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

Basketball is a funny game. No team embodies that more this year than the Alabama Crimson Tide (though I’m sure their fans wouldn’t use the word “funny” to describe this season).

The Tide, at their best, are a team that can beat anyone in the country. At their worst, they can lose to anyone in the country. Here’s a look at what I mean:

The frustrating part is that you can’t point to one common theme in their losses. No, they aren’t shooting the 3 the way they did last year, but sometimes they torch the nets from deep. No, they don’t shoot free throws like they did last year, but sometimes they get to the line 20+ times and look like last year’s SEC champions.

No, they don’t play consistent defense the way they did last year, but they can still lock down opponents from time to time. Yes, they are still streaky, just like last year. The problem? Their cold streaks are a lot longer than they were last year.

Jaden Shackelford has been hot lately. When he’s making plays like this, you know he’s feeling it:

He’s led the Tide in scoring for 4 straight games. Before that, Jahvon Quinerly led the Tide for 3 in a row. But, they’ve had trouble being hot in the same game.

My assessment? They struggle to get hot in the same games because they’re too similar. They both thrive with the ball in their hands. Get it to them at the top of the key, where they can shoot the 3, drive and score or drive and pass. But, when one of them has to play second fiddle to the other, they don’t do so well.

Also, Quinerly is far from a defensive maestro. Keon Ellis is a solid defender, but he’s no Herb Jones (and trust me, no one is asking him to be Herb Jones. That would be unfair).

The bottom line? When this team is firing on all cylinders, it can beat anyone in the country. But, all too often this year, only 1 or 2 cylinders have been firing. That’s been the biggest problem.

If Alabama can play consistently at the level it did in early December, though, this upcoming 3-game stretch vs. No. 4 Baylor, at No. 1 Auburn and vs. No. 12 Kentucky could surprise some people. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Tide went 2-1 in this upcoming 3-game stretch.

But, I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Tide went 0-3 in this 3-game stretch.

Therein lies the (baffling) problem with the 2021-22 Crimson Tide.

2. SEC notes

Tensions boiled over at the end of the Florida-Tennessee game on Wednesday night, leading to a bit of a fracas. Florida’s Tyree Appleby was not happy with something that happened during the postgame handshake line and had to be held back:

The Vols didn’t do much to ease tensions, doing the Gator Chomp after their 78-71 come-from-behind win as the Gators were escorted back to the locker room. But, Florida has only itself to blame for this loss.

The Gators allowed Santiago Vescovi to torch the nets all night. Vescovi had a game-high 23 points on 6-of-10 shooting. He was doing it from 3-point range:

And he also had some nice chemistry with Justin Powell:

Even with Kennedy Chandler playing one of his better games (17 points, 5 assists), Vescovi is the leader of this Tennessee team. When he plays like he did against the Gators, the Vols are a tough team to beat. Clearly, Florida was frustrated with the big plays he made as the Vols erased a 42-34 halftime deficit.

  • Mizzou gave No. 1 Auburn all it could handle on Tuesday night at Mizzou Arena. Auburn escaped with a 55-54 win, thanks in large part to a gift handed to it by Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin. With his squad down 1 point with 35.4 seconds left and Auburn in possession, Martin decided to play it out and not foul. As you can see below, that led to disaster:

  • Best-case scenario there is Mizzou grabs a rebound with about 4 seconds to go and has to drive the length of the court for a game-winning shot. Not ideal. If you foul, Auburn could, at most, go up by 3. Then you could work a game-tying 3 attempt with your regular offense. Instead, Martin’s late-game clock management cost his team any chance of an upset win. Awful.
  • Speaking of awful, Jabari Smith Jr. had perhaps his worst game in an Auburn uniform, going only 2-for-15 for only 5 points, but he did match his career-high with 10 rebounds. Oh, and he also hit this beautiful and insanely difficult shot:

  • He’s still a special player, folks. He’s going to be fine moving forward. Watch out, Oklahoma! Also, shout out to Devan Cambridge, who had 9 rebounds in the game, all on the offensive glass. That’s incredible!
  • Speaking of rebounds, Oscar Tshiebwe has to be the SEC Player of the Year frontrunner right now. The Kentucky big man was sublime again on Tuesday night in an overtime win over Mississippi State. He scored a team-high 21 points and grabbed 22 rebounds. Look at this elite company he joined with his latest 20-rebound game:

  • If you’re being mentioned in a sentence with Tim Duncan and Blake Griffin, you’re doing something right! Oh, and he’s also eclipsed a record set by Shaq:

  • He’s not just a rebounder, though. He showcased his strong baseline drop step in a couple of clutch situations when Kentucky needed buckets:

  • That’s just a devastating offensive move. Kansas will need to scout that and figure out a way to stop him ahead of Saturday’s game (more on that matchup in a bit).
  • LSU entered Wednesday night’s home game against Texas A&M banged up. The Tigers were riding a 3-game losing streak and were without Xavier Pinson and Darius Days. Those are tough circumstances to win in, but Brandon Murray stepped up in a big way, scoring a game-high 21 points. But, he also made big plays when he wasn’t scoring. Look at this split of a double-team to find an open teammate for an easy bucket:

  • Murray is gaining confidence now. When Pinson and Days are back, Murray deserves to continue playing starter minutes.

Next, let’s take a trip to Big Ten country.

3. B1G notes

The Illinois Fighting Illini lost at Maryland last weekend. It was an ugly loss, even though the Illini were without big man Kofi Cockburn. Even without Cockburn (and Andre Curbelo) on Tuesday night against No. 10 Michigan State in Champaign, the Illini were 100 times better.

The 56-55 win over the Spartans won’t be shown during any offensive coaching clinics, but the Illini got the job done. Trent Frazier is a big reason why, as he just keeps making big plays for what seems like the 11th year in a row at Illinois!

He finished with a game-high 16 points while also dishing out 5 assists. He doesn’t need much space to get his 3-pointer off:

And, he’s so quick he can split double-teams and get to the rim:

The Illini got big plays from him time and time again. But, still, the Spartans had a chance to tie in the game’s closing seconds from the free-throw line.

Malik Hall drew a controversial foul with .2 seconds left on the clock. Stepping to the free-throw line needing to make both shots he missed the first. Then, trying to miss the second shot intentionally, he ended up draining it:

Tough break, but these are still 2 of the best teams in a loaded Big Ten. They meet again in East Lansing on Feb. 19.

  • Much of the B1G Player of the Year discussion centers around Kofi Cockburn at Illinois and Johnny Davis at Wisconsin. In my opinion, Cockburn has missed too many games to win, though he still had plenty of time to make a late-season run. But, don’t count out Ohio State big man EJ Liddell! He keeps putting up huge performances, like Thursday’s 23-point, 15-rebound effort at Minnesota:

  • No, the Gophers aren’t the best opponent, but going on the road in Big Ten play is never easy. Liddell refused to let the Buckeyes suffer a bad loss, owning the Minnesota bigs down low. Ohio State faces a huge game on Sunday, but we’ll discuss that one in a bit.

Next, let’s take a look at the ACC and around the rest of the country.

4. ACC notes/random tidbits

Louisville has struggled this year, and now the Cardinals have made a change, parting ways with coach Chris Mack.

Now, there are several big-name candidates reportedly being eyed for the vacancy by the Cardinals, including Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Alabama’s Nate Oats, LSU’s Will Wade, Arkansas’s Eric Musselman, former Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne, and many more. Louisville has a storied history as a basketball school, but how do today’s top coaches see it? That’s what ESPN’s Katie George wondered this week:

There’s been a lot of noise around Pearl, who has guided Auburn to the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll this year. He didn’t exactly say no when asked if he was interested in Louisville, either:

But, I personally don’t think Pearl will leave Auburn, and here’s why. This, to me, is a classic leverage move by Pearl. Auburn will offer him a massive extension after this season, but that’s not the issue.

Pearl wants better basketball facilities at Auburn. So, circle Feb. 4 on your calendars. That’s when Auburn’s board of trustees meets. On the agenda: a new practice facility for the basketball team.

If Pearl gets that, I think he stays. If not, he might be more willing to jump to Louisville and take on the challenge of restoring the Cardinal program to national prominence.

If Louisville doesn’t end up getting Pearl, though, there’s no reason to fret – that opening will attract a lot of big-name coaches. The Cardinals will have no shortage of suitors to choose from.

  • Duke continues to be a troublingly inconsistent squad. Yes, the Blue Devils won on Tuesday, but a 2-point win over Clemson at Cameron Indoor Stadium doesn’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence. But, I did like the alpha dog mentality I saw from Paolo Banchero late in the second half with the game on the line. These 2 post shots are tough, but he made them when his team needed them the most:

  • Banchero had a game-high 19 points, but the ability to deliver in the clutch is what I liked most on Tuesday. It was an ugly win for Duke. That doesn’t mean there weren’t good things to take away from the contest, though.
  • The bank stayed open late for Miami on Tuesday night, as the Hurricanes used a miracle finish to take down Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Charlie Moore, who has been great for Miami this year, hit this incredible half-court shot to down the Hokies at the buzzer:

  • The Hurricanes are now 7-2 in ACC play, with both losses coming to Florida State. That’s crazy. If the Hurricanes can avoid the Seminoles in the ACC Tournament, they look like a team that can win it all!
  • Finally, let us take a moment to appreciate the glory of the Atlantic 10:

  • That’s right, you can make a circle of parity with the A10 this year. I always love it when something like that happens.

Next, let’s take a look ahead to a busy weekend of college hoops.

5. Outlet pass

The Big 12/SEC Challenge is scheduled for Saturday. Two of the best, deepest conferences in the country going head-to-head with bragging rights on the line? Sign me up! Here are the games I can’t wait to watch over the weekend:

  1. No. 12 Kentucky at No. 5 Kansas (Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN) – We’ll see if Kentucky freshman TyTy Washington is able to play, but even if he can’t go, the Wildcats still have the talent to make life difficult for the Jayhawks. This could end up being the best game of the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
  2. No. 16 Ohio State at No. 6 Purdue (Sunday at noon ET on CBS) – Both of these teams are trying to keep pace with Illinois atop the Big Ten standings. This is the only time these 2 squads will play this year, so whoever wins will have a major victory on their resume. The atmosphere should be intense in West Lafayette.
  3. No. 4 Baylor at Alabama (Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Yes, Alabama just lost to Georgia. But, the Tuscaloosa crowd should be rowdy for this one. The Crimson Tide get up for big games, too (see: Gonzaga and Houston games). Nothing would surprise me in this matchup.
  4. No. 18 Tennessee at Texas (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Rick Barnes returns to Austin to face his former school. I expect the atmosphere to be incredible for this game. I’d like the Vols’ chances a lot more in this one if the game was in Knoxville. I expect the Texas crowd to be a big factor on Saturday night.
  5. Oklahoma at No. 1 Auburn (Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN) – This should be a win for the Tigers. But, the Sooners are a tough squad that has made life difficult for many top Big 12 programs. After Auburn’s struggles at Mizzou on Tuesday, it’s not impossible that the Tigers lose this game.

The Big 12/SEC Challenge will provide the bulk of the intrigue over the next few days, but that Big Ten matchup is huge, too. This is a busy weekend of action around the country, and I can’t wait to see the upsets that happen over the next few days.

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.