Starting 5: KD Johnson plays hero for Auburn, Texas A&M keeps NCAA hopes alive, Florida uses miracle to beat Vanderbilt
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.
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1. Opening tipoff
Purdue has dropped 2-straight games entering Saturday’s regular-season finale against Indiana in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers, once considered a likely No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but now reduced to a probable 2- or 3-seed, have only lost 6 games all year.
But, 4 of those losses have come in the final 20 seconds of regulation. March is a time to discuss fatal flaws for title contenders. Well, Purdue has a glaring one: the Boilermakers simply view defense as optional.
The first 2 late daggers made against Purdue were just bad luck. This half-court heave from Ron Harper Jr. of Rutgers and this corner 3 by Indiana’s Rob Phinisee were defended well, but a great player just made a great shot in each situation:
RON HARPER JR. HITS BUZZER-BEATER TO UPSET NO. 1 PURDUE ??
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) December 10, 2021
INDIANA STUNS NO. 4 PURDUE!
The Rob Phinisee Game. pic.twitter.com/JwGLAs7TwB
— Heat Check CBB (@HeatCheckCBB) January 21, 2022
But, the last 2 buzzer-beaters to come at the expense of Matt Painter’s squad have been the result of some questionable defense. In last weekend’s loss at Michigan State, Tyson Walker was given way too much space by Trevion Williams after a simple ball screen:
TYSON WALKER WITH ONE SECOND LEFT‼️
Michigan State knocks off No. 4 Purdue. pic.twitter.com/dC4s7n1nQb
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 26, 2022
Then, on Tuesday night, Wisconsin claimed a share of the Big Ten title with this last-second bank shot by Chucky Hepburn:
THE ENDING OF PURDUE-WISCONSIN ? pic.twitter.com/P5W87dY2DX
— ESPN (@espn) March 2, 2022
Yes, Jaden Ivey played strong defense on that final possession and made the shot tough for Hepburn, but why wasn’t Purdue pressuring the ball the whole way up the court? That’s a major lapse by the Boilermakers, and one that perhaps cost them the B1G regular-season title.
According to KenPom’s rankings, Purdue has the No. 1 offense in the country. But, the defense checks in at No. 100 in the nation. That’s not sustainable in postseason play. The Boilermakers have the offensive firepower to win it all. The problem is they don’t have the ability to get any key stops on defense, and that’s going to lead to some problems in March Madness.
2. SEC notes
Overtime was KD Johnson time in Starkville on Wednesday night. After an awkward play that led to a long, contested shot by Jabari Smith Jr. at the end of regulation between Auburn and Mississippi State, the game went into extra time.
KD Johnson decided he’d had enough of Auburn’s 3-game road losing streak. He put the team on his shoulders, scoring the Tigers’ first 10 points in the OT period as they blew the Bulldogs out of the water in the extra 5 minutes to pick up a big 81-68 victory.
These were his first 2 buckets – 1 a hard drive to the hoop, the other a deep 3-pointer:
Johnson loved seeing a huge dunk from Smith in the game’s closing seconds, too. Look at the reaction of Zep Jasper, Wendell Green Jr. and Johnson when Smith gets by his defender. They knew what was coming:
The best part of this (other than Jabari's dunk, of course) is the reaction of both Zep Jasper and K.D. Johnson when they knew what was about to happen.pic.twitter.com/0a9N2WQzFr
— Brian Stultz (@brianjstultz) March 3, 2022
Oh, and speaking of those 3 guards – they were all on the court at the same time! This was the first time all year that coach Bruce Pearl had played Green, Johnson and Jasper together, and it clearly worked to great effect.
The lineup of Jasper, Green, Johnson, Smith and big man Walker Kessler is probably Auburn’s best at this point. We’ll see how much Pearl uses it in the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
- I’ve seen a lot of people ripping Jaylin Williams of Arkansas for how much he takes charges (47 and counting this season). Yes, in Arkansas’s 77-76 home win over LSU on Wednesday night, there were a couple of questionable calls. This is a bad one against Tari Eason:
The awful charge call of the day in college basketball: pic.twitter.com/gLkYgLhCGL
— Matthew Brune (@MatthewBrune_) March 3, 2022
- It sure looked like Williams slid under Eason while he was still in the air. This one, in a key situation, is also not a great call by the refs:
This might be an even worse charge call than the other pic.twitter.com/Ho9MdTg7p4
— Matthew Brune (@MatthewBrune_) March 3, 2022
- But, you can’t blame Williams for that. He’s forcing the refs to make a decision one way or the other. He has a reputation as a guy who takes charges. Subconsciously, the officials know that, so he gets the benefit of the doubt on a lot of these calls, especially in front of a raucous home crowd. It reminds me of former Mizzou big man Jeremiah Tilmon. He would constantly get called for ticky-tack fouls and fouled out of way too many games, but it was because he had a reputation, up until his final season, of a guy who fouled a lot. Officials are human, which means they’re imperfect. So, what I’m saying is, don’t be surprised if Williams continues to get the benefit of the doubt on charge calls.
- Just when it looked like Florida was about to lose at Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, the Gators pulled a miracle out of their hat (perhaps saving coach Mike White’s job in the process). With 44 seconds left, the Gators trailed the Commodores 78-73. Then, they put together an incredible 9-0 run to pull off a miraculous 82-78 victory. Phlandrous Fleming Jr. continued his clutch play, hitting the go-ahead 3 with 17 seconds left:
— Florida Gators Men’s Basketball (@GatorsMBK) March 2, 2022
- If the Gators want to go to March Madness, they likely still need 1 more signature win. Beating Kentucky on Saturday would certainly qualify. If the Gators lose that game, they’ll probably need to win 2 games in Tampa at the SEC Tournament next week. We’ll see what White and the Gators can do.
- Alabama suffered another head-scratching loss this week. On Wednesday night, the Tide were blown out in Tuscaloosa by a Texas A&M team that was, quite simply, hungrier than Nate Oats’ squad. Credit to the Aggies, and Quenton Jackson’s 28 points, but this game was more about the inexplicable Tide. When it comes to filling out your NCAA Tournament bracket this year, I have some advice about Alabama games – flip a coin. If it comes up heads 6 times in a row, pick the Tide to win it all. If it comes up tails on the first flip, pick Alabama to lose in Round 1. That seems to be a better way to predict Alabama games than anything else at this point.
Now, let’s move on to the Big Ten.
3. B1G notes
Y’all know by now I’m not above patting myself on the back from time to time. Well, I’m going to take some credit for saying a couple of weeks ago that I was out on Michigan State. The Spartans are a good team, but not a great team. They don’t play defense the way Tom Izzo teams usually do and they don’t have that star player.
Max Christie hasn’t developed into a go-to guy, which is what the Spartans needed. That’s not to say he can’t, though. He’s just a freshman. Sometimes, in this era of one-and-done guys, we forget that some players need a couple of years to blossom. But, for this year’s Michigan State squad, that’s not good news.
After an 80-69 loss at Ohio State on Thursday night, and an 87-70 loss at rival Michigan earlier in the week, the Spartans have now lost 6 of their last 8 games and are only 10-9 in Big Ten play with 1 game left (against Maryland).
Malaki Branham of Ohio State has been a star recently, but this is just too easy:
.@MalakiBranham with the tough ? finish at the rim.
CC: @OhioStateHops pic.twitter.com/i8foXoTMep
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 4, 2022
The Spartans’ defense allowed Branham to score 22 points. The Buckeyes only got 3 points off the bench, but it didn’t matter, as Michigan State let EJ Liddell score 19 points, Joey Brunk to score 18 (by far a season high) and Jamari Wheeler to add 16.
Even with Izzo’s pedigree in March, this is just an average Michigan State team. Expect early exits in the B1G Tournament and in March Madness.
- Speaking of Ohio State, it wasn’t exactly a great week for the Buckeyes, despite the win over Michigan State. Earlier in the week, they were embarrassed at home against Nebraska, losing 78-70. Even though Liddell had a monster game, scoring 27 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, the Buckeyes couldn’t stop Bryce McGowens and the Cornhuskers. Nebraska is 9-21 on the year and 3-16 in B1G play, so this is not a good team. But, McGowens managed to torch the Ohio State defense for 26 points:
Bryce McGowens with 25 or more points his last two games while shooting over 50% from the field. The 6’7” G flashed the three-level scoring that made him such a hot draft name to start the season. Everything seems to be clicking at the right time. pic.twitter.com/eyVI2s6OU9
— Matt Pennie (@matt_pennie) March 4, 2022
- Yes, McGowens is probably off to the NBA after this season, but this was probably a case of the Buckeyes looking ahead to the Michigan State game and not taking Nebraska seriously. They’ll have to avoid a similar mishap if they want to cut down the nets in Indianapolis next week.
- No Big Ten team this side of Wisconsin had a bigger win this week than Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights likely cemented their place in the NCAA Tournament with a last-second win at Indiana on Wednesday night. Ron Harper Jr., as he has done all year long, played hero for the Scarlet Knights, draining this 3 in the closing seconds to give Rutgers a 66-63 win:
RON HARPER JR. WITH ANOTHER GAME-WINNER ?
Too clutch. pic.twitter.com/eBZ7oM719h
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 3, 2022
- Ron Harper Jr. is the kind of player who can carry a team to the Sweet 16. We’ll see if he gets that chance. At 17-12 overall and 11-8 in B1G play, Rutgers doesn’t have the overall record that will impress selection committee members. But, the Knights are 6-5 in Quad 1 games, and that has to count for something. A win at home against Penn State to close the regular season on Sunday afternoon is an absolute must for Steve Pikiell’s team.
Next, let’s take a look at the biggest ACC headlines.
4. ACC notes
Duke is preparing for a big game on Saturday at Cameron Indoor, in case you haven’t heard. It’ll be Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game as the head coach of the Blue Devils, and they’ll be playing arch-rival North Carolina. You can bet that’ll be the No. 1 game in the next section.
For some teams, that huge game looming large might lead to a letdown in the game before. Not for this year’s Blue Devils. On the road against a bad Pitt team, Duke took care of business, cruising to an 86-56 win over the Panthers.
Trevor Keels had one of his best games of the year, scoring 27 points to lead the Blue Devils. He was making all the right decisions in the pick-and-roll game:
Trevor Keels is such a smooth operator in the screen and role game. Really had it going against Pittsburgh. pic.twitter.com/uWLMcwRcHI
— BlueDevilStop (@BlueDevilStop) March 3, 2022
Keels and big man Mark Williams have really improved their draft stock this year. In fact, this ESPN article speculates that all 5 Duke starters from Tuesday’s game (Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin, Williams, Keels and Wendell Moore Jr.) could all be first-round picks in the 2022 NBA Draft.
With that much elite talent on the team, it’s definitely possible the Blue Devils end the year cutting down the nets in New Orleans after the Final Four to send Coach K off to retirement as a winner. But first, we’ll see if they can score one more victory over the Tar Heels on Saturday.
- If you’re looking for a team with an elite guard who can pull off a couple of big-time wins in March Madness, look no further than Isaiah Wong of Miami. The Hurricanes clinched a double-bye in the ACC Tournament on Wednesday night with an 81-70 win over Boston College. Wong was magnificent, scoring 27 points and going 5-for-9 from 3-point range. The Hurricanes only got 2 of their 80 points from their bench, but it didn’t matter, because Wong was hitting everything:
- Unless Duke really flips a switch and goes after a 1-seed, the ACC Tournament is wide-open this year. Isaiah Wong has the talent to carry Miami to the final.
- Anthony Polite might have just returned to the court after wrist surgery, but he certainly didn’t look rusty at all. The Seminoles scored a big-time win over Notre Dame on Wednesday, with Polite hitting the dagger 3-pointer in the 74-70 victory:
?? Anthony Polite hitting a clutch 3-pointer to help a shorthanded Florida St get the W over Notre Dame, 74-70. @PoliteAP2 just got back from a wrist surgery that has kept him off the court for almost a month.
12 PTS • 4-10 FG • 2-2 FT • 3 REB • 2 ASTpic.twitter.com/UiUa5uWBD7
— CBB Europe (@CBB_Europe) March 3, 2022
- At 16-13 overall and 9-10 in ACC play, there’s probably not much of a chance for FSU to make it to March Madness. But, beating NC State in the regular-season finale on Saturday would improve the Noles to 17-13. Win 2 games in the ACC Tournament and there’s at least a conversation to be had. We’ll see what happens, but FSU could, at the very least, be an intriguing team in the NIT.
Now, let’s move on to the top games of the final weekend of the regular season.
5. Outlet pass
Well, folks, we’ve made it. This is the final weekend of the regular season in men’s college basketball. After this, we officially enter March Madness. But, at least the regular season is going out with a bang! Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch over the weekend, starting with the obvious one:
- North Carolina at No. 4 Duke (Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN) – It’s finally here! Coach K’s final home game as the head coach of Duke. Tickets are insanely expensive. The stars are all going to be on hand. The crowd will be raucous. Do the Tar Heels have any hope here? A win would really boost their NCAA Tournament resume, and you know UNC would love nothing more than to spoil a monumental day for their rivals.
- No. 14 Arkansas at No. 13 Tennessee (Saturday at noon ET on ESPN) – The SEC’s top-4 teams (Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky) are a combined 45-1 at home this year. The lone loss? Arkansas fell to Vanderbilt back at the beginning of SEC play. Can the Hogs hand the Vols their first loss on Rocky Top? This is a huge game for SEC Tournament seeding.
- No. 16 USC at No. 17 UCLA (Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN) – This rivalry game will decide the No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. If the Bruins are going to make another Final Four run like they did last year, this game would be a good game to win. But, the Trojans have lofty goals of their own and would love to finish a season-sweep of their crosstown rivals.
- No. 24 Iowa at No. 20 Illinois (Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET on FS1) – Illinois is one of the streakiest teams in the country. When the Illini are good, they’re Final Four good. When they’re bad, they’re first-round loss bad. Finishing off the regular season with momentum will be important for both of these teams entering the B1G Tournament.
- No. 7 Kentucky at Florida (Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on CBS) – If Florida wins this game, I think it is a lock for the NCAA Tournament no matter what happens in Tampa at the conference tourney next week. But, taking down the Wildcats, who are back at full strength once again, won’t be easy. We’ll see if Mike White’s squad can rise to the occasion in Gainesville.
There’s still plenty to play for across the nation this weekend. Seeding at conference tournaments is still up for grabs. Bubble resumes still have opportunities to be padded. It’s going to be a fun finish. Buckle up, y’all!
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.