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

Wednesday night’s game between No. 11 Auburn and No. 16 LSU was between the top-2 teams in the conference, record-wise. The LSU version of the Tigers entered with a perfect 12-0 record, although their nonconference schedule left a lot to be desired. Meanwhile, the Auburn version of the Tigers came in with an 11-1 mark – the lone loss being a double-overtime thriller against a ranked UConn team.

In the first 10 minutes of the game, Auburn absolutely ran LSU out of the gym. LSU started the game 0-for-16 from the floor and 0-for-11 from 3-point range while Auburn built up an 18-1 lead. Finally, with 9:14 left in the first half, LSU made its first shot.

LSU managed to claw its way back into the game, but Auburn’s defense held the visiting team to 21 points in the first half. That was in the top-5 all-time defensive performances in Auburn Arena history:

The defensive showing was thanks in large part to big man Walker Kessler, who had a 16-point, 11-block (yes, really), 10-rebound triple-double in Auburn’s 70-55 win. It was the second triple-double in school history:

You just have to shake your head at some of these shots opposing teams try to take against Kessler:

His offensive game is also impressively diverse. Sure, he scores a lot on easy dunks and alley-oops:

But if he can hit 3s at a consistent rate, too, watch out!

Not the best looking shot, but when you’re 7-1, you don’t have to worry about getting it blocked.

Meanwhile, a guy with an even smoother offensive game is freshman sensation Jabari Smith Jr. He went coast-to-coast to end the first half:

When he can also hit 3s like they’re nothing, he’s almost unstoppable:

Now, based on the above, you might think it was a bad defensive night for LSU. But, I’d disagree. Holding this Auburn team to 70 is actually encouraging for Will Wade’s squad. That defense is going to win LSU a bunch of SEC games.

But, this was the first real test LSU has faced all year, and it came up short on the road. Auburn is the clear No. 1 team in the SEC as things stand now, and this is going to be an exciting squad to watch as the season goes on.

It’s time to start considering Auburn a Final Four contender. Bruce Pearl’s team has a strong defensive big man in Kessler, an elite all-around player in Smith, and several guys – including Wendell Green Jr., Allen Flanigan and KD Johnson – who can create their own shots. That’s a dangerous combination. Not many teams will be able to match up with the Tigers moving forward.

2. SEC notes

I’ve called Kentucky a frustrating team to play a couple of times this year already, thanks to big man Oscar Tshiebwe. The man is a rebounding machine, and it isn’t just because of brute force. If anything, he’s more of a finesse rebounder.

Watching Tshiebwe position himself on the court reminds me of this clip from Dennis Rodman in “The Last Dance”:

After a 28-rebound performance against Western Kentucky last week, Mizzou held him to “only” 20 boards in the Wildcats’ 83-56 rout of the Tigers in Lexington on Wednesday night. But, it’s plays like this where Tshiebwe helps Kentucky get multiple shots in 1 possession that make the Wildcats so frustrating for opponents:

As David Sisk mentions in the above tweet, it’s not like Kentucky had a good shooting night on Wednesday. But, when you’re +14 in the rebound category, you’re going to be competitive in the game.

As the game goes on, Tshiebwe seemingly just gets stronger, too. This possession is late in the second half, with the game pretty much in hand for Kentucky. Does that matter to Oscar the Beast, though? Reader, it certainly does not.

Watch him run the court here, getting in position in the post, boxing out the Missouri player, grabbing an easy rebound and slamming the second-chance opportunity with authority:

Tshiebwe really, truly, is a game-changer. When he’s on the court, I’m watching him whether or not he has the ball. He’s that special of a player. And, if Kentucky is going to compete for the SEC title, he needs to keep doing what he does best – grabbing boards and scoring easy buckets.

  • I’ve been urging patience with Alabama in recent weeks, even after losses to Memphis and Davidson. But, now, I’m starting to get concerned. The Tide managed to beat No. 14 Tennessee 73-68 at home to open SEC play on Wednesday night, which looks good on paper. But, the Vols were without arguably their 2 best players – freshman PG Kennedy Chandler and veteran big man John Fulkerson. To me, that means the Tide should have won by double figures. Instead, they shot 7-for-31 from 3-point range (22.6%) and 14-of-21 from the free-throw line (66.7%) in the narrow win. That’s not going to cut it against teams at full strength. When Jahvon Quinerly and Jaden Shackelford combine to go 3-for-17 from long range, it’s a problem for this team. There’s no rest for the Tide, either, as a trip to Lexington to take on a tough Kentucky team looms large on Tuesday.
  • Arkansas was without leading scorer JD Notae for the SEC opener at Mississippi State on Wednesday night, so it was always going to be an uphill climb for Eric Musselman’s squad. However, going to Starkville and losing 81-68 wasn’t a good look for a team that made the Elite 8 last year. But, it’s tough to blame Notae’s absence for the fact that Mississippi State shot twice as many (28-14) free throws as Arkansas. That’s just sloppy defense. And, it’s Arkansas not having an answer inside for Tolu Smith, who scored a team-high 18 points and went 8-for-10 from the free-throw line while also nabbing 6 rebounds and 5 steals. Smith ended the first half with this emphatic slam:

  • He also has some natural post moves:

  • He might be the most important player to this team. With him on the court playing big minutes, the Bulldogs are just different. Meanwhile, it’s back to the drawing board for Arkansas. The Hogs need to get things figured out quickly, or they’ll fall to the NCAA Tournament bubble.
  • Tom Crean’s tenure at Georgia has to be on life support now. Yes, the Bulldogs lost Jailyn Ingram to injury recently and lost PJ Horne before the season, but still, losing by 17 points (77-60) at home against Gardner-Webb is simply inexcusable for an SEC team. The Dawgs went 3-for-19 from 3-point range and shot just 37.3% from the floor. It’s going to be a long SEC season in Athens.

Now, let’s move on to some of the top Big Ten stories of the week.

3. B1G notes

Michigan State beat High Point 81-68 this week, but the game was much closer than that final score makes it seem. That’s not great for the No. 10 Spartans, who start conference play back up again this weekend.

Fortunately, Gabe Brown showed up. His 3-pointers from the wing happened in some clutch moments:

He went 6-for-13 from beyond the arc, which is something that the Spartans hope will continue in B1G play when it resumes. Meanwhile, Joey Hauser also came through with a big game, scoring 17 points (and knocking down 3 of 5 3-pointers) while also grabbing 11 rebounds.

I think No. 10 is a bit high for this team, but they’ll be a tough out in B1G play moving forward.

  • Unfortunately, there’s not much else to talk about in this section, as most of the B1G games were postponed or canceled due to COVID-19. But, whenever you get a chance to watch Keegan Murray play at Iowa, do it. In a 92-71 win over Western Illinois, he had 29 points and 10 rebounds. He continued his utter dominance of mid-major foes:


  • Iowa is 0-2 in Big Ten play thus far, but those losses came at Purdue and vs. Illinois. Not exactly a pair of bad losses. We’ll see if Murray and the Hawkeyes can start racking up some league wins.

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

4. ACC notes/random tidbits

Notre Dame has surprised me this year. I still don’t expect the Irish to be an NCAA Tournament team, but they’ve beaten Kentucky and, now, taken down Pitt on a buzzer beater.

Credit Prentiss Hubb for the miracle shot on the road against the Panthers. The last 2 of his 15 points came on this slick turnaround jumper with less than 10 seconds left:

The Irish are going to pull off a couple of surprising ACC upsets this year – mark my words. Those upsets will probably come in South Bend, though, not on the road.

  • Florida transfer Noah Locke is settling in nicely at Louisville. He scored a game-high 17 points against Wake Forest this week as the Cardinals improved to 2-0 in ACC play. He also hit this dagger with the game on the line:

  • That’s a tough shot in a clutch situation for Locke. He’s leading the Cardinals in scoring at 11.1 points per game. He’s also making 2.5 3-pointers per game and shooting 34.5% from beyond the arc. The ACC figures to be wide-open this year, so if Locke can keep shooting the way he’s been shooting, there’s no reason the Cardinals can’t be in the hunt moving forward.
  • Another team that’s off to a surprising 2-0 start in ACC play is Miami. The Hurricanes – the same team that lost to UCF and Dayton and was blown out 96-64 against Alabama in nonconference play – handily took down NC State this week, 91-83. Next up is a home game against Wake Forest on New Year’s Day. Win that game and the Hurricanes can fight their way back into the NCAA Tournament picture.
  • Finally, in this section, I want to send my best wishes to Dick Vitale. He’s going through chemo, and now he has to take some time off from calling games due to an issue there:

  • I know he’ll battle back strong. The sport isn’t the same without Dickie V on the call. Get well soon!

Now, let’s take a look ahead to the next few days of college hoops action!

5. Outlet pass

So many games are being postponed or canceled around the country due to COVID-19. It’s depressing to see the schedule with so many games labeled as “PPD.” But, this weekend, there are still some games worth keeping an eye on moving forward. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch between now and Tuesday:

  1. No. 1 Baylor at No. 8 Iowa State (Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPNU) – The Cyclones are the best story of the year, but this is about as tough of a Big 12 opener as a team could have. At least it is in Ames. Can Iowa State knock off the No. 1 team in the country? The Bears are there for a reason and won’t want to give up their throne so easily.
  2. No. 24 Wisconsin at No. 3 Purdue (Monday at 7 p.m. ET on BTN) – The Badgers are a pesky team to play, but Purdue has some elite talent. The Boilermakers can beat you inside or with the 3 ball on any given night. They also have Jaden Ivey, which makes up for a lot of other problems that might arise. But, Matt Painter needs to have his team ready for this Monday night showdown.
  3. West Virginia at No. 17 Texas (Saturday at noon ET on ESPNU) – The Mountaineers aren’t ranked, but at 11-1, they actually have a better overall record than the 10-2 Longhorns. However, West Virginia hasn’t played the quality of nonconference opponents Texas has. This will be a good chance for Bob Huggins’ team to prove it is for real.
  4. No. 22 Villanova at No. 15 Seton Hall (Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on CBS) – Both of these teams have been a bit up-and-down this year. Yet, both of them are still firmly in the mix for the Big East title. So, the winner of this game in Newark will have a big boost for its NCAA Tournament resume, as well as for its conference championship hopes.
  5. No. 10 Michigan State at Northwestern (Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on BTN) – This is a tough place for Michigan State to head to in the first game of the new year. The Spartans are hot right now, and this is a game they should win fairly easily, but the Wildcats will be eager to kick 2022 off with an upset.

That’s not a bad weekend lineup! Let’s hope all those games can be played as scheduled and COVID-19 doesn’t cause any further disruptions. The start of conference play is going to be a lot of fun moving into 2022. Happy New Year, y’all!

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.