Welcome back to the Starting 5. The Starting 5 is written multiple times per week by Adam Spencer to keep you up-to-date on all the news and events in the world of college hoops. You can follow Adam on Twitter at @AdamSpencer4 and @BlueChipGrit.

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1. Opening tipoff

Walker Kessler transferred from North Carolina to Auburn this past offseason. Bruce Pearl might want to send a fruit basket and a thank-you note to Chapel Hill.

Kessler, who averaged only 8.8 minutes per game in 29 appearances for the Tar Heels last year, has been magnificent for the Tigers. He’s started all 28 games and has been one of the best players in the SEC, if not the country. Stadium’s Jeff Goodman has Kessler at No. 8 in his National Player of the Year rankings at the moment:

Kessler has been a solid post player, averaging 12 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, but what really sets him apart is his shot-blocking ability. Through 28 games, he’s blocked 131 shots. That broke an Auburn record set by Kyle Davis during the 2002-03 season:

Here’s the block that broke the record, coming during an 8-block performance in a win over Ole Miss on Wednesday night:

Davis offered his praise to Kessler after snapping his 19-year-old record:

OK, now we’ve got all that celebration for the record out of the way. So, just how special is the season Kessler is having as a rim protector? Let’s compare his shot-blocking skills to the NBA’s current leader in the category – Memphis big man Jaren Jackson Jr.

Jackson has 129 blocks … in 59 games. Kessler has 131 swats in only 28 games:

Yes, NBA offenses are much different than they are in the college game, but the contrast between Kessler’s blocked shots and Jackson’s is still jaw-dropping.

Kessler is up to No. 8 on the SEC’s all-time single-season blocked shot list. Next up? Shaquille O’Neal, who had 140 blocks in 28 games for LSU in 1990-91. No. 1 on that list? Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, who had 186 blocks in 40 games during the Wildcats’ title run in 2011-12:

Can Kessler catch Davis? That depends on how far Auburn goes in March Madness. Davis averaged 4.7 blocks per game during his incredible season at Kentucky. Kessler is currently averaging an identical 4.7 blocks per contest.

Interestingly, Davis never had 10 blocks in a game during his Wildcat career. Kessler has already recorded double-digit blocks twice this year, finishing with triple-doubles both times. He’s having a truly historic year in the SEC, and if Auburn’s season progresses deep into March Madness, Kyle Davis might not be the only Davis whose shot-blocking record falls this year.

2. SEC notes

As we get closer to March, you’re going to start hearing more about how you have to have a dominant point guard to make a deep run in March Madness. Last year’s Baylor team had Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell. The 2018-19 Virginia Cavaliers had Ty Jerome. The 2017-18 Villanova Wildcats had Jalen Brunson.

Well, the 2021-22 Arkansas Razorbacks have JD Notae. He’s averaging 18.7 points per game, good for second in the SEC this year (behind only Scotty Pippen Jr.’s 19.7 points per contest). He’s also tied with Kennedy Chandler for most steals per game in the SEC, at 2.3.

While helping Arkansas to an 82-74 win at Florida (a place the Hogs hadn’t won since 1995) on Tuesday night, Notae scored 22 points to go with 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks. This dagger with a minute left all but clinched the win for the Hogs:

That’s the sort of confident 3-pointer Notae makes regularly. After the game, coach Eric Musselman compared Notae to Steph Curry (via On3 Sports):

“I told an NBA buddy of mine today — we were talking about our team — and I said the thing that makes (Notae) so dangerous is he shoots from anywhere,” Musselman said. “He’s like Steph Curry in the fact that those guys shoot from wherever, whenever. You think they’re absurd shots and they go in and they stretch the defense out. It really puts pressure on defensive teams because I never know when he’s going to shoot, so I don’t know how the heck they ever know when he’s going to shoot. I have no idea half the time when he pulls, but I do want the ball in his hands.”

That’s incredible praise, as Curry is the best sharpshooter in NBA history. Curry famously led Davidson to the Elite Eight in 2008 before falling to Kansas by 2 points with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

Notae was a key part of Arkansas’s Elite Eight run last year. Can he carry the Hogs even farther in March Madness this year?

  • Kentucky is also gearing up for a deep NCAA Tournament run. The Wildcats have been without starting guards Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington the past 2 games – home matchups against Alabama and LSU. But, once again on Wednesday night, the Wildcats used a big scoring run to emerge victorious. Trailing 31-23 at halftime, Kentucky and LSU traded buckets to start the second half until the score was 36-28. Then, the Wildcats went on a 19-4 run from the 17:18 mark in the second half until there was 9:42 left in the game. Big man Oscar Tshiebwe put a punctuation mark on the run with this alley-oop:

  • Tshiebwe finished with 17 points and 16 rebounds in the Wildcats’ eventual 71-66 win. Kentucky only made 2 of 12 3-point shots, but it didn’t matter, as Tshiebwe did it all. He now has the most rebounds in a single season for Kentucky in the modern era of college basketball:

  • Walker Kessler isn’t the only SEC player having a record-setting season, it seems! If Washington and Wheeler can’t go on Saturday at Arkansas, Tshiebwe is going to have to have another monster game. More on the Kentucky-Arkansas showdown in a bit.
  • In what has become a trend, Mizzou once again lost by 19 points on Tuesday night, the third time the Tigers have lost by 19 in their last 4 games (yikes). Apparently, Cuonzo Martin’s squad hasn’t seen a jab step before, as both Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi used it to devastating effect at Mizzou Arena:

  • Vescovi had 14 points, but Chandler was the star of the game, putting up 23 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals in the 80-61 win. The Tigers couldn’t stop the speedy freshman as either a scorer or a passer in transition:

  • Beating Mizzou this year is nothing to write home about, but it was a nice tuneup for the Vols’ game against Auburn on Rocky Top on Saturday afternoon. More on that game later.
  • Finally, let’s discuss Alabama’s narrow escape at Vanderbilt on Tuesday night. The 77-75 win gave us the full Crimson Tide experience. Down by 8 early in the second half? Check. Big run to make it an 11-point Tide lead with just under 7 minutes left? Check. Almost blow that lead late? Yep, check. Fortunately for Nate Oats, his decision to bring Jahvon Quinerly off the bench helped motivate him. Quinerly scored 19 points and dished out 3 assists, including this behind-the-back dime to James Rojas:

  • If Quinerly can stay motivated on both ends of the court like he was on Tuesday night, Alabama is one of the best teams in the SEC. The problem? This isn’t the first time Oats has had to call out Quinerly and other members of the team in order to get their attention. We’ll see how this team plays down the stretch.

Now, let’s move over to the Big Ten for a bit.

3. B1G notes

Illinois had a chance to climb back into a 3-way tie with Wisconsin and Purdue atop the Big Ten standings on Thursday night in Champaign. And, in the first half against Ohio State, it appeared Alfonso Plummer was going to shoot them to victory. The Utah transfer made 6 3-pointers in the first half, including one off a behind-the-back pass from Andre Curbelo (he’d finish the game with 8 3-pointers):

But, the Buckeyes managed to close the gap by halftime, trailing only 37-36 at the intermission. In the second half, it was game on, as Ohio State blew the Illini out in epic fashion, storming back to take a 61-47 lead with 11 minutes left.

The Buckeyes led 74-58 with 8 minutes left. Shortly thereafter, Illinois coach Brad Underwood earned an early trip back to the locker room. He certainly got his money’s worth going after the officials, though:

But then the Illini clawed their way back. A 3 by Trent Frazier with 14 seconds left cut Ohio State’s lead to 84-83. A 2005-like comeback wasn’t in the cards, though, as Frazier threw the ball away after a foul went uncalled on his drive to the basket in the closing seconds. Game over after some free throws, Ohio State wins 86-83.

Illini fans have some legitimate gripes with the officials, as Kofi Cockburn was ejected on a fifth foul call that was softer than Charmin. But, the Illini have only themselves to blame at the end of the day. This team is way too streaky to make a deep March Madness run. When they’re hot, they can score with anyone in the country. When they’re cold, they can get run out of any building in America.

The problem? They often show flashes of each extreme multiple times every game. At least every time the Illini play, it will be exciting!

  • Johnny Davis apparently isn’t the only clutch Davis twin. His brother, Jordan, is also on the team, and it was his turn to shine this week in a narrow 68-67 win at Minnesota. Wisconsin’s superstar only scored 12 points on 3-for-9 shooting as the Gophers did their best to limit his space. But, that allowed Steven Crowl to finish with 20 points on the night:

  • Then, Jordan Davis came through in the clutch. Coming off the bench, he had 7 points, including this key bucket with just over 2 minutes left to give the Badgers a lead:

  • With a little more than a minute left, Jordan also had a key assist to Crowl. Wisconsin relies heavily on its starting 5 (hey, that’s the name of this column!), but if Jordan Davis can continue to make the right plays when he’s on the court, the Badgers will be even more dangerous down the stretch.
  • Iowa likely won’t be a top-5 seed on Selection Sunday, but watch out for the Hawkeyes in March Madness! They have a player who, much like Johnny Davis at Wisconsin, can absolutely do it all. That would be Keegan Murray, who led his team to a blowout 86-60 win over Michigan State this week:

  • Murray finished with 28 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and a block while keeping the Spartans’ struggles going. The combo of Murray and sharpshooter Jordan Bohannon is going to be tough to stop in a tournament setting.

Next, let’s take a look at the ACC and around the rest of the country.

4. ACC notes/random tidbits

Duke lost a tough home game against Virginia earlier this year. But, on Wednesday night, the Blue Devils got some revenge, going into Charlottesville and leaving with a narrow 65-61 win.

When you play the Cavaliers, you aren’t going to have a good offensive night. That’s the way Tony Bennett’s squad plays. But, the Blue Devils did enough to win, and that’s all Coach K can ask.

They proved why they’re a title contender, winning in a tough road environment despite only getting 12 combined points from Wendell Moore Jr. and freshman sensation Paolo Banchero:

The emergence of AJ Griffin recently has been a big reason for Duke’s current 5-game winning streak. Griffin finished with 13 points, but most of those points came in clutch second-half situations. He also forced a key steal late in the game:

Coach K was absolutely loving the effort from the talented freshman forward:

If Griffin can become a consistent weapon like Banchero, Moore, Mark Williams, Jeremy Roach and Trevor Keels? Watch out for the Blue Devils come March!

  • The reason Duke doesn’t have any breathing room atop the ACC standings? The Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Mike Brey’s crew followed up a tough loss at Wake Forest with a 10-point win over Syracuse this week. The Irish have so many guys who can hurt you offensively. Against the Orange, it was big man Paul Atkinson Jr.’s turn. He finished with 20 points and 17 rebounds in the win:

  • The Irish are still very much in the race for the ACC regular-season title. They finish with home games against Georgia Tech and Pitt and a road trip to take on a struggling Florida State team. If they can win out and end the ACC season with a 16-4 record, all they’ll need is 1 more loss from Duke to claim a share of the title. It’ll be interesting to see if they take care of business with all that pressure on them.
  • One team that took a step back this week was Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons suffered a bad loss, going to Clemson and leaving with an 80-69 loss. That drops Wake to fifth place in the ACC standings with only 2 games left. The Deacons are 11-7 and could miss out on the coveted top-4 seed entering the ACC Tournament. That would really hurt their chances to win the conference tourney. We’ll see if they can avoid any additional resume-harming losses before Selection Sunday.
  • It took 3 overtimes and a 15-minute stoppage because the roof was leaking, but Providence finally held off Xavier at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Wednesday night. Much to the chagrin of Colorado State and Wyoming fans who were waiting to watch their teams square off in an important Mountain West game on CBS Sports Network, the Friars and Musketeers didn’t want to stop playing. Eventually, the Friars scored a 99-92 3OT win, but they wouldn’t have been in that spot without the heroic efforts of Jared Bynum off the bench. Bynum led all scorers with 27 points, but what he did in the overtime periods is the stuff of legend. He hit 2 huge shots in double-OT:

  • The degree of difficulty on those 2 shots was through the roof, but Bynum was just getting started. Here was his dagger 3 from way downtown in triple-OT:

  • That’s a guy leaving it all on the floor. He has been incredible off the bench lately:

  • Providence is now 23-3 on the season. Ed Cooley is a legitimate National Coach of the Year candidate and the Friars are 1 step closer to winning the Big East regular-season title. We’ll see if they can close out down the stretch!

Next, let’s take a look ahead to a loaded weekend schedule.

5. Outlet pass

The regular season is winding down, but oh boy, is the schedule ever loaded this weekend. This regular season isn’t going down without some major fights. We have a handful of ranked matchups and some key games in the standings coming in the next few days. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch this weekend:

  1. No. 6 Kentucky at No. 18 Arkansas (Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on CBS) – We saw how rowdy Bud Walton Arena can get when No. 1 Auburn came to visit a couple of weeks ago. It’s going to be another insane atmosphere on Saturday when the Wildcats come to town. TyTy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler have missed the past 2 games for Kentucky, but the Wildcats have taken down Alabama and LSU in those games. We’ll see if they can keep rolling in perhaps the toughest road environment in the SEC.
  2. No. 5 Kansas at No. 10 Baylor (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN) – A win in Waco would clinch the Big 12 regular-season title for Kansas, as the Jayhawks dominated Baylor in Lawrence earlier this year. Baylor has been banged up recently, but Scott Drew’s squad will certainly give its all in this one.
  3. No. 3 Auburn at No. 17 Tennessee (Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Bruce Pearl makes another trip back to Rocky Top, this time with the chance to make a major statement in the quest for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers have lost their last 2 road games, so this is a big one for them. Meanwhile, Tennessee will try to stay in the hunt for the regular-season title.
  4. No. 1 Gonzaga at No. 23 Saint Mary’s (Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Gonzaga hasn’t played a game within 10 points since losing to Alabama on Dec. 4. During the Bulldogs’ 16-game winning streak (heading into last night’s game against San Francisco), they haven’t really been tested. Heading to Moraga should change that. The Gaels lost in Spokane by 16 points on Feb. 12, but they’ll have the home-court advantage on Saturday night.
  5. No. 13 Wisconsin at Rutgers (Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on BTN) – Rutgers has hit a 2-game skid since a historic 4-game winning streak. But, both of those losses (against Purdue and Michigan) were outside of New Jersey. Now, with the Scarlet Knights returning home, the Badgers will need another heroic effort from Johnny Davis to pick up a win.

Every single one of those games will have major implications in conference standings and in NCAA Tournament seeding. Finishing the regular season with momentum is so very important as March Madness draws near. Who will step up and get big resume-building victories? And, who will shrink away from the spotlight. We’ll find out this weekend!

Enjoy the Starting 5? Have a question? Want to yell at me about something? Follow me on Twitter @AdamSpencer4 or email me at ASpencer@SaturdayDownSouth.com.