all times). Fletcher and Jackson, on the other hand, are ceiling-raisers. Brooks and Sarr will be solid, but Kentucky must find front-court and wing depth to really have a functional Final Four team. With Toppin and Ware likely a year away from being key contributors, and Allen working his way back from a redshirt year (though he does have potential as a shooter), Fletcher and Jackson seem like the best bets for major bench roles. Fletcher has more skill and a knack for basketball than Kahlil Whitney (who flamed-out so spectacularly last year), and the aforementioned Jackson will really open eyes with his athleticism, rim-protection, and surprising scoring touch. If those two are standouts this team should win the SEC.

Strategy:

Kentucky should run most of Kentucky’s usual offense: dribble drives, wide pin-downs for shooters to shoot or create, and plenty of offense from the offensive glass. But this Kentucky team will also boast the most accomplished and competent big-man scorer, in Sarr, that it has had since Karl Anthony-Towns. Having that kind of anchor and safety-valve for the offense will ensure that Kentucky does not suffer the kinds of offensive droughts that have plagued Calipari’s teams the last four years or so. Expect plenty of post-ups and two-man games with Sarr, and plenty of lobs to the rest of the bigs.

Michigan State perspective:

The places to attack this team will be off-the-ball, and with strength. Making this Kentucky team run through tons of screens and dealing with an all-out assault on the paint will become the dominant strategy for teams with the personnel to pull it off. Michigan State will have that personnel. Michigan State will have some sort of athletic advantage (either strength or quickness) over every single matchup, so playing to those strengths, simply and directly, will be the story of any potential matchup. Sarr will present an interesting challenge, but Michigan State has the bodies to make life exhausting for him. The most important feature of the matchup will be adjusting to the length of the Kentucky team and their potential to bother shooters — this is why getting into bodies in the paint, and running their taller and longer defenders off of screens will be so important.

Tennessee:

(No. 9 in my final pre-season rankings; No. 19 in Kenpom’s preseason rankings)

1 - Victor Bailey Jr., Santiago Vescovi
2 - Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson
3 - Josiah-Jordan James, Corey Walker Jr., Davonte Gaines
4 - Yves Pons, EJ Anosike, Olivier Robinson-Nkamhoua
5 - John Fulkerson, Uros Plavsic, Drew Pember

Strengths:

This is a nearly-perfectly constructed roster. The veteran front-court in Fulkerson and Pons will set the tone on both ends: Pons will be an all-SEC defender again, and Fulkerson was unguardable down the stretch last year, and should pose teams all kinds of problems as a mobile, relentless big with a solid jumper. Tennessee also gets the benefit of having Bailey Jr. (Oregon transfer) available after his redshirt year; I have been told he may start over the “Uruguayan Ginobili” (as I henceforth dub Vescovi), and together they will provide solid point guard-play. On the wing the steady James and the explosively talented, and likely one-and-done duo of Springer and Johnson will provide more than enough athletic pop and skill to possibly even overmatch Kentucky’s wing-duo. Anosike, Plavsic, and Pember should form a solid by-committee front-court bench, but do not expect Pons or Fulkerson to get much rest — they are too good.

Weaknesses:

Three-point shooting and turnovers were problems last year. But there is reason for optimism on both fronts: Bailey and the two freshmen wings are taking minutes and shots from the now-departed Jalen Johnson and Jordan Bowen, James and Vescovi are a year older and wiser, and Tennessee has depth in a way it did not last year, so if performances lag, then others will get more minutes. The other big potential weakness is front-court size. If Plavsic, Nkamhoua, and Pember are not ready for a major roles (none of the three were remotely close last year), then the front-court depth gets a bit scary and the team will have to play very small with Anosike and Walker playing major minutes at both forward and center.

Key personnel:

Springer and Johnson will determine how good this team is. Bailey, Vescovi, and James will all be solid, and Pons and Fulkerson will be terrific, but if Springer and Johnson really do play like lottery picks — and, to be clear, both have that kind of talent, athleticism, size, and skill — then Kentucky may not have enough horses to keep the Volunteers at bay. Both guys have to demonstrate the ability to create shots for themselves and others at this level, and both have to exhibit enough three-point shooting to keep defenses honest and to really generate some gravity out to the three-point line.

Strategy:

Rick Barnes has always run nice offense — he uses early and high ball-screens to get early drives from the top of the key (Johnson should feast on these), they clear out sides of the court and let their talented guys isolate (again, Springer and Johnson), and they use a lot of read-and-react motion concepts and elbow and low-post splits to get guys catching the ball on the move with clear options and reads. Finally we can expect to see a fair amount of post-ups from Fulkerson who likes to face up from the short-corner and from the elbow.

Michigan State perspective:

Identifying which poisons to pick will be crucial — with such talented wings but a smaller and more mobile front court, I would not be surprised to see Michigan State play smaller in this one. Gabe Brown and Malik Hall would likely play crucial roles as defenders in this one with Joey Hauser and Malik Hall getting the task of wrangling the impressive Fulkerson and Michigan State having the ability to switch one-to-four. Loyer would have a very promising matchup against Vescovi, who does not have overwhelming size, speed, strength, or quickness, and that game-within-the-game could turn into a fun one. Keeping Tennessee off the offensive glass, and getting second chance points would be the decisive question from the “four-factors.”

LSU:

(No. 17 in my final pre-season rankings; No. 37 in Kenpom’s preseason rankings)

1 - Javonte Smart, Eric Gaines, Jalen Cook
2 - Cam Thomas, Charles Manning Jr., Aundre Hyatt
3 - Josh LeBlanc, Mwani Wilkinson
4 - Darius Days, Shareef O’Neal
5 - Trendon Watford, Bryan Penn-Johnson, Josh Gray

Strengths:

LSU, per usual, has a ton of athletes and talent. Smart and Thomas will form possibly the best back-court duo in the SEC and LeBlanc (Georgetown transfer), after he misses a few games (surprise immediate-eligibility waiver denial), along with Manning Jr., Wilkinson, and Gaines will form a terrific group of complementary guys on the wing and in the back-court. The front-court returns two starters and adds in two more high-level transfers — Watford should be a first-round pick in next year’s NBA draft, and, along with Smart and Thomas, should drive the LSU offense.

Weaknesses:

Three-point shooting (notice a trend here with these top SEC teams?) and coaching, per usual, will likely be the bugaboos for LSU, who return zero high-percentage and high-volume shooters, and will hope that Cam Thomas can shoot the lights out. Front-court depth and health should also be a concern as neither Penn-Johnson nor O’Neal have ever had a healthy or impactful role on a college basketball team — if one, or both, cannot quite play to standards, then the promising but raw Josh Gray and a number of smaller guys will have to fill in severely limiting the ceiling of the team.

Key personnel:

Smart and Thomas have to be outstanding for this team to have a real shot to challenge in the league or make a deep run. Both have to score, create, and defend at an all-SEC level. LeBlanc, Days, and Watford should all be really good, but the back-court has to play better than they did than last year’s back-court, which could not defend well enough, and could not score efficiently enough outside of the now-departed Skylar Mays.

Strategy:

There is never too much going on in Will Wade’s offense, but we should expect to see a fair amount of pick-and-roll offense with the two guards and the various bigs, a solid amount of Watford posting and scoring or kicking, and a decent amount of a very simple motion offense. Defending LSU is about winning individual matchups and about finding ways to generate consistent offense against their solid man-to-man defense.

Michigan State perspective:

Michigan State has the personnel to win individual matchups against LSU, the offensive acumen to score consistently, and the perfect guy, in Rocket Watts, to take advantage of LSU’s typical pick-and-roll defense (they usually drop and dare guys to hit mid-range shots). Hauser should be able to score consistently against whichever power forward they match-up against him, and I would expect this game to be an exciting, open, and ultimately not-particularly-close redux of Michigan State’s Sweet-Sixteen victory over LSU in the 2018-19 season.

The SEC has other good teams — particularly Alabama, Arkansas, and Florida — but these three should have the final word on the conference title and have the clearest path towards a second-weekend run in Indianapolis.

Go Green!!!