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

Auburn’s offense is elite. We’ve all seen that this year and that’s what we expect from a Bruce Pearl squad. Heck, that Auburn team that made the Final Four run a couple of years ago was a ton of fun to watch offensively, with Jared Harper getting to the rim and Bryce Brown launching 3s.

This year, the offense is elite once again. As of Thursday night, the Tigers had the No. 9 offense in the country, according to KenPom’s rankings. That came in the aftermath of the Tigers’ 100-81 win over rival Alabama on Tuesday night at Auburn Arena.

But, the defense is the component of Auburn’s game that is overlooked by fans and media. The Tigers, who check in at No. 11 in KenPom’s defensive rankings, have blocked 179 shots this year. That’s 41 more blocks than the No. 2 team in the country (UConn). Walker Kessler’s 93 total blocks lead the nation.

Kessler is an impact player. Yes, he contributes offensively by being unstoppable in the pick-and-roll game, as these clips show:

But, his biggest impact comes on the defensive end of the floor. At 7-1, he’s a menace around the rim. But, he’s also athletic enough to stay with smaller, faster guys and swat their shots away:

Here’s a montage of all 8 of his blocks from Tuesday night:

He’s a beast down low, and that helps the entire Auburn defense. Guys like Zep Jasper (widely acknowledged as one of the best on-ball defenders in the entire country), KD Johnson, Wendell Green Jr. and Allen Flanigan can take more chances and play more aggressively on defense because they know Kessler (or Dylan Cardwell) is back there to swat away any mistakes they might make.

That confidence is evident every time Auburn takes the floor. Kessler has been slowed by foul trouble a couple of times this year, but if he doesn’t get whistled, he’s one of the best defenders in the entire country.

2. SEC notes

I won’t try to do Rick Barnes’ job for him, but I do have a suggestion for the Vols – play Justin Powell more. The Vols are coming off a weird last 2 games, having scored only 51 points in a loss at Texas on Saturday, then turning around and scoring 90 in a win over Texas A&M on Tuesday night.

Powell played 11 minutes and didn’t attempt a single shot against Texas. He played only 9 minutes, but went 2-for-3 from 3-point range against the Aggies.

He creates spacing issues the opposing defense has to honor when he’s given the green light to fire away:

The problem? Barnes doesn’t seem to trust him. He’s making 42.1% of his 3s this year. Of the 6 Volunteers who attempt more than 2 long-range shots per game, that’s by far the highest percentage.

For a team that lives and dies by the 3 as much as Tennessee has this year, empowering your best 3-point shooter to actually, you know, shoot the ball seems like a good idea.

  • Davion Mintz had his best game of the year for Kentucky in a 77-70 win over Vanderbilt this week. He scored 21 points and made an impact all over the court. Yes, he made 4 of his 7 3-pointers, but he also was effective passing the ball. This is a heck of an assist:

  • He was also a beneficiary of Oscar Tshiebwe’s hustle. Tshiebwe is one of the best big men in the country when it comes to running the court in transition. Look how it frees Mintz up for an open 3 on this possession:

  • Kentucky’s offense is firing on all cylinders lately. When TyTy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler stay in games and are healthy, this team is almost impossible to beat. Add Mintz’s recent emergence and the Wildcats are lethal.
  • JD Notae has played his way into SEC Player of the Year contention (along with Tshiebwe). Stanley Umude might have stolen the show on Wednesday at Georgia, scoring 31 points, but Notae was also incredible. Against his home-state Bulldogs, Notae scored 23 points and had 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals and 1 block in the Hogs’ 99-73 victory:

  • Arkansas got off to another slow start, which is certainly concerning. But, when Notae is playing like this, the Hogs are one of the best teams in the SEC. They’ve now won 7 in a row, second only to Auburn’s 18-game winning streak.
  • LSU has hit the skids lately, but I’m still not worried. Point guard Xavier Pinson is far from full strength and some other key players on the Tigers are banged up. Will Wade said he isn’t planning to play Pinson at Vanderbilt on Saturday:

  • I 100% agree with that decision from Wade if that’s what he does end up doing. You need to be healthy in March, not in early February. This team is so much different with Pinson running the offense. Sit him an extra game or two if needed and get him right for the stretch run.

Next, let’s move on to some Big Ten storylines.

3. B1G notes

When Kofi Cockburn is at his best, there’s not a single player in the country who can stop the Illinois big man.

Well, unfortunately for Wisconsin, the B1G Preseason Player of the Year was at his best on Wednesday night at the State Farm Center. In the Illini’s 80-67 win over Wisconsin to take over first place in the B1G standings, Cockburn had 37 points and 12 rebounds.

Defensively, you have to do your work on Cockburn before he even gets the ball in his hands. When he receives an entry pass this deep in the paint, it’s game over for the defense:

Yes, a lot of his offensive production comes from easy dunks like this exclamation point he put on the Illini’s win:

But, there’s nothing wrong with that. He even made 5 of his 9 free throws. I’m aware that’s only 55.5%, but anything above 50% is something you’ll accept if you’re Brad Underwood and the Illini.

Cockburn’s performance on Wednesday night wasn’t just a B1G Player of the Year performance – it was a National Player of the Year performance. Now, we’ll see if he can keep playing like that as the Illini head to Indiana on Saturday afternoon (more on that game in a bit).

  • Maryland has been a tough place to play for the top Big Ten teams recently. The Terps lost 70-69 to Wisconsin a few weeks ago, blew out Illinois 81-56 in College Park recently and, on Tuesday, came within this Malik Hall buzzer-beater of beating a ranked Michigan State team:

  • Basically, what I’m saying is – watch out Iowa (Feb. 10) and Ohio State (Feb. 27). Maryland might be 3-8 in B1G play, but the Terrapins are far from pushovers for top Big Ten teams in College Park!
    Jaden Ivey is one of the best pure athletes in all of college basketball, and he’s heating up as the season goes on. Purdue took care of business at Minnesota this week, winning 88-73. Ivey had 21 of those points and finished with 10 rebounds, too. He’s a solid 3-point shooter, but I’ve been most impressed with his ability to get to the rim and finish in traffic. Here, he takes on 3 Minnesota defenders:

  • This is another tough bucket in the lane:

  • If he can finish tough shots like that, Purdue’s offense is unstoppable. He’s had issues with inconsistency this season, but he’s playing his best basketball right now. Purdue’s going to be hard to beat when Ivey plays like a lottery pick.

Next, let’s take a look around the ACC.

4. ACC/Big 12 notes

Chris Beard made his return to Texas Tech on Tuesday night, and let’s just say the Red Raiders didn’t give their former coach, who led them to the 2019 national title game, a very warm welcome.

The vitriol started even before game day, with fans lining the streets to boo the coach on the Texas team bus:


It continued at the game, when Beard was heartily jeered upon exiting the tunnel. Just look at the police presence assigned to the new Texas coach:

The Red Raiders were certainly fired up, cruising to a 77-64 win in front of the raucous crowd. Fans were in a celebratory mood:

What a great atmosphere. And, what a great rivalry this has quickly turned into. That’s what makes college basketball so great!

Oh, and don’t look now, but the Red Raiders should be a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament if they keep playing like this.

  • North Carolina continues to chug along, but the Tar Heels’ latest win at Louisville in overtime wasn’t without controversy. This foul drawn by North Carolina big man Armando Bacot drew plenty of scorn on the internet:

  • When you do a freeze frame, it looks even worse:

  • That controversial foul aside, Bacot had a dominant game, scoring 19 points and grabbing 22 rebounds. He’s a double-double machine this year. Duke is going to have its hands full with Bacot on Saturday (more on that game in a bit).
  • Florida State has dropped off significantly since holding a share of the ACC regular-season standings lead. The Seminoles have lost 3-straight games against teams they should have beaten. They’ve been blown out by Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, and this week, fell 75-69 at Clemson. That’s an awful look for a team that has NCAA Tournament hopes. Five of the Noles’ last 9 games are against teams in the top half of the ACC standings. This team is trending toward the NIT, and that’s not good when you have as much talent as FSU has.

Next, let’s take a look at a busy weekend of college basketball coming up.

5. Outlet pass

I’m going to give y’all a hint – turn the TV to ESPN at noon on Saturday and then keep it on for the rest of the day! As you’ll see below, all 5 of the games I can’t wait to watch this weekend will air on the Worldwide Leader on Saturday. What a great day of college hoops! Here are the games I’m most excited for:

  1. No. 8 Baylor at No. 10 Kansas (Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Baylor and Kansas both lost in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, with the Jayhawks getting blown out at home by Kentucky. Both teams have since bounced back with Big 12 wins. Kansas doesn’t make a habit out of losing multiple home games in a row, though, so the Bears will have their work cut out for them.
  2. No. 5 Kentucky at Alabama (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Kentucky has plenty of experience in tough road environments this year. The Wildcats just beat then-No. 5 Kansas on Saturday, after all. Alabama, though, plays up to its competition most of the time. This is an important game for both teams in what should be an intense Coleman Coliseum atmosphere.
  3. No. 2 Gonzaga at BYU (Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN) – This is a tough true road test for the Bulldogs. The Cougars are perhaps their biggest competition in the West Coast Conference and have plenty of offensive firepower. But, if the Bulldogs win convincingly on Saturday night, another undefeated WCC season should be in the cards.
  4. No. 9 Duke at North Carolina (Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN) – This will be Coach K’s final trip to Chapel Hill. Both of these teams are still very much in the race for the ACC regular-season title, too. There’s no love lost in this rivalry, and Tar Heel fans will be eager to hand Coach K one last loss in the Dean Dome.
  5. No. 18 Illinois at Indiana (Saturday at noon ET on ESPN) – Illinois scored a big win against Wisconsin this week. But the crucible that is the Big Ten doesn’t give you any breaks. The Illini are at it again early on Saturday in a hostile environment in Bloomington. Mike Woodson has already taken down rival Purdue this year. Can the Hoosiers score another big victory over a top Big Ten team?

The 2 p.m. ET game on ESPN is No. 14 Texas Tech heading to West Virginia. It’s going to be a busy weekend full of ranked teams hitting the road to play unranked squads. How many upsets will we see? These next few days could provide some major shakeups in the rankings!

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.