Starting 5: Auburn or Gonzaga for No. 1, Kentucky is a contender, Arkansas bounces back
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
Monday’s Associated Press Men’s Basketball Poll was, shall we say, interesting. In the No. 1 spot was Gonzaga. In the No. 2 spot was Auburn. Auburn had more first-place votes (36-25), but came up 4 total points short of the Bulldogs for the top spot (1,486 to 1,482).
The reason the Tigers came up short in total points? Well, Gonzaga wasn’t voted lower than fourth place by any AP voter. Meanwhile, Jon Wilner had the Tigers at No. 6 in his poll and Jesse Newell had Auburn at No. 9 in his rankings:
AP voter breakdown for Auburn and Gonzaga, respectively, via @colpolltracker
Gonzaga only had two voters put them out of the top two, Auburn had seven — including a No. 7 and a No. 9
that’s how you get more first-place votes and still don’t get No. 1 pic.twitter.com/8mBVlyuFyX
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) January 17, 2022
That is absolutely asinine by Newell, who seems to frequently use his poll to drum up attention for himself. If I were running the Associated Press, Newell would be stripped of his vote immediately.
I think the Tigers deserve to be No. 1, but there is no way you can be a reasonable college basketball reporter and put Auburn outside of your top 4. That’s ludicrous.
Yes, Auburn trailed in the first half at Ole Miss on Saturday night, but the Tigers bounced back to win by 9 points. Earlier in the week, they won in Tuscaloosa against Alabama. Meanwhile, Gonzaga lost to Alabama earlier this season in Seattle in what was posited as a “neutral-site” game. Yeah, right.
At this point in the season, Auburn has the deeper team. Jabari Smith Jr. is a better freshman contributor than Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren. Here are Smith’s numbers compared to Holmgren’s:
- Smith: 16.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.5 steals, 1 block per game
- Holmgren: 13.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 3.3 blocks per game
They’re both great players, but if I were an NBA GM, I’d draft Smith over Holmgren as things stand right now. Meanwhile, Auburn has its own rim protector in Walker Kessler:
He had 7 blocks in the win at Ole Miss, and earlier this year, posted a triple-double where he had blocks as one of the categories. That’s incredible.
Also, Gonzaga has a great point guard in Andrew Nembhard, but Auburn has two in Wendell Green Jr. and Zep Jasper. SEC Network analyst Dane Bradshaw says Jasper is the best on-ball defender in all of college hoops:
— WJOX 94.5 FM (@WJOX945) January 17, 2022
Look, once again, you can’t go wrong if you have either Auburn or Gonzaga in your No. 1 spot. I’ll accept either of those. But if you have another team up there in the top spot, you should at least consider relinquishing your vote.
Also, get outta here with the Tigers at No. 6 and No. 9. Unbelievable.
Auburn has a chance to prove it should be the top team on Saturday when a tough Kentucky squad comes to Auburn Arena. More on the Wildcats next.
2. SEC notes
Let’s just say there weren’t any teams in the country, including Auburn, that could have taken down Kentucky on Saturday in Lexington. Playing with heavy hearts after the death earlier that morning of legendary coach Joe B. Hall, the Wildcats put on a show, trouncing rival Tennessee 107-79.
It seemed like the Wildcats couldn’t miss, setting a shooting record for the John Calipari era:
Kentucky scored its most points against Tennessee in program history in today's 107-79 victory.
The Wildcats shot 67.9% percent from the field, their highest in any game under John Calipari. pic.twitter.com/yewa0OYdN0
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 15, 2022
It was also the most points Kentucky has scored against a ranked foe since 1994:
TyTy Washington scored 28 points in the lopsided win. He’s hot right now, and that’s scary for opponents. This isn’t an easy shot, but he makes it look like a layup:
I love TyTy Washington’s ability to seamless to shift from off guard to creator. He starts this possession off the ball, puts a move on his man to shake free then comes off a screen for a pull up 3 pic.twitter.com/pOD3mpusdL
— Moddy G (@GoodEatz_Moddy) January 16, 2022
He seems to like that spot on the court, too:
Career high 28 points (10-13 FG) and throw in 5 assists for TyTy Washington vs Tennessee.
So composed, unselfish and a consistently terrific shooter. Better defender than advertised too.
Easily one of the best guards in the class. pic.twitter.com/0tDxEr6apD
— Keandre (Hoop Intellect) (@HoopIntelllect) January 15, 2022
No one is playing better basketball in the SEC than Washington, so Texas A&M needs to watch out on Wednesday night.
- Speaking of the Aggies, kudos to Buzz Williams’ team for improving to 4-0 in SEC play. There are no easy road wins in league play this season, so winning at Mizzou is still a solid victory. Tyrece Radford hit this clutch shot and the Aggies made their free throws down the stretch to finish off the come-from-behind win:
— Texas A&M Basketball (@aggiembk) January 15, 2022
- Free throws have been hard for the Aggies this year, so seeing them shoot well in the clutch is a good sign. We’ll see if they can keep their winning ways going!
- A team going in the opposite direction of Texas A&M is Alabama. I’m officially ready to hit the panic button on the Tide after 3-straight losses (at Mizzou, vs. Auburn, at Mississippi State). It sounds like coach Nate Oats is ready to panic, too:
“The bench is a great teaching tool at this level. Guys don’t want to play hard and do what we ask them to do, make some tough plays, they can come sit next to us on the bench."
— Mike Rodak (@mikerodak) January 18, 2022
- We’ll see which players make their way to the bench and get less minutes in the coming games. The Tide host LSU on Wednesday (more on that game later), then host Mizzou on Saturday with a chance to avenge an earlier loss. We’ll see if they can claw their way back above .500 in SEC action this week.
- Speaking of getting within striking distance of a .500 league record, Arkansas picked up another big win over the weekend, taking down LSU in Baton Rouge. JD Notae scored 19 points, including 10 after halftime, to lead the Hogs. This was him giving Arkansas the lead late with a long-range 3:
- That’s a gutsy shot, indeed. He’ll need to make a lot more of those, but the Arkansas defense looked a lot better against LSU, and that’s perhaps the better sign for this team moving forward.
Now, let’s move on to some big stories out of the Big Ten.
3. B1G notes
After Michigan State lost at home against Northwestern on Saturday (more on that game in a second), Illinois was the last remaining B1G team undefeated in league play. That came to an end on Monday in a matinee game against Purdue in Champaign.
The game went into double-overtime before the Boilermakers were able to escape with a nice 96-88 victory. Frankly, though, it’s impressive the Illini were able to come back and force overtime. Big man Kofi Cockburn played only 22 minutes, scoring 10 points and grabbing 5 rebounds before fouling out.
Zach Edey had his number all day. Then, when Cockburn was out with foul trouble, Edey went to work even more:
It’s just not fair to put anyone other than Cockburn on Edey. He finished with 20 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Sasha Stefanovic led the Boilermakers with 22 points, knocking down this clutch 3 in double-overtime:
Andre Curbelo played his first game in a long time for the Illini, posting 20 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists. If he’s back to full strength, that’s huge for Illinois:
Alfonso Plummer did his best to keep the Illini in the game, making 6 of his 12 3-point attempts:
Alfonso Plummer AGAIN!pic.twitter.com/07q43wx82D
— Heat Check CBB (@HeatCheckCBB) January 17, 2022
He finished with a game-high 24 points. But, without Cockburn, the Illini just didn’t have enough to stop Purdue.
I’m already counting down the days until these 2 teams meet again in West Lafayette on Feb. 10!
- Saturday was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for the Michigan State Spartans. The No. 10 team in the country fell to unranked Northwestern in East Lansing, 64-62. It was an embarrassing first B1G loss for the Spartans. The worst part about it? The Wildcats didn’t exactly do much well. In fact, it has been nearly 17 years since a team shot as poorly as Northwestern did and still picked up a road win over a top-10 squad:
Northwestern shot just 34.8% from the floor in its win at No. 10 Michigan State.
That's the lowest FG pct in a road win over a Top-10 team since 2005 (Iowa State over No. 2 Kansas, 34.4%). pic.twitter.com/Y0tRAAY0hi
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 15, 2022
- The biggest highlight for Northwestern might have been this game-clinching rebound:
No. 10 Michigan State had won nine in a row.@NUMensBball was without star Pete Nance.
The Wildcats just went into the Breslin Center and upset the Spartans. pic.twitter.com/k9GTNd9cet
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) January 15, 2022
- Big man Ryan Young did post 18 points and 8 boards, so he was a force the Spartans couldn’t handle. Here’s a clutch and-1 late in the game:
- Not bad for a guy filling in for star Pete Nance, who missed the game. Now, the Spartans will have to respond and move forward after this bad loss.
- EJ Liddell gets plenty of credit for his offense and rebounding, but he’s underappreciated for how good of an all-around player he is. In Ohio State’s 61-56 win over Penn State on Sunday, he had 19 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks. But I want to focus on the assists and blocks. Look at this dime from the post:
EJ Liddell has really improved passing out of the post. He’s gotten more attention from defenses this year and he’s made them pay pic.twitter.com/wTepew2Bsd
— Brodie (@StroudHEISMAN) January 17, 2022
- And this block is a thing of beauty:
You don’t wanna meet EJ Liddell at the rim
— Barstool Bench Mob (@stoolbenchmob) January 16, 2022
- That’s just great help defense. Ohio State is 5-2 in conference play and within striking distance of first place in the B1G standings after Illinois and Michigan State both lost recently.
Now, let’s move on to some ACC and other stories.
4. ACC notes/random tidbits
Duke has plenty of star power. Freshman Paolo Banchero gets a lot of headlines, as does Wendell Moore Jr. Trevor Keels is also a breakout star as a freshman. But, Mark Williams deserves a lot of credit for this team’s success, too.
In Saturday’s 88-73 win over NC State, Williams scored 19 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. But, even more impressively, Williams blocked 8 shots without recording a single foul in 27 minutes of court time:
We already talked about Auburn’s Walker Kessler as a shot blocker and a defensive stalwart for a team that should be ranked No. 1. Williams can be that sort of guy for the Blue Devils, and that makes them even more dangerous.
- Duke’s next opponent is Florida State, and the Blue Devils couldn’t be catching the Seminoles at a worse time. FSU started 1-1 in ACC play, but have won 3-straight league matchups, including Saturday’s 76-71 win at Syracuse. Caleb Mills was red-hot from 3-point range, going 5-for-6 from beyond the arc. The Noles host Duke on Tuesday night. Is an upset in the works?
- Baylor fell from No. 1 to No. 5 in the AP Poll this week, and frankly, the Bears are lucky they didn’t fall further after losing to Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. While shooting only 16-of-52 from 3-point range (30.7%) might not be a slump for many teams over the course of 2 games, it certainly is for the Bears. Meanwhile, James Akinjo, who has taken over as one of the team leaders, was ineffective against the Cowboys while dealing with an injury he suffered against Texas Tech. Now the Bears travel to West Virginia (more on that game later). That’s a tough matchup for a team in a slump.
- Iowa State entered Saturday’s home game against a ranked Texas team with a 1-3 record in Big 12 play. I was very worried that the Cyclones’ feel-good story would come to an end at the hands of the Longhorns. Instead, Iowa State looked good, winning 79-70. Gabe Kalscheur led the way with 22 points. He made his 200th 3-pointer of his career as part of the 6-for-12 effort from long-range:
Gabe!!! He's got it stuck on automatic! 4-6 from deep. 3-3 this half.
— Iowa State Men’s Basketball (@CycloneMBB) January 15, 2022
- This was a clutch 3 late in the second half:
Importante victoria de Iowa State @CycloneMBB frente a @TexasMBB (7⃣9⃣-7⃣0⃣), en un encuentro que tuvo a Gabe Kalscheur @GabrielKalsche1 como máximo anotador con 22 puntos (6 triples). pic.twitter.com/hpnnHyU6fl
— Planeta NCAA (@PlanetaNCAA) January 16, 2022
- He also had 3 assists, including this one on an important late possession:
— Iowa State Men’s Basketball (@CycloneMBB) January 15, 2022
- The Cyclones’ reward for that win? A trip to Lubbock to face a tough Texas Tech team. The Big 12 schedule is brutal this year!
- Finally, in this section, let’s just appreciate how hot the Oregon basketball programs have been lately:
Oregon women's basketball beat (7) Arizona on Sat. and (9) UConn today.
Oregon men's basketball beat (3) UCLA on Thurs. and (5) USC on Sat.
It's the 1st time since at least 2000 that a school has had 4 wins over AP Top-10 teams (men's & women's combined) over the span of a week pic.twitter.com/i3wqinEoK7
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 18, 2022
- That’s incredible. We’ll see if the Ducks can keep the big wins coming!
Next, let’s take a look at the biggest games of the upcoming week.
5. Outlet pass
The next few days are full of big-time conference matchups. There are some rivalry games and some intriguing contests on the schedule between now and Friday. So, with that said, here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch over the next few days:
- No. 4 Purdue at Indiana (Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on FS1) – The Hoosiers are 11-0 at home. The Boilermakers are coming off a big-time road win at Illinois on Monday. Something’s gotta give in this intense rivalry game. Can Mike Woodson get off to a good start in his first game against the Boilermakers as Indiana’s head coach?
- No. 13 LSU at Alabama (Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2) – This isn’t a do-or-die game for either team at this point in the year, but it is a hugely important matchup for both squads. LSU needs to get back on track after a Saturday home loss to Arkansas. The Tide need to stop a 3-game SEC skid. There should be an intense atmosphere in Tuscaloosa.
- No. 12 Kentucky at Texas A&M (Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET on SEC Network) – The Aggies remain unbeaten in SEC play at 4-0, but they haven’t faced a test like Kentucky yet. The Wildcats looked like Final Four contenders in a 107-point outburst against Tennessee over the weekend.
- No. 7 Kansas at Oklahoma (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) – The Jayhawks are rolling right now, sitting atop the Big 12 standings with a 3-1 conference record. But, Norman is no easy place to play under new coach Porter Moser. Iowa State recently lost there. We’ll see if the Jayhawks can avoid a road upset.
- No. 5 Baylor at West Virginia (Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN2) – The Bears have lost 2 games in a row. When you’re struggling like that, the last thing you want to see on the schedule is a trip to West Virginia. The 5 p.m. tipoff time is also strange. We’ll see if the Mountaineers can keep Baylor’s slump going.
It might still be fairly early in conference play, but these games will look even more important as we get closer to Selection Sunday. Some top teams have hit snags, so we’ll see who bounces back and who continues to struggle 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.