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 @SDSBasketball.

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1. Opening tipoff

Alabama did it!

The Crimson Tide beat Gonzaga and Houston – 2 of last year’s Final Four teams – back in December. But, after the Tide lost at Georgia last Tuesday, not many expected them to be able to take down reigning-champion Baylor on Saturday evening.

Well, the Tide not only did it – they won comfortably, scoring an 87-78 victory. So, what changed from Tuesday? How did Alabama put the finishing touches on its Final Four trifecta?

For one, the crowd was loud. The Tide have had some lackluster efforts this year, but they do seem to get up for big games. Alabama fans delivered an electric atmosphere, as you can hear in this clip where Jaden Shackelford finds Keon Ellis after a steal for a fast-break dunk:

Freshman JD Davison also got the fans on their feet with a massive dunk:

Shackelford, who finished the game with 19 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals, made a major impact. In addition to that fast-break assist to Ellis on the dunk above, Shackelford also found Ellis for a transition 3 on this key possession in the second half:

But, the biggest reason for Alabama’s success on Saturday was Jahvon Quinerly. He has struggled mightily with his shooting this year, but he was on fire on Saturday, scoring a team-high 20 points and going 3-for-6 from long range. These are the kinds of shots he launched and made with confidence last year:

If he is indeed heating up, the Tide have a great chance to leave their recent inconsistency behind them. Ironically, the Tide have beaten 3 Final Four teams from last season, but not the one – UCLA – that knocked them out of last year’s NCAA Tournament.

We’ll see if the Tide can continue rolling and potentially meet up with the Bruins in March Madness again this year. Next up for the Tide are 2 more big-time games – at No. 1 Auburn on Tuesday night and vs. No. 5 Kentucky on Saturday night. The fun is just getting started, folks!

2. SEC notes

Kentucky pulled off something not many road teams can do, taking down No. 5 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday during the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Even more impressive was the final score – 80-62 in favor of the Wildcats.

That big margin of victory is due in large part to Keion Brooks Jr.’s career night. He finished the game with a career-high 27 points to go with 8 rebounds. How did he do it? Well, he was the perfect guy to work the middle of Kansas’s zone defense:

He was also in the right spot to be the beneficiary of a couple of nice passes from his teammates:

Oscar Tshiebwe finished the game with 17 points and 14 rebounds. Kansas was stopping the baseline spin that he used so effectively against Mississippi State. So, what did he do? He knocked down some open jump shots instead:

The Wildcats are firing on all cylinders now, and it’s an impressive thing to see. They absolutely deserve their No. 5 ranking, and will have a chance to rise even higher if they can beat Vanderbilt and Alabama this week.

  • Jabari Smith Jr. had a big bounce-back game in Auburn’s blowout 86-68 win over Oklahoma on Saturday. After making only 2 of his 15 shots against Mizzou, he went 6-for-14 from the floor and 9-for-10 from the free-throw line in Auburn’s big win, scoring 23 points and grabbing a career-high 12 rebounds. Yes, he was still making incredible shots like these:

  • But, I was more impressed with Smith’s defense. The effort and tenacity on this possession are qualities NBA scouts will love:

  • Then, on this play, he stays vertical and ends the possession with an emphatic block:

  • Being able to hold up in 1-on-1 defense is a great quality to have. To me, that’s what separates him from Duke’s Paolo Banchero in the race to be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
  • Florida bounced back from blowing a lead at Tennessee midweek to take down Oklahoma State 81-72 in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Saturday. The Gators were incredibly aggressive, getting to the free-throw line 41 times, making 33 of them. But, I was most impressed with Tyree Appleby, who had 21 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds and 3 steals. When he’s hitting shots like this, the Gators are going to be tough to beat:

  • Then, there’s this play, where Appleby’s aggressive defense leads to easy offense:

  • That’s how you erase a 45-32 halftime deficit! Of course, the Gators will need to address why they gave up 45 points to the Cowboys in the first 20 minutes. But, for now, this is a positive they can try to build on.
  • No SEC team this side of Auburn is hotter than Arkansas right now. The Razorbacks have won 6 games in a row and took down a strong West Virginia squad on Saturday. As college hoops insider Jon Rothstein says, facing West Virginia is “tougher than a long weekend at your in-laws.” But, as tough as the Mountaineers are, Jaylin Williams is even tougher. Williams struggled a bit offensively, scoring 12 points on 3-for-13 shooting. But, his defense was impeccable. He was physical in the post, grabbing 15 rebounds and altering numerous shots. This was a great defensive possession from Williams:

  • His emergence has been the key to the Hogs’ resurgence in recent weeks. This is not a team anyone wants to face right now, and Williams is a big reason why.

Next, let’s take a look at the Big Ten.

3. B1G notes

Jaden Ivey can’t go to the NBA fast enough for Ohio State fans. Heck, at this point, Buckeye fans will probably help him pack up so he leaves Purdue for good.

Trailing 52-32 with 14:39 left in Sunday’s game in West Lafayette, the Buckeyes didn’t give up. In fact, they battled all the way back to tie it up at 78-78 with less than 30 seconds to go.

But, they left too much time on the clock for Ivey and the Boilermakers. As you can see below, he hit an incredible shot to give Purdue a thrilling home victory:

That’s a big-time 3, and that’s why it’s easy to see why he’s looking like a 2022 NBA Draft lottery pick. He scored 21 points off the bench, knocking down this deep 3 earlier in the game:

So, why will he be haunting Ohio State’s dreams? Well, he hit a buzzer-beating 3 to down the Buckeyes in Columbus just last season:

Fortunately for Ohio State, Ivey will almost certainly leave Purdue for the pros after this year. But, if the Boilermakers meet the Buckeyes in the postseason, fans will understandably be sweating if the game is tight late.

  • Max Christie led Michigan State with 16 points in Saturday’s 83-67 win over rival Michigan. Malik Hall scored 15. Joey Hauser added 14. But, I want to focus on A.J. Hoggard, who scored 11 points off the bench and had an impressive 10 assists in 23 minutes of play. He embarrassed a couple of Wolverine defenders on this play:

  • He also earned some oohs and ahhs from the crowd with this fastball pass:

  • I love guys who can dish out assists at a high level. Hoggard is going to earn some more playing time if he keeps seeing the court like he did on Saturday.
  • Wisconsin had its hands full at home against a not-great Minnesota team on Saturday. But, the Badgers managed to grind out a 66-60 win to stay tied with Illinois atop the Big Ten standings heading into Wednesday night’s game (more on that game in a second). This section, as it usually is, will be about Johnny Davis. He scored 16 points and had 15 rebounds, refusing to let his team lose. This shot down the stretch was an absolute dagger to the Gophers:

  • Davis is a National Player of the Year late-season watch list nominee, and he should be a frontrunner for the award when all is said and done. He’s incredible to watch and isn’t afraid of having the ball in his hands in big moments. That’s a trait you can’t teach.

Now, let’s move on to the biggest ACC stories of the week.

4. ACC notes

At halftime of Monday night’s game between Duke and Notre Dame, the scoreboard looked more like a football game. The Blue Devils held a 27-14 lead at the intermission, with the Irish failing to make a single 3-pointer.

By the end of the game, Duke had earned itself a 57-43 victory on the strength of that defense. The Blue Devils held the Irish to 17-of-61 shooting (27.9%), including an abysmal 3-for-18 (16.7%) from 3-point range.

Freshman sensation Paolo Banchero continues to show why he should be firmly in the mix for the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft with Jabari Smith Jr. He had 21 points and 9 rebounds against Notre Dame, hitting 3s and looking good in the mid-range game:

He wasn’t credited with an assist in the game, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t setting up his teammates. This is what we call a hockey assist, as Banchero makes this play, even though he doesn’t make the pass that leads directly to the made 3:

That’s just great court vision. Banchero is so dangerous when he has the ball in his hands, and his defense is improving, too. Duke is hanging around in the ACC standings, tied with Miami atop the conference at 8-2. It’s going to be a fun battle down the stretch!

  • A team that is no longer atop the ACC standings is Florida State. After winning 5 ACC games in a row, including 2 over Miami, the Seminoles have hit a rough patch. Leonard Hamilton’s squad has suffered back-to-back bad blowout losses, falling at Georgia Tech 75-61 and, on Saturday, getting blown out at home against Virginia Tech, 85-72. Is it time to panic in Tallahassee? Probably not. FSU has a road trip to Clemson on Wednesday night. That’s a winnable game. Then, Wake Forest comes to town on Saturday. Win those 2 games, get to 8-4 and the Noles should be back in the race for a double-bye in the ACC Tournament.
  • North Carolina big man Armando Bacot recently had his streak of 10-straight double-doubles come to an end against Boston College. So, what did he do? Well, he started a new streak on Saturday in a 100-80 rout of NC State. He had 18 points and 13 rebounds in the win simply by being more physical than the NC State bigs. Here’s an easy bucket off of a nice zip pass from Brady Manek:

  • Bacot is right there with Banchero and others for the ACC Player of the Year award. We’ll see how long his new double-double streak lasts. At 7-3 in ACC play, the Tar Heels could ride Bacot’s dominance into the top spot in the league if they keep winning.

Now, let’s take a look at a busy next few days in college hoops.

5. Outlet pass

Now that we’ve flipped our calendars to February, it’s time to start playing some more intense rivalry games. There’s plenty of that between now and Friday, and there are also plenty of top teams hitting the road in potential upset games. Here are the games I can’t wait to watch over the next 3 days:

  1. Alabama at No. 1 Auburn (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Auburn is the best team in the nation and already has a win over Alabama this year. Can the Tigers make it 2-0 against their biggest rivals? Or, will Alabama score yet another win over a top-5 team this season? Auburn Arena is going to be rocking!
  2. No. 11 Wisconsin at No. 18 Illinois (Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on BTN) – The Badgers and Illini are tied atop the B1G standings with identical 8-2 records. Illinois beat Michigan State in its last home game. Can the Illini win another big game at Assembly Hall? This should be an intense atmosphere.
  3. No. 3 UCLA at No. 7 Arizona (Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2) – The Bruins recently blew out Arizona in Los Angeles. This game will be in Tucson, though, and will have fans in attendance. It’ll be a completely different atmosphere. UCLA is 8-1 in Pac-12 play and Arizona is 7-1. The Wildcats need this win to get back at the Bruins for that previous loss.
  4. No. 10 Kansas at No. 20 Iowa State (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Iowa State lost by 1 in Allen Fieldhouse earlier this year. Can the Cyclones hand the Jayhawks their second Big 12 loss in Kansas’s trip to Ames? If Iowa State wants to remain ranked, it’ll have to have a great showing on Tuesday night.
  5. No. 23 Texas at No. 14 Texas Tech (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2) – Chris Beard makes his return to Lubbock! Let’s just say I don’t anticipate Texas Tech fans giving their former coach too warm of a welcome. The boo birds should be out in full force on Tuesday night. We’ll see if the Longhorns can overcome it and pick up a big-time road win.

Between those rivalry games, Chris Beard’s return to Texas Tech and other action around the country, there will be plenty to watch for. Then, this weekend’s schedule is just as good, as we’ll discuss in Friday’s column. It’s February and we’re hitting the stretch run, folks! Enjoy it while you can!

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.