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

The top 2 players in the race for the SEC Player of the Year award are Kentucky big man Oscar Tshiebwe and Arkansas guard JD Notae. Fans got to watch those 2 superstars square off at Bud Walton Arena on Saturday afternoon, and goodness, did they ever deliver!

Both Notae and Tshiebwe scored 30 points. Tshiebwe added 18 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 assists and a steal to his point total. Notae dished out 8 assists, 1 rebound, 1 block and 1 steal.

Tshiebwe did what he normally does – hit a couple of mid-range jumpers, score on a couple of easy dunks off passes from Sahvir Wheeler, and grab a whole lot of offensive rebounds, leading to easy points:

Meanwhile, Notae did what he usually does. He started the game with a 3-point shot from the half-court logo and didn’t slow down. But, I was more impressed with his 8 assists. He truly is an all-around point guard, even if people usually focus only on his scoring:

Here’s a look at each player’s stat line for the season after Saturday’s shootout:

  • Tshiebwe: 16.9 points, 15.3 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 1.5 blocks, 1.1 assists per game; 59.7% FG, 69.1% FT
  • Notae: 19.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.2 steals per game; 42.4% FG, 32.1% 3FG, 76.1% FT

So, what should we make of the SEC POY race now? I’d still have Tshiebwe a hair ahead of Notae, but that could certainly change this week as both guys have 2 games left in the regular season.

The only thing I’m sure of? I want to see the Hogs and Wildcats meet up again. It could happen in the semifinals or championship game of the upcoming SEC Tournament. When those 2 star players meet, we all win.

2. SEC notes

Saturday’s game between Tennessee and Auburn in Knoxville was a good reminder to appreciate the great players in college basketball while we have them. One-and-done guys are way too common these days, so we need to make sure we realize their greatness in the moment.

In the Vols’ 67-62 win over the Tigers, we got a big-time dose of great freshmen from both sides. Jabari Smith Jr. lead all scorers with 27 points, making some truly ridiculous shots in the process:

Meanwhile, Tennessee freshman Kennedy Chandler was +13 when he was on the floor for the Vols on Saturday. He earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors over Smith for his efforts:

Walker Kessler had 4 blocks against Tennessee – far from his best game in that regard, but still impressive. However, Chandler got into the paint fearlessly time and time again during his 13-point effort, sneaking the ball by Kessler:

No one in the country is better than Chandler at finishing at the rim at full speed. It’s only fitting that he scored the game’s decisive bucket in similar fashion:

Enjoy watching Chandler and Smith while you still can. Smith might be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, and Chandler is playing like a lottery pick right now. He’ll need to improve from the free-throw line, as it’s unacceptable that he makes only 62.7% of his free throws. Other than that, though, he’s playing like a star, and he’s a huge reason the Vols have been rolling lately.

  • Was Phlandrous Fleming Jr. geared up to play his hometown team or what? The Florida guard is a native of Athens, Georgia, and he let the Bulldogs have it on Saturday, scoring 27 points, grabbing 5 rebounds and dishing out 4 assists in the Gators’ important 84-72 victory:

  • Most importantly, the Gators avoided a disastrous loss. Now, their NCAA Tournament hopes are still alive as they enter the final week of the regular season. A Tuesday night road trip to Vanderbilt is a must-win for Mike White’s crew. Then, beating Kentucky on Saturday would all but lock up the Gators’ March Madness spot. A loss would mean the Gators likely need 2 wins in the SEC Tournament. If Fleming plays like he did Saturday, though, an upset over Kentucky isn’t out of the question.
  • The Alabama team we saw in Saturday’s 90-71 win over South Carolina is the team that could repeat as SEC Tournament champions. The Tide’s 4 star guards – Jaden Shackelford (21 points), Jahvon Quinerly (20), Keon Ellis (17) and JD Davison (10) – combined for 68 of the Tide’s 90 points. They also combined to go 12-for-23 from 3-point range. The rest of the team went 1-for-10 from beyond the arc. Was Saturday’s strong showing a sign of this team turning the corner? Or, will the season-long roller coaster ride continue? That’s the million-dollar question that no one, not even Nate Oats, knows the answer to.
  • Xavier Pinson got his revenge on his old team on Saturday, leading LSU to a 75-55 win over Mizzou in Baton Rouge. He scored 10 points and had 3 assists, so he didn’t exactly light things up, but he did dish out this nice alley-oop to Tari Eason, who led all scorers with 18 points:

  • He did score on this incredible layup, though:

  • Regardless of Pinson’s stats, he and his new team of Tigers are going to the NCAA Tournament. Mizzou very much is not. Pinson won that battle, it would seem.

Now, let’s dive into some of the biggest stories in the Big Ten.

3. B1G notes

Michigan State had been trending the wrong way ahead of Selection Sunday. Entering Saturday’s home game against then-No. 4 Purdue, the Spartans had dropped 3 games in a row to fall out of the B1G regular-season title race.

But, the Spartans came through when it counted, likely clinching their March Madness berth. Michigan State held Purdue to 1-for-9 shooting from 3-point range. So, despite Zach Edey (25 points) and Jaden Ivey (16 points) combining for 41 points, the Spartans were able to win.

Tyson Walker played the role of hero on Saturday. He rattled home this 3-pointer with less than 5 seconds left to clinch the victory:

After the win, the Spartans are up to No. 34 in the KenPom rankings. BracketMatrix.com has Tom Izzo’s squad as a solid 7-seed. But, the Spartans still have some dangerous games left. They play at rival Michigan, at No. 23 Ohio State and at home against Maryland to close the regular season.

The Spartans, despite this win over Purdue, still don’t look like a team that can compete for the B1G Tournament title. But, if we’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s to never count Izzo out in March.

  • Alfonso Plummer is perhaps the hottest shooter in the major conferences right now (Liberty’s Darius McGhee might hold that title if we’re talking nationwide). After going 8-for-10 from 3-point range in a loss to Ohio State last week, Plummer continued torching the nets, going 6-for-9 from long range and scoring 26 points in a 93-85 victory over Michigan on Sunday. His 3-point looks aren’t easy, either. He can stop on a dime, control his body and hit 3s in transition:

  • He can catch and shoot better than anyone in the Big Ten:

  • He leads the Big Ten with 88 made 3-pointers this year, and it’s not hard to see why when he drains long looks like this:

  • Illinois also got 27 points and 7 rebounds from big man Kofi Cockburn on Sunday. Trent Frazier added 17 points and Andre Curbelo had 12 off the bench. Those 4 guys are the keys to Illinois’ postseason fortunes. If they play well, the Illini are a Final Four team. If they struggle at all, though, they’re susceptible to an early March Madness exit.
  • Wisconsin won at Rutgers, 66-61, on Saturday night. National Player of the Year candidate Johnny Davis scored 19 points and had 8 rebounds, but he had to work for absolutely everything. That’s because Rutgers’ Caleb McConnell made life tough for Davis, holding him to just 6-for-19 shooting thanks to some incredible defense:

  • But, at times, good offense beats good defense. You can’t stop a player of Davis’s caliber, you can only contain him. McConnell did a great job of that, but Davis still made some tough buckets:

  • He’s a truly special player. Wisconsin has a 1-game lead in the B1G standings with a Tuesday night home game against second-place Purdue. More on that game in a bit.
  • Ohio State couldn’t keep its positive momentum going after a big win against Illinois. On Sunday, the Buckeyes were blown out 75-60 against a Maryland team that has been tough to beat at home. Ohio State had no answer for Fatts Russell and Eric Ayala, who combined for 50 points – 27 for Russell, 23 for Ayala. Russell made some difficult shots, but he was also effective setting up Ayala for some easy buckets:

  • Maryland is only 14-15 overall and only 6-12 in B1G play, but with wins over Ohio State, Illinois and Rutgers to their name, the Terrapins are a team no one is going to want to see in the B1G Tournament.

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

4. ACC notes

North Carolina can’t afford any bad losses. The Tar Heels should be in the NCAA Tournament as things stand now, but their position isn’t exactly secure. So, Monday night’s game in Chapel Hill against a not-great Syracuse team was a must-win.

The Tar Heels needed some late heroics to win, but they got the job done. First, Caleb Love hit this 3 to give the Heels a 2-point lead with only a few seconds left:

The win wasn’t secure yet, though, as Joe Girard tied it up with this nice mid-range bucket with less than 2 seconds left:

Love then went on to score 8 of UNC’s 15 points in overtime to lead the Heels to an 88-79 victory over the Orange. He finished the game with 21 points, and also dished out 3 assists, including this one to Armando Bacot:

Bacot made another strong case for ACC Player of the Year, scoring 17 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in the win. Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek had 22 points. R.J. Davis added 17. Those 4 guys do a lot of heavy lifting for the Tar Heels.

This isn’t a deep UNC squad, but it is talented. The Heels clinched a top-4 seed in the ACC Tournament with Monday’s victory. Now, we’ll see if they can play spoiler at Duke on Saturday in Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

  • Speaking of Duke, the Blue Devils continue to roll. They also recently beat Syracuse, winning 97-72 at the Carrier Dome on Saturday. They were the only top-10 team to win on Saturday on a day of historic upsets. In that game, Mark Williams (28 points, 12 rebounds), Paolo Banchero (21 points, 9 assists) and AJ Griffin (20 points) did something that hasn’t been done since Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish were wearing the Duke uniform:

  • When you’re mentioned in the same breath as those 3 guys, you’re doing something right! Duke is up to No. 4 in the AP Poll now. A good showing at the ACC Tournament should be enough to get the Blue Devils a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. That wouldn’t be a bad sendoff for Coach K!
  • Armaan Franklin thought he had the game-winner for Virginia on Saturday against Florida State. The Seminoles failed to do the first job any defense has in transition – stop the ball. He scored to give the Cavaliers a 63-61 win with 1 second left. The Seminoles were inbounding from the opposite end of the court. But, a long pass found Matthew Cleveland’s hands and he hit an incredible turnaround 3 to give the Seminoles the victory:

  • At 15-13, FSU isn’t going to the NCAA Tournament without winning the ACC Tournament. But, Saturday’s win probably burst Virginia’s tourney bubble. It’s always fun to play spoiler!

Next, let’s take a look at a busy few days coming up on the college hoops calendar.

5. Outlet pass

We’re entering the final week of the regular season around college hoops. Some conference tournaments start this week. However, the major conferences wait until next year to get postseason play started. The next 3 days feature plenty of important games with regards to standings and tourney seedings. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch between now and Friday:

  1. No. 8 Purdue at No. 10 Wisconsin (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN) – The Badgers are 14-4 in Big Ten play. The Boilermakers (and Illinois) are both a game behind at 13-5. The Illini host Penn State and Iowa to close out the regular season. If Wisconsin wins this game, it will all but lock up the B1G regular-season championship. Lose, and things get a lot more interesting heading into the final weekend of league play.
  2. No. 9 Providence at No. 11 Villanova (Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. ET on FS1) – Providence secured its first-ever Big East title over the weekend. But, the Friars lost at home against Villanova by 5 points on Feb. 15. This will be an important game for Ed Cooley’s squad to gain some confidence against the team that has dominated the Big East in recent years. After all, they could meet again in the Big East Tournament title game.
  3. No. 2 Arizona at No. 16 USC (Tuesday at 11 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Arizona fell victim to the second leg of the mountain road trip (at Utah and at Colorado) on Saturday. But, the Wildcats are still the No. 2 team in the country, and they’ll have a chance to solidify their No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a win over the Trojans in Los Angeles on Tuesday night.
  4. No. 5 Auburn at Mississippi State (Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on SECN) – Auburn has lost its last 3 road games. Prior to that losing streak, the Tigers won by 1 at Mizzou and by 2 at Georgia – not exactly inspiring victories. This is their last true road game of the year. We’ll see if the Tigers can pick up a confidence booster against a Mississippi State team that absolutely must win this game to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
  5. No. 24 Iowa at Michigan (Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on FS1) – The Hawkeyes are almost certainly going to the NCAA Tournament. But, the Wolverines are 15-12 and have some serious work to do to make March Madness. We’ll see if interim coach Phil Martelli can guide Michigan to a big Quad 1 win over a ranked opponent.

That’s a loaded slate of games. Some top teams have work to do to secure their NCAA Tournament seeds. Meanwhile, some bubble teams are hanging on by a thread and need big wins desperately. Prepare for some intense basketball this week!

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.