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.

1. Opening tipoff

What’s it like playing Kentucky this year?

If North Carolina players had to pick just 1 word to describe the experience after Saturday’s 98-69 blowout loss to the Wildcats in Las Vegas, I bet many of them would pick “frustrating.”

Why? Well, Kentucky is the best rebounding team in the country this year, averaging 16 more rebounds per game than their opponents. The Wildcats snagged 44 boards on Saturday, compared to only 26 for the Tar Heels.

This possession, on which Kentucky took 4 shots before scoring, sums up the Wildcats’ dominance on the boards:

Kentucky has had a stifling defense to go along with its rebounding prowess this year, too. The strong defense has been the case the past couple of years, but the Wildcats still have plenty of studs on that end of the floor.

The perimeter defense was great on Saturday, as the Tar Heels were held to only 1 3-pointer in 13 attempts (7.7%). That’s awful. Kentucky shot a robust 8-for-15 from beyond the arc by comparison. Kellan Grady was a big factor in that, going 5-for-7 from long range.

The Wildcat offense was clicking on all cylinders, getting Grady some nice open looks:

That’s great play design. The Wildcats were also getting point guard Sahvir Wheeler into the left side of the lane so he could shoot with his dominant left hand. He rewarded the effort, finishing with 26 points on 12-of-15 shooting while also dishing out 8 assists.

Here are a couple of well-designed plays to get Wheeler moving to his left:

Meanwhile, Oscar Tshiebwe did what he has done all year long, scoring 16 points and grabbing 12 boards. He’s become an even bigger scoring threat in the post. If he’s making shots like this, it’s game over for Kentucky opponents:

This post move is just a work of art:

He’s so fun to watch. And he’s having a ton of fun playing the game. It’s contagious.

I’ll end this section with a quote from John Calipari that made me sigh with frustration:

Welcome to modern basketball, Coach Cal! If only you’d learned that lesson last year, or heading into the Notre Dame game, or literally any time since Steph Curry set the NBA on fire with his record-breaking 3-point shooting.

Nate Oats and the Alabama Crimson Tide won the SEC title and tournament title with great 3-point shooting, lots of free throws and stingy defense. That’s the formula to get to the top of the league this year, too. Kentucky has the guys to do it. Big Blue Nation needs to hope the coaching staff is getting with the program, too.

2. SEC notes

There are plenty of stories to discuss in the SEC, but let’s start with Auburn’s 74-70 win at Saint Louis on Saturday night. First, kudos to the Tigers for going on the road to play the tough Atlantic 10 team.

Second, kudos to Auburn for pulling out the win! It quickly turned into the Walker Kessler and Wendell Green Jr. show, as the Billikens (I’m not 100% sure what that is, either) couldn’t stop the Tigers’ pick-and-roll action.

Kessler finished with 19 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocks, while Green added 15 points and 8 assists. However, when Green is setting up Kessler for alley-oops like these, the points and assists come pretty easily:

Good on the Tigers for continuing to hammer the play that was working. If they can’t stop it, don’t stop running it!

Don’t worry – Jabari Smith was still doing Jabari Smith things:

But, with Kessler and Green running the 2-man game so well, everyone else might as well have just sat on the bench to rest.

Even more good news could soon be heading Auburn’s way. Coach Bruce Pearl said there’s a chance Allen Flanigan could play on Wednesday night:

What a boost that would be for the 10-1 Tigers!

  • Arkansas. What are you doing? Hofstra came into Fayetteville on Saturday and, without leading scorer Zach Cooks, beat the Razorbacks 89-81. That’s embarrassing for Eric Musselman’s squad. For a team that went to the Elite Eight last year to lose like that … yikes. Former Razorback Abayomi Iyiola had a huge game for the Pride, scoring 18 points and grabbing 14 rebounds:

  • You know that win meant a lot to him. Now, though, the Hogs face some serious questions. Behind JD Notae and Chris Lykes, this team needs a guy who can consistently get buckets. Also, the interior defense leaves a lot to be desired.
  • Darius Days had 13 points and 18 (not a typo) rebounds in a come-from-behind win over Louisiana Tech on Saturday night. But, the LSU big man wasn’t the only star for the Tigers. Once again, Tari Eason dominated, scoring 21 points and grabbing 8 boards. He can dominate in a variety of ways. He can hit 3-pointers:

  • And he’s also lethal around the basket:

  • He has been the breakout star in the SEC this year, going from unknown to team leader in only 11 games. He’s led the Tigers in points in 7 of the last 7 games and doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.
  • Welcome back, Daeshun Ruffin! The Ole Miss freshman came back from injury in a big way over the weekend, leading the Rebels with 19 points in a big win over Dayton. He was scoring from all over:

  • He’s the X factor for Ole Miss. He takes the Rebels from an SEC afterthought to a team that could live on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Let’s hope he can stay healthy during conference play.
  • Just when I thought Mizzou was dead, the Tigers pulled off an 83-75 win over a tough Utah squad on Saturday afternoon. Kobe Brown couldn’t miss down low. He scored a career-high 26 points while also adding career highs in free throw attempts (13) and makes (11):

  • With Brown playing like that, I’m cautiously optimistic about the Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois on Wednesday night. To quote the great Michael Scott – no doubt about it, I am ready to get hurt again.

Now, let’s move on to some Big Ten notes.

3. B1G notes

Kofi Cockburn absolutely dominated against St. Francis (PA) over the weekend in Illinois’ 106-48 victory. St. Francis simply didn’t have anyone who could match up with Cockburn, who finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks.

But, the more impressive feat from the Illini was a school-record 18 3-pointers. Alfonso Plummer went 5-for-10 from 3-point range, and the team shot 18-for-34 from beyond the arc (52.9%). Look at the ball movement on this 3 from Plummer:

Plummer is a senior, and has been a breakout star this year. Since coming over from Utah, he’s made an immediate impact. With Andre Curbelo still out with concussion symptoms, Plummer has been a bright spot for the Illini offense.

Now, we’ll see if the Illini can pick up a rivalry game win against Mizzou on Wednesday night and potentially work their way back into the top 25.

  • Jaden Ivey is absolutely incredible. I’m going to keep talking about it as long as he keeps dominating. Purdue routed in-state foe Butler over the weekend, 77-48, and Ivey was electric. He scored 22 points, grabbed 5 rebounds and dished out a pair of assists. Here’s his incredible highlight reel:

  • My 1 concern is that he doesn’t get a ton of lift on his jump shot. That might come back to haunt him against lengthier defenders in the NBA. But, for now, everything he touches turns to gold. Purdue is so much more exciting when he’s on the floor.
  • Indiana got off to a slow start against Notre Dame over the weekend. Considering Notre Dame was coming off a big win over Kentucky, it was reasonable for Hoosier fans to get a little nervous. But, unlike in the Archie Miller era, this year’s Mike Woodson-led team stayed calm and clawed its way back into the game, pulling off a 64-56 victory. Trayce Jackson-Davis was a star (again), scoring 17 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. The crazy thing is he’s still not as smooth as he could be in the post. This double-hitch after a great spin move could have let a defender get into place for a help-side block:

  • This was more authoritative. Going up strong, no hesitation:

  • If he can hold his own against guys like Kofi Cockburn and Hunter Dickinson this year, Indiana can make some noise in Big Ten play. If not, the Hoosiers will continue to disappoint. No pressure, Trayce!

Now, let’s move on to some of the top ACC stories.

4. ACC notes/random tidbits

I’ve been critical of Virginia this year, and will likely continue to be so, but I have to give credit to a certain player – ECU transfer big man Jayden Gardner. Gardner had 29 points on 14-of-18 shooting:

Starting point guard Kihei Clark only had a single point. He shot 0-of-1 from the floor and 1-for-2 from the free-throw line. But, it didn’t matter, as Gardner did the heavy lifting in an 82-49 win over Fairleigh Dickinson.

Now, for context, Fairleigh Dickinson entered the game 0-9 overall. It is now 0-10 and 0-9 on the road. Can we get the Knights some home games, please?

That’ll do it for nonconference play for the Cavaliers. Now, we’ll find out if they can get it together in time for ACC play. The Hoos are 1-0 in ACC action with a win over Pitt. They resume league play with 3 winnable games vs. Clemson, at Syracuse and at Clemson. That will teach us a lot about Tony Bennett’s team this year.

Some guys other than Gardner are going to have to show up on a nightly basis if this team is going to finish in the top half of the ACC standings, though.

  • Wake Forest is a team worth paying attention to moving forward. The Demon Deacons are 11-1 and just took down Charlotte 82-79 on a buzzer beater. Isaiah Mucius hit the game-winning 3-pointer:

  • Alondes Williams had a game-high 34 points, but he dished out a crucial assist on that game-winning 3. A lot of guys would have taken that shot. Instead, Williams made the smart basketball play, finding Mucius for the win. Great pass.
  • Speaking of buzzer beaters, how about one for Pitt against St. John’s? Jamarius Burton delivered this one, getting into the lane and hitting a tough shot over a defender as time expired:

  • This is not a great Pitt team, as the Panthers are only 4-7 after the win. But, the talent is there for them to pull off an upset or 2 in SEC play, especially at home. We’ll find out who falls victim to the Pitt trap game moving forward.

Now, let’s take a look at the next few days on the college basketball calendar.

5. Outlet pass

Just like last week, COVID continues to impact schedules around the country. Hopefully, the 5 games I mention below can all be played, but we’ll find out as the week progresses. Optimistically, here are the 5 matchups I can’t wait to watch between now and Friday:

  1. No. 6 Arizona at No. 19 Tennessee (Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2) – Arizona is a perfect 11-0. Tennessee has a superstar freshman in Kennedy Chandler. This would be a huge win for the Vols’ resume, but Arizona is hungry for another big road win after taking down Illinois in Champaign recently. This should be the best matchup of the week!
  2. No. 18 Xavier at No. 23 Villanova (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on FS1) – Villanova is a disappointing 7-4, but those 4 losses are nothing to scoff at. The Wildcats have fallen in OT at UCLA, lost on a neutral court to Purdue, and lost to Baylor and Creighton on the road. We’ll see if a little home cooking helps Jay Wright’s team pick up win No. 8.
  3. No. 7 Kansas at Colorado (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2) – This former Big 12 rivalry should be good this year. Kansas is a title contender and Colorado isn’t, but heading up to the altitude in Boulder to play is never easy. We’ll see if the Buffaloes can use it to their advantage and pull off a major upset.
  4. Murray State at No. 12 Auburn (Wednesday at 6 p.m. ET on SECN) – This is a Murray State team that will enter this game 10-1 with a win over Memphis on its resume. The Tigers should still win on their home court, but this is not an opponent Bruce Pearl’s squad can afford to overlook.
  5. Illinois vs. Mizzou (Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on BTN) – Of course the annual Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis is going to be in my top 5! Both of these teams could be winless (thankfully, they aren’t) and it would still be an entertaining game. Illinois has been inconsistent this year, so we’ll see if the Illini can avoid an upset loss against the Tigers, who come in hot after a win over Utah.

Enjoy the last few days of nonconference play. Once the calendars flip to 2022, it’ll be time to dive in headfirst to conference action. That’s when the contenders and pretenders will start to separate themselves from one another. Still, though, there’s nothing wrong with the big-time games listed above!

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.