Kentucky Basketball: Toughest SEC Matchups at Each Position
With most of last season's epic recruiting class back for a second go-around, the Kentucky Wildcats have a rare level of experience to add to their usual array of talent. There would appear to be no SEC opponent capable of standing up to such a juggernaut.
But last preseason brought the term "40-0" into the college basketball lexicon, and we saw how that worked out.
It's true that no SEC opponent has the top-to-bottom athletes that UK possesses, but there are some with athletes capable of winning individual matchups against the loaded Cats. At each position—with the possible exception of center—there are players in the SEC that can stand toe-to-toe with UK.
Still, that kind of talent is concentrated in only a handful of players on only a few teams in the largely lackluster SEC, which is why UK will be the consensus title pick again.
These matchups will be worth watching when the Wildcats tip off against particular conference opponents, even if the games themselves could get out of hand.
Player positions according to VerbalCommits.com.
Point Guard: Florida
The Matchup: Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis vs. Chris Chiozza and Kasey Hill (pictured)
Florida's chances of getting back to a fifth straight Elite Eight will ride heavily on its point guard play. The same could be said for Kentucky's odds of returning to the Final Four.
Gator coach Billy Donovan is pitting last year's heralded freshman against this year's in the race to replace SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin. Hill had his moments filling in for Wilbekin last year, but he discovered that producing against the Kentuckys and Tennessees of the world was harder than doing so against North Florida or Arkansas-Little Rock.
Hill did give Gator fans cause for optimism as the regular season ended when he produced eight points and seven assists in UF's second win over Kentucky.
Chiozza, like Hill, can hit a different gear with the ball in his hands, which could give the bulkier Harrison fits in trying to guard both Gator playmakers. Enter the 5'9" Ulis, who is one of the quickest players in the entire 2014 class. The meetings between UF and UK could reach a breakneck pace if the point guards have their way.
Officials will determine how much Harrison gets to exercise his primary advantage and body the smaller Gator guards out of his way.
Shooting Guard: Arkansas
The Matchup: Devin Booker and Aaron Harrison vs. Nick Babb, Anthlon Bell and Rashad "Ky" Madden (pictured)
With the sheer pace of Arkansas coach Mike Anderson's offense, depth and shooting ability will be essential to the Razorbacks making their long-awaited return to the NCAA tournament. UA does have the shooters, and it at least has a depth advantage over Kentucky's thin unit.
Senior Ky Madden has averaged 12 points per game in four career meetings with Kentucky, but this will be the first time he sees the same backcourt tandem two years in a row. At 6'5", he's not a bit intimidated by the Wildcats' size—as the above picture of him taking it to the hole against Willie Cauley-Stein illustrates.
Madden was instrumental in holding Aaron Harrison to a miserable 2-of-12 shooting night in the Hogs' second win over UK in late February.
It's easy to forget, after he made himself a Kentucky legend with a string of big shots in the NCAA tournament, that Harrison had largely suffered through an anemic shooting season. Going into the postseason, Harrison had drained only 38 of 124 three-point shots, or 30.6 percent.
If the SEC and NCAA tournaments prove to be outliers, Harrison could find himself losing minutes to Booker, who comes in with a sniper's rep.
Bell can be dangerous, but he struggled badly with his consistency. Like Harrison, he got hot in March, sinking seven triples against Ole Miss and six against Indiana State in the NIT. He struck for 10 points in the second win over UK. Babb is a 3-star combo guard who could also contribute some big shots if left alone.
Small Forward: Florida
The Matchup: Alex Poythress vs. Dorian Finney-Smith (pictured) and Devin Robinson
There may not be two more mercurial household names in the SEC than Kentucky's Alex Poythress and Florida's Dorian Finney-Smith. The two battled to the wire for the conference's Sixth Man of the Year award, which was ultimately won by Finney-Smith.
Their head-to-head matchups, however, weren't terribly close. In three meetings between the Wildcats and Gators, Finney-Smith outscored Poythress 22-11 and outrebounded him 17-5.
Both will be called on as much more important factors in their teams' fortunes this season, even if the two may not match up face-to-face very often.
Poythress' energy, especially on the defensive end, was a key in UK's Final Four run, and he has to maintain that throughout the coming season.
For Finney-Smith, consistency will be paramount. He can't go for 10 points and nine rebounds one day, then zero and two the next as he did in the SEC tournament.
Then, there's incoming freshman Devin Robinson. The 5-star wing from Virginia is the reason we're likely to see Finney-Smith shunted to power forward. Robinson is a much better shooter than the departed Casey Prather, and he is expected to be more reliable than Finney-Smith, who went through extreme hot and cold spells in 2013-14.
Poythress will enjoy bodying up against Robinson, as the freshman gives up about 40 pounds to the junior. Robinson's ball-handling is still a work in progress, as well.
Power Forward: LSU
The Matchup: Marcus Lee, Trey Lyles and Derek Willis vs. Brian Bridgewater, Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey (pictured)
Apologies to Florida, which lists Chris Walker at power forward, but the Gators have been featured enough. Besides, aren't two NBA-caliber prospects better than one?
Mickey and Martin can frequently play together for coach Johnny Jones' Tigers because Martin can take his 6'9", 240-pound frame out to the perimeter. The former McDonald's All-American sank 33.3 percent from the arc.
If Mickey had decided to go to the NBA, Martin would have been chained to the post a bit tighter until freshman center Elbert Robinson adapted to the college game. Mickey's return gives the Tigers back not only their leading rebounder, but also the man who led the SEC in blocked shots, accounting for 106 of the team's 199 en route to SEC All-Freshman honors.
Mickey swatted eight of those 106 in the three meetings with Kentucky, helping to hold Julius Randle to 3-of-11 shooting in the Tigers' January win.
Marcus Lee and Trey Lyles could both struggle to contain Mickey's strength, and it's hard to like Lee's chances to finish anything aside from a thunderous dunk over the dangerous rim protector. That said, Lee's quite hard to shoot over himself if he sees minutes.
Martin struggled to make a major offensive impact in the UK games last season, and he too could relish a matchup against Lee or Lyles, especially if one has to follow him out to the wing.
Center: Mississippi State
The Matchup: Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Karl Towns Jr. vs. Fallou Ndoye and Gavin Ware (pictured)
Wait, what? Mississippi State is in the same ballpark as Kentucky on anything relating to basketball? The commenters are already lining up to give me a round of "dude, your a idiot" salutes.
Refer back to the title before you sharpen the hatchets. It's the "toughest" matchup. That's not to say it's necessarily competitive with UK's stud stable. And with the current state of big men in the SEC, depending on how you feel about LSU freshman Elbert Robinson or Ole Miss sophomore Sebastian Saiz, Gavin Ware is the best non-Wildcat that Verbal Commits lists as a center in the SEC.
At 6'9" and about 260 pounds, Ware is built like a slightly taller version of ex-Tennessee star Jarnell Stokes. In both of Ware's collegiate seasons, he's ranked among the SEC's top 10 rebounders. For his career, he's posted 10 double-doubles, or two more than Willie Cauley-Stein.
In last season's first meeting with Kentucky, Ware ripped down 10 rebounds. He scored 12 points in the second. So he's not a stranger to some measure of individual success against the Wildcats.
Senegal native Fallou Ndoye is a 6'11" partial qualifier who'll make his debut this season. Coach Rick Ray is excited about his potential, and the MSU basketball program released a YouTube video of some practice highlights to pique fan interest. He won't be Hakeem Olajuwon, or likely even Erick Dampier, but he does show some solid defensive instincts and a bit of shooting range.
Can he score on towering rim protectors Cauley-Stein or Karl Towns? That remains to be seen, but prepare for Big Blue palpitations if Mississippi State's big men can actually help engineer a Bulldog win. For that matter, expect even your local handsome and talented B/R columnists to sit slack-jawed for a moment.