Starting 5: Alabama’s freshmen shine, John Calipari and Rick Barnes disappoint, Virginia suffers first loss
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 @BlueChipGrit.
1. Opening tip
Arkansas’s trio of freshmen – Nick Smith Jr., Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh – has gotten a lot of hype this year, and for good reason. Walsh just had his breakout game, scoring 18 points and nabbing 4 steals against Bradley over the weekend:
Jordan Walsh had a career-high 18 points on 100% shooting along with 4 steals yesterday.
Had some tough, physical drives and showed good activity on defense pic.twitter.com/IDyNLtdxBo
— Israel (@iohandles) December 18, 2022
But, while Brandon Miller snags a bunch of well-deserved headlines at Alabama, the rest of the Crimson Tide’s freshman class is flying under the radar.
At this point in the year, just before SEC play begins, it’s at least a debate as to which trio of freshmen – Smith, Black and Walsh or Miller, Noah Clowney and Jaden Bradley – has been better.
Here’s a look at the raw numbers:
- Smith/Black/Walsh: 33.5 points, 9.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 3.7 steals, 1.3 blocks per game
- Miller/Clowney/Bradley: 38.3 points, 20.1 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.7 steals, 2.5 blocks per game
The Alabama stats don’t even include fellow freshman Rylan Griffen, who is averaging 6.2 points and 2.8 boards per game.
Clowney and Bradley are only just starting to get the credit they deserve, and it’s easy to see why they’ve been overshadowed by Miller. Just look at the incredible ability Miller showed while scoring an impressive 36 points against Gonzaga:
Projected top-10 pick Brandon Miller went off for 36 points (6/11 3P) against Gonzaga. The 6'9 Alabama freshman is shooting 45% for 3 this season. pic.twitter.com/YBfbTbbvW5
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) December 17, 2022
That’s a shooting stroke that’s already NBA-worthy. He also rebounds at a high level and makes his free throws at a solid 83.9% clip.
The consistency isn’t quite there yet for Miller, but he rises to the occasion when his team needs him. He’s a guy coach Nate Oats can rely on in any situation and he’s still getting better.
Fortunately for SEC fans, we won’t have to wait too long to see the Razorbacks’ freshmen and the Tide’s freshman class duke it out. Alabama travels to Fayetteville for a big-time matchup on Wednesday, Jan. 11. Then the Hogs make a return trip to Tuscaloosa on Saturday, Feb. 25.
There are plenty of elite matchups on the SEC schedule this year, but those 2 games between Alabama and Arkansas should be circled on the calendar by everyone!
2. Home-court advantage
The fact that Kentucky is ranked No. 19 in this week’s AP Poll is an absolute disgrace. The Wildcats’ only win over a major-conference school is against Michigan, a team that isn’t even receiving votes in the poll.
Ranked teams are supposed to be competitive against other ranked teams. Well, the Wildcats have lost by 9 (in overtime) to Michigan State, by 16 to Gonzaga and by 10 to UCLA. That’s unacceptable for a team with this much talent.
Yes, the Bruins had a game plan of swarming Oscar Tshiebwe:
UCLA’s first priority in its defensive game plan was to swarm Oscar Tshiebwe. Normally it came from Jacob Toppin’s man. Here, Jaylen Clark goes to double & pays no attention to Toppin in the corner. Post entries were at a minimum. @KentuckyRivals pic.twitter.com/Dk7gtjKLQ9
— David Sisk (@CoachDavidSisk) December 19, 2022
He finished with 8 points and 16 rebounds. He was 4-for-12 from the floor and 0-for-4 from the free-throw line. That’s a horrible shooting night, so credit Mick Cronin for coming up with a great game plan.
However, Tshiebwe was up at the top of the key doing dribble handoffs way too often, particularly in the second half. When he would actually try to post up, another Kentucky player was in his way (unacceptable) or the guards didn’t get him the ball soon enough (also unacceptable):
Cal went to the lineup of Wheeler, Wallace, Livingston, Ware, & Tshiebwe because of toughness. He was correct. But their spacing is not opportune. Ware & Tshiebwe often posted up in the same spot. Tyger rotates one step off Ware onto Oscar to strip the ball. @KentuckyRivals pic.twitter.com/kYn8Sz4Q9x
— David Sisk (@CoachDavidSisk) December 19, 2022
This is the sort of play I’m talking about when I say (repeatedly) that the ball needs to be in Cason Wallace’s hands at the end of games. No one, and I mean no one, buys that Sahvir Wheeler can finish at the rim in this much traffic:
This is when you knew UK would not win. Sahvir’s game is driving, but there’s just no space for him to do it. Should have kicked to Wallace in the corner. He anticipated Oscar, but there are 3 Bruins packed in the lane. UK hustled on this play just some poor decisions. pic.twitter.com/AMj5rtXUby
— David Sisk (@CoachDavidSisk) December 20, 2022
The pass to Tshiebwe was obvious. UCLA swarmed it. That falls squarely on the shoulders of John Calipari. If he can’t figure out how to scheme up better looks for his best players, this Kentucky team is going to continue to lose games to decent competition no matter how much talent is on the roster.
Now let’s look at some other SEC storylines:
- I have a major issue with Rick Barnes’ comments about Uros Plavsic after Tennessee’s loss to Arizona, 75-70, in Tucson on Saturday night. Plavsic made a couple of quick buckets and then got whistled for a technical foul for talking smack toward an Arizona player. That caused Barnes to say this, via KnoxNews.com:
- “I’m not happy with Uros,” Barnes said. “I’m not happy with his antics. Honestly, I’m really tired of it because I think it hurts our team. We want him to be hard nosed, physical but we don’t need the antics.”
- That’s a horrible look for Barnes. Barnes brought Plavsic in to provide toughness and attitude to his Tennessee team. He knows Plavsic is a trash-talker, even in practice. This would be like if Steve Kerr called out Draymond Green for getting a technical foul. It’s part of their game! You live with an occasional technical foul because of what else the player brings to the table. His tech was in the first half, too, so to act like it was a factor in Tennessee’s 5-point loss is ridiculous. What a joke of a quote from Barnes.
- Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Sometimes it’s nice to be both of those things, though. That was the case for DeAndre Gholston on Saturday as Mizzou beat a tough UCF squad in the Orange Bowl Classic on one of the craziest buzzer-beaters of the year:
DEANDRE GHOLSTON BUZZER BEATER FOR THE WIN!!! MIZZOU!!! MIZZOU!!!! pic.twitter.com/Xvttv8MiFF
— NCAA Buzzer Beaters & Game Winners (@NCAABuzzerBters) December 17, 2022
- It’s unclear exactly how good Mizzou is in the scope of the SEC, but the Tigers are at least a really fun team to watch. We’ll see if Dennis Gates can keep this squad going strong as it prepares for a game against Illinois in St. Louis on Thursday (more on that game in a bit).
Next up, let’s look around the rest of the men’s college hoops world!
3. Road trip
While some teams, like Alabama, have effectively eliminated the mid-range game from their offenses, others like UCLA have embraced it. That’s, of course, much easier to do when you have an elite mid-range scorer like Jaime Jaquez Jr.
In UCLA’s 10-point win over Kentucky on Saturday in Madison Square Garden, Jaquez was elite, posting a 19-point, 12-rebound double-double.
Grabbing 12 boards in a game where the other team has Oscar Tshiebwe is impressive enough, but watch the way Jaquez got to his comfort zones on the offensive end of the court and worked his mid-range magic:
— Our Esquina (@OurEsquina) December 18, 2022
UCLA lost 2 games to ranked Illinois and Baylor teams in Las Vegas last month, but outside of those 2 contests, the Bruins have been perfect. They now have a ton of confidence after winning a true road game at Maryland and beating up on Kentucky in New York City.
Jaquez and Tyger Campbell are the unquestioned leaders of this team, and they’re hitting their strides right now. If all goes well, this team has Pac-12 title-level talent and Final Four potential.
Now for a look around the rest of college hoops:
- Let’s take a moment to appreciate a couple of big men leading top-3 teams. First, we’ll start with Zach Edey at Purdue. He just keeps putting up monster numbers and did it again against Davidson over the weekend. Just look at these insane highlights from his 29-point, 16-rebound effort:
Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and Zach Edey double-doubles ? @zach_edey
– 29 points
– 9-11 FG
– 16 rebounds pic.twitter.com/xrLKKSyah2
— B/R Hoops (@brhoops) December 18, 2022
- Then there’s Adama Sanogo at UConn. The Huskies trounced Butler by 22 points on Saturday to start Big East play and Sanogo scored 27 points and grabbed 14 boards. He can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim:
— The Naismith Trophy (@NaismithTrophy) December 18, 2022
- And he’s so strong he can get position down low and finish through contact:
— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) December 18, 2022
- There aren’t many guys in the country who can stop a player of Sanogo’s caliber. Gonzaga’s Drew Timme also deserves a mention in this space after scoring 29 points and grabbing 10 boards in the Bulldogs’ 100-90 win over then-No. 4 Alabama on Saturday. It’s a great year for big men!
- After suffering its first loss of the year at home against Alabama last weekend, Houston bounced back in a big way, going to Charlottesville and handing Virginia its first loss of the season this past Saturday. It’s not easy to take down a Tony Bennett defense, but the Cougars provided a master class in the 69-61 victory. All 5 starters scored in double figures, led by Jarace Walker, who had 17 points, 7 rebounds and 4 rebounds:
Jarace Walker’s impact is so known
17/7/5 today, makes the game so easy for his teammates on both ends. The jumper and confidence is also improving
He’s always been one of the most productive players in the HS level and now he’s been productive for a top 3 level team pic.twitter.com/D3wL7vZf4O
— Pistons Draft talk (@happypistonfan) December 17, 2022
- He made the right play every time the ball was in his hands. That’s what you need to take down the Cavaliers.
Next up, let’s take a look at the week ahead in college basketball!
4. Outlet pass
There aren’t too many elite games on the schedule in the next few days before Christmas, but that doesn’t mean the stockings are completely empty. There are still some intriguing matchups and a couple of rivalries. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch between now and next week:
- No. 23 Auburn at Washington (Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on Pac-12 Network) – If you can find the Pac-12 Network on your TV, which isn’t likely, this is a game to watch. The Tigers just lost to USC on Sunday and probably don’t deserve to be ranked. But a win over the Huskies would be a good victory for their NCAA Tournament résumé ahead of SEC play.
- No. 16 Illinois vs. Mizzou (Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on SEC Network) – The annual Braggin’ Rights Game in St. Louis should be a good one. Mizzou is better than it has been in years past on the offensive end, and Illinois has been one of the more mercurial teams in the entire country. Expect plenty of pre-Christmas fireworks between these 2 longtime rivals.
- No. 6 Virginia at No. 22 Miami (Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET on ACC Network) – The ACC has a few conference games on the slate for this week and this is the most interesting of the bunch. Virginia fell to No. 6 in this week’s poll after suffering its first loss of the season against Houston. We’ll see if the Cavs can rebound against a tough Miami squad in a difficult road game.
- Harvard at No. 4 Kansas (Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2) – Is Harvard likely to pull off this upset? No. Does it have the potential to at least be an interesting and entertaining game? Yes. Maybe the Jayhawks will be looking ahead to their post-Christmas slate of games and underestimate the Crimson. At least for a half.
- No. 14 Duke at Wake Forest (Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. ET on ACC Network) – This isn’t the toughest game on Duke’s ACC schedule, but the Blue Devils do sometimes lose ACC road games they shouldn’t. We’ll see if they can avoid the Demon Deacons’ upset bid in an early tipoff on Tuesday night.
There are all interesting matchups with upset potential and ramifications for March Madness. Check out all this action and then enjoy your Christmas break. Most conferences that haven’t already started conference play start after the holiday. It truly is a wonderful time of year!
5. Buzzer beaters
Next up, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here for the day and enjoy our Christmas weekends:
Bowl season vs. Feast Week. Who ya got?
This is tough, but give me Feast Week. The week of Thanksgiving is one of my favorite weeks of the entire year. There are games actually on Thanksgiving, too. That’s true of college hoops and the NFL. When it comes to bowl season, though, no games are actually played on Christmas Day. I’m fine with that so all college athletes get to enjoy the day (if they celebrate) with their families. But that moves it a notch below Feast Week, in my humble opinion.
What would be your +/- ranking if you had to play 15 minutes in a top-flight men’s college hoops game?
I know it’s fun to yell at our TVs that we could have made that pass, or hit that shot, or fielded that ground ball, etc. But the fact of the matter is that we absolutely couldn’t. I’m a fairly decent basketball player, at least when it comes to my gym. I can hit 3s and play passable defense. That said, I’d be thrilled to finish a 15-minute session of Division I hoops with even a -30 rating. Those guys are all incredible and so much stronger than the average person. I do think I could hit a jumper or 2 and score between 3 and 5 points (and that’s only if my teammates were actively working to get me an open look). But defensively? I’d be torched every time down the court, even if I was playing with a defensive juggernaut like Tennessee. Just don’t let me heat up on corner 3s, though! Then I might finish with a -25 rating.
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.