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

In Auburn’s last 4 games away from Auburn Arena – at Mizzou, Georgia, Arkansas and Florida – the Tigers have a -2 point differential. That means they’ve not looked like a No. 1 seed when they’ve hit the road for the past month.

Yes, Bruce Pearl’s squad is still in good shape in the race for the SEC regular-season title, sporting a 12-2 conference record. That’s 1 game better than Kentucky, and the Tigers have the head-to-head win over the Wildcats secured.

But, it is worth wondering how worried we should be about the Tigers. Saturday’s performance showed some serious flaws that must be corrected if they’re going to get back on track ahead of the SEC and NCAA Tournaments.

First and foremost, the defense needs to improve. Auburn allowed Tyree Appleby to score 26 points and knock down 5 of his 10 attempts from 3-point range. As you can see in the below video, Appleby was left wide open on a couple of shots. On a couple of others, the Auburn defender didn’t get a hand in his face:

The last shot in that sequence is particularly egregious. Wendell Green Jr. appears to have just given up on the play. That’s unacceptable and something Pearl needs to get fixed ASAP.

But, give the Gators some credit. They managed to hold Auburn, the No. 1 team in the country, to only 2 blocks. That was the Tigers’ fewest blocks in a game since a November 2OT contest against UConn, which they also lost. Meanwhile, big man Walker Kessler was held without a rejection for just the second time all year:

Finally, the Tigers need to switch up their end-game strategy. This was their final play, and, well, it was an unmitigated disaster:

When you have a guy like Jabari Smith Jr., the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, on your roster, you don’t use him as a decoy on the final play. But, I also think Smith could have been more aggressive trying to get the ball from Green. I broke it down in this video:

That’s far from an indictment of Smith. In fact, he looked every bit of a superstar on Saturday. Following up a 31-point performance against Vanderbilt on Wednesday with 28 more points (and a 4-for-5 mark from long range) on Saturday at Florida. Some of the shots he hits just leave you shaking your head:

Fix the defensive effort and get the ball to Smith in clutch situations. That’s what the Tigers have to do to get back on track. Very doable for Bruce Pearl and company. But, the road isn’t easy. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index thinks the Tigers will have a tough time on Rocky Top this weekend:

We’ll see if the Tigers can close the regular season on a high note and stay on the 1-seed line in the NCAA Tournament come Selection Sunday.

2. SEC notes

Kentucky didn’t have Sahvir Wheeler or TyTy Washington on Saturday at Rupp Arena against a ranked Alabama squad. Alabama made 14 3-pointers and scored 81 total points. Keon Ellis had a game-high 28 points and made 7 of his 11 long-range shots.

If I told you the 3 sentences above and asked you to predict whether Kentucky won or lost that game, I can almost guarantee you’d have thought the Wildcats lost.

Well, as you know by now, of course, that didn’t happen. The Wildcats exploded for 90 points to pick up a big-time 9-point home victory. A 13-0 run, punctuated by this incredible Kellan Grady shot, erased Alabama’s 12-point lead to give the Wildcats a 47-46 halftime advantage:

Grady was the star on Saturday for the short-handed Wildcats, hitting 7-of-9 3-pointers and scoring a team-high 25 points. Now, he’s within striking distance of Jodie Meeks’ single-season Kentucky 3-point record:

That’s very doable for Grady if he keeps playing the way he has of late. Meanwhile, Oscar Tshiebwe kept doing Oscar Tshiebwe things, scoring 21 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. He’s been Mr. Reliable for Kentucky this season. He’s simply impossible to stop on the glass on both ends of the court, leading to some easy offense for him:

As far as Alabama goes, Nate Oats is sick of his team’s lackluster defense. His message on Monday was simple:

How will that impact Alabama’s rotation moving forward? That remains to be seen. Things are looking great for the Wildcats, though!

  • Arkansas’s offense was ugly on Saturday evening vs. a tough Tennessee squad. Fortunately for Eric Musselman’s team, the Hogs’ defense was up to the task, leading to an even uglier offensive showing from the Vols. Tennessee went 4-for-24 from 3-point range and only made 27.1% of its overall shots. Tennessee’s 4 forwards – Jonas Aidoo, John Fulkerson, Uros Plavsic and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield – combined for a grand total of 9 points. That’s embarrassing for the Vols, but it had a ton to do with Jaylin Williams’ defense. He has now taken an incredible 41 charges on the season. He finished the game with 13 points and 16 rebounds, continuing to show impressive moves in the post:

  • His draft stock is rising at an incredible rate, and for good reason. If he keeps playing like this, the Hogs can make another Elite Eight run in this year’s NCAA Tournament!
  • South Carolina is a very dangerous team right now. The Gamecocks are the hottest squad in the 5-way logjam for fifth place in the regular-season standings, sporting a 7-7 conference record. The Gamecocks have won 3 in a row and just took down LSU in Columbia on Saturday, 77-75. They’re getting contributions from several different guys, too. Last week, James Reese V played hero, knocking down a half-court shot in overtime to give South Carolina the win at Ole Miss. On Saturday, it was Jermaine Couisnard’s turn. He scored 33 points in the win – the most points by a Gamecock since 2017:

  • You might remember what else happened for the Gamecocks in 2017, as they went on a magical Final Four run. This year’s squad still has plenty of work to do to even make the NCAA Tournament, but they’re peaking at the right time! No one wants to face Frank Martin’s squad right now.
  • Cuonzo Martin’s late-game strategy and clock management continues to be infuriating for a large portion of Mizzou fans. The Tigers have given away several games they could have won with more competent play in the game’s final minute. But, even with the following close losses turned to wins, the Tigers would only be 14-13 overall:

  • Sunday night’s 58-56 loss to Mississippi State was the latest in a long line of brutal losses. Mizzou allowed Shakeel Moore to score the game-winning bucket in transition:

  • On the other end of the floor, Mizzou once again botched its final possession. Martin’s explanation for what happened was suspect, too:

  • Could the Martin era in Columbia come to an end after the season? Plenty of Mizzou fans are ready for the school to move on to someone new after the disaster that has been the 2021-22 campaign.

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

3. B1G notes

You know we have to lead this section with it – the handshake line brouhaha heard ’round the world. Michigan coach Juwan Howard was furious in the postgame handshake line. Wisconsin coach Greg Gard tried to stop him to talk. Things got out of hand fast:

As I called for in my above tweet, Howard was indeed suspended for the rest of the regular season by Michigan, which will be a total of 5 games. He couldn’t have picked a worse time to go off the rails, either.

The Wolverines are clinging to life on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and now Howard will be out for this brutal stretch of games:

Of course, after Howard had this boneheaded mistake last week, perhaps the Wolverines will be better off without him picking up bizarre technicals and trying to fight opposing coaches:

Howard issued an apology on Monday night after not apologizing on Sunday during his postgame remarks:

We’ll see if Michigan brings him back for the Big Ten Tournament or not. It might depend on how the Wolverines fare in the final 5 games of the regular season.

  • I have long said that Illinois guard Trent Frazier doesn’t get enough credit. The senior didn’t have his best game against Michigan State on Saturday in East Lansing, but wow, did he ever come through in the clutch. With the Spartans clawing their way back into the game inside the final minute, Frazier decided he’d had enough, draining this dagger from way downtown:

  • Kofi Cockburn had 27 points to lead the Illini and Jacob Grandison had a career night, knocking down 6 of his 10 3-pointers to finish with 24 points. But, with the game on the line, the Illini turned to Frazier, and he delivered. What a game. Now, the Illini head back to Champaign to face No. 22 Ohio State. More on that game in a bit.
  • When Jaden Ivey plays like a top-5 draft pick, Purdue looks unstoppable. The Boilermakers ended a historic Rutgers hot streak on Sunday, earning an 84-72 victory in West Lafayette. Ivey had a game-high 25 points, and even though he went 0-for-5 from 3-point range and only made 5 total shots, he forced things to happen, getting to the free-throw line 18 times, making 15. He can also do things like this, which simply defy the laws of gravity:

  • When Trevion Williams is finding him with behind-the-back passes, it just makes things even more fun for Ivey:

  • The Boilermakers can make a push for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament if they finish the regular season strong. That will depend on how much Ivey has the ball in his hands. Matt Painter can’t call Ivey’s number too much.

Next, let’s take a look at the ACC and elsewhere around the world of basketball.

4. ACC notes/random tidbits

North Carolina entered the weekend without a Quad 1 win on its resume. That changed, though, as Hubert Davis’s squad took down Virginia Tech 65-57 in Blacksburg. No, that’s not exactly a Quad 1 win to write home about, but it’s a Quad 1 win nonetheless, improving the Tar Heels’ record to 1-7 in those games. They also beat Louisville on the road in a hard-fought game on Monday night.

More importantly, the Heels now have a 12-5 record in ACC play, keeping them firmly in the race with Duke. That’s huge, as the Heels end the regular season at Duke in Coach K’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5.

Armando Bacot keeps recording double-doubles, putting up 12 points and 15 rebounds against Virginia Tech and duplicating that stat line on Monday at Louisville. But, the key to these 2 wins by UNC was the play of Caleb Love.

Love had 21 points and 7 assists against the Hokies and added 16 points and 5 dimes against the Cardinals. He’s seeing the floor really well when he’s in transition or driving the lane:

RJ Davis was the beneficiary of both those passes, and he continues to develop into a weapon for the Heels, too. North Carolina has plenty of talent. If the Heels can put it all together in the ACC Tournament, they’ll be a tough out.

  • Despite a 17-10 overall record and an 11-6 ACC mark, Virginia isn’t getting much love in the rankings. The Cavaliers are all the way down at No. 81 in the NCAA NET rankings. Meanwhile, KenPom has them at No. 74. That’s despite a 3-5 record in Quad 1 games, which includes a win at Duke. The Hoos finish the regular season with a home game against Duke (more on that in a minute), a home game vs. Florida State and a road trip to Louisville. Get to 20 wins ahead of the ACC Tournament (and add another win over Duke to the resume) and it’ll be hard to keep Tony Bennett’s team out of March Madness.
  • Wake Forest finally got a Quad 1 win for its resume, just like North Carolina. The Demon Deacons took down Notre Dame in Winston-Salem over the weekend, 79-74, snapping a 2-game losing streak in the process. Alondes Williams continues to make his case for ACC Player of the Year, scoring 23 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. He also threw down this clutch dunk:

  • Khadim Sy also had a double-double, scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 boards off the bench. The Deacons now have 11 ACC wins, which keeps them in the race for the regular-season title. They have 3 regular-season games remaining, and they’re all very manageable – at Clemson, vs. Louisville and vs. NC State. Win those 3 games and Wake will be a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
  • Finally, I love stories like this. Andy Tolleson got to play on Senior Night after serving as the Lake Hamilton (Arkansas) team manager for 5 years. He made the most of his opportunity, too, knocking down a pair of impressive shots:

  • Even Auburn legend Bo Jackson was impressed, reaching out to Tolleson via Twitter:

  • This is what makes sports so great. What a moment for Tolleson and his teammates. It’s something everyone on that court will remember for the rest of their lives.

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

5. Outlet pass

The midweek schedule is absolutely loaded this week! Between now and our next Starting 5 column on Friday, there are some very important games. With regular-season titles on the line and bubble dreams at stake, here’s a look at the 5 games I can’t wait to watch between now and Friday:

  1. No. 18 Arkansas at Florida (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on SEC Network) – Florida is fresh off an upset win over No. 2 Auburn. But, as Gator fans are all too aware, Mike White teams tend to suffer letdowns when they have positive momentum. Meanwhile, Arkansas is in the mix for the regular-season SEC title still. Can the Hogs pick up a big road win and send the Gators back to the NCAA Tournament bubble?
  2. No. 22 Ohio State at No. 15 Illinois (Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on FS1) – Ohio State just lost to Iowa. Illinois just picked up a road win at Michigan State. Now, the Illini return home to try to add another big win to their resume. But, the Buckeyes will be trying to hold on to a spot in the AP Top 25. Kofi Cockburn vs. EJ Liddell is must-see television.
  3. No. 8 Villanova at No. 21 UConn (Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on FS1) – Villanova is 14-3 in Big East play. Providence is 12-2. UConn is 10-5. Villanova has won 5-straight games. The Huskies have won 3 in a row. Something has to give in Storrs on Tuesday night. The winner of this game will still be in the hunt for the Big East regular-season title.
  4. No. 7 Duke at Virginia (Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Virginia went into Cameron Indoor and won recently. The Cavaliers have won 5 of their last 6 games and are suddenly back on the fringe of NCAA Tournament contention. Another win over the Blue Devils would be huge. Meanwhile, Duke would love a big road win to potentially move closer to a No. 1 seed.
  5. LSU at No. 6 Kentucky (Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN) – LSU beat Kentucky in Baton Rouge earlier this year. These teams have gone in vastly different directions since then. LSU has struggled with consistency recently. Meanwhile, the Wildcats look like title contenders. We’ll see if the Tigers can pull off the season sweep in a raucous Rupp Arena atmosphere.

With only 2 weeks to go in the regular season, these games are getting more important every single day. All around the country, teams are jostling for position in the standings. We’ll see which teams take advantage of their opportunities and which struggle over the next few days of men’s hoops action.

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.