Starting 5: Vols make statement, bubble teams suffer tough losses, Jabari Smith goes off
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
Am I really going to start off a column talking about Rutgers basketball? You’re darn right I am!
Back on Feb. 1, the Scarlet Knights looked like they were heading for the NIT, if that. They had just lost in overtime at Northwestern – their third loss in 4 games. They’d dropped games against Maryland and Minnesota in that stretch, with their only win coming by 2 points on the road against a hapless Nebraska team.
Their record was 12-9 overall and they were only 2-3 in Quad 1 games.
Well, Rutgers is in the midst of a historic run. After a 70-59 romp over Illinois on Wednesday night, the Scarlet Knights have become the first unranked team in NCAA history to beat ranked teams in 4-straight games:
Rutgers last three games:
84-63 win vs #13 Michigan State
66-64 win vs #16 Ohio State
73-65 win at #14 Wisconsin
Rutgers leads #12 Illinois 33-24 at halftime.
No unranked team in NCAA history has ever played four straight reg season games against ranked teams and won all four.
— College B-Ball Ref (@collegebb_ref) February 17, 2022
Those wins came at home against No. 13 Michigan State by 21 points in East Piscataway, vs. No. 16 Ohio State by 2 points, at No. 14 Wisconsin by 8 points and vs. No. 13 Illinois by 11.
Now the Knights are 16-9 overall and 6-3 in Quad 1 games. That’s a solid NCAA Tournament resume. As of Thursday morning, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had Rutgers among his “Last 4 Byes” in the NCAA Tournament:
An overdue welcome of Rutgers to the bracket after last night’s triumph over Illinois; moving in the opposite direction, North Carolina falls to “Last Four In” after an inexplicable home loss to Pitt. pic.twitter.com/JGA6LnURWA
— Joe Lunardi (@ESPNLunardi) February 17, 2022
This tweet says a lot about the job Steve Pikiell has done with the Scarlet Knights:
Coach Steve Pikiell has more quad 1 wins this year than…
– John Calipari
– Coach K
– Tom Izzo
– Chris Beard
– Mick Cronin pic.twitter.com/eEYbpfYJkH
— Steve Pikiell Fan Account (@pikesfanaccount) February 17, 2022
Rutgers’ defense was the star on Wednesday night, holding the Illini to a paltry 6-for-23 from 3-point range. Meanwhile, Ron Harper Jr. continued his strong play on offense, scoring a team-high 16 points.
Harper even threw in a Michael Jordan shrug when he banked in a 3 during a first-half scoring run:
Ron Harper Jr. (@__RHJR) had to hit a shrug after this bank three ?♂️
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) February 17, 2022
Yeah, it’s been that kind of run for the Knights. But, the road doesn’t get any easier. On Sunday, Rutgers heads to West Lafayette to take on No. 5 Purdue (more on that game later). After that, Rutgers plays at Michigan, at home against No. 15 Wisconsin and at Indiana before ending the year at home against Penn State.
That’s a brutal stretch, and Harper is dealing with a day-to-day hand injury:
Rutgers Men's Basketball Statement on Status of Ron Harper Jr.:
— Rutgers Basketball ? (@RutgersMBB) February 17, 2022
But, if we’ve learned anything over these past couple of weeks, it’s that we can’t count out the Scarlet Knights! Don’t be surprised if they go 3-2 or 4-1 over that difficult season-ending stretch.
2. SEC notes
When Tennessee’s backcourt plays like it did in a big 13-point win over No. 4 Kentucky on Tuesday night, the Vols can’t be stopped.
Taking advantage of TyTy Washington (a great perimeter defender) going out with an injury issue early, the Vols’ talented trio of guards – Kennedy Chandler, Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler – went off. They combined for 49 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists and 7 steals in Tennessee’s 76-63 win.
Vescovi, who led the way with 18 points, is one of the best shooters in the SEC, and Chandler and Zeigler are electric in the fast break:
— Caleb (@VolsAndDraft) February 16, 2022
They’re just so hard to guard when you’re not at full strength (and even if you are fully healthy, to be honest). They’re starting to get a sixth sense for what the others will do, and that’s a scary thought for future Vol opponents:
— Caleb (@VolsAndDraft) February 16, 2022
What did we learn from Tuesday’s game? A couple of things. Number 1, Kentucky isn’t a title contender without a healthy TyTy Washington. With him? One of the best 4 teams in the country, hands down.
Number 2, we learned that the Vols are peaking at the right time and, when they play like they did on Tuesday night, they’re a Final Four-level squad. Folks, the SEC Tournament is shaping up to be one for the ages!
- Wednesday night was the Jabari Smith Jr. show at Auburn Arena. The potential No. 1 overall pick had perhaps his best game in an Auburn uniform, going for 31 points and making 7 of his 10 3-point attempts. As you can see in the highlight video below, nearly all of Smith’s shots came over solid Vanderbilt defense. These are some NBA superstar-caliber shots:
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 17, 2022
- He also added 4 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal. Those are the sort of alpha dog moves the Tigers need to see from the uber-talented freshman more often. He’s hitting his stride at the right time.
- It was a brutal week for Florida’s NCAA Tournament hopes. The Gators went into College Station to face a Texas A&M team that was on an 8-game losing streak. It was a contest both squads desperately needed to win. Let’s just say neither team looked tourney worthy. But, it was the Gators who made a brutal mistake at the end, fouling Wade Taylor IV on a 3-pointer with 19 seconds left, up by 2. Taylor made all 3 foul shots to give the Aggies a 56-55 win. He also hit this big 3 in the second half:
2H | 14:50 | 37-30 Ags
— Texas A&M Basketball (@aggiembk) February 16, 2022
- Now, the Gators likely have to upset No. 2 Auburn on Saturday to have a chance at going to March Madness. This was a really tough loss for coach Mike White’s job security.
- Speaking of brutal losses, how about Ole Miss coming up short in overtime against South Carolina in Oxford? The game looked like it was heading to double-OT, but James Reese V had other plans, hitting this insane shot from halfcourt:
SOUTH CAROLINA DEFEATS OLE MISS ON A HALF COURT SHOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/ELELqMAF3G
— Mr Matthew CFB (@MrMatthewCFB) February 16, 2022
- Reese hadn’t made a 3 since the game against Tennessee on Feb. 5. He was 0 for his last 13 from beyond the arc. College basketball is crazy, y’all!
- And, to keep the trend going, Mississippi State probably played itself out of NCAA Tournament contention in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday night. After Alabama coach Nate Oats was ejected with 9 minutes left, the Bulldogs built their lead to 64-57. Then, from the 7:18 mark in the second half to the 1:00 mark, Alabama went on an incredible 18-2 run to cruise to an 80-75 victory. JD Davison and Darius Miles each put punctuation marks on the Tide’s win. Here’s a look at Miles dropping the hammer:
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 17, 2022
- That’s how you punctuate a big win! Now the Tide enter Saturday’s game at Kentucky with momentum (more on that game later). Meanwhile, the Bulldogs might need to win out to get back on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Next, let’s take a trip to Big Ten country.
3. B1G notes
It’s going to be really hard to pick against Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis for the National Player of the Year award. The Badgers’ star was at it again this week, scoring 30 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in Wisconsin’s 74-69 road win at Indiana.
In addition to scoring 30 points, he also once again proved he’s the best player in the country in clutch situations, scoring the Badgers’ final 13 points:
That’s an unbelievable performance down the stretch. He is even better than normal when the game is on the line. That’s a rare trait to have.
He’s also developed a signature move after a big win. As he did when Wisconsin won at Michigan State recently, he waved goodbye to Indiana while making his way off the court:
Johnny Davis is the captain now. pic.twitter.com/vVjYSWS95T
— Dillon Graff (@DillonGraff) February 16, 2022
When you have a game like Davis had, you can wave goodbye to whoever you want.
- It’s time to get real. Michigan State is overrated. The Spartans have no business being ranked No. 19 in the country right now. Coming off a 4-point loss at Penn State this week, I’d bet they fall in next week’s AP Poll. But, for now, they’re overrated. John Harrar dominated the Spartans on the interior in the Nittany Lions’ 62-58 victory. He recorded 16 points and 16 rebounds and threw down this big dunk:
— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) February 16, 2022
- The Spartans have plenty of talent. But, they don’t have that elite player that you need to win in March. If Max Christie can’t become that guy, the Spartans won’t win the Big Ten regular-season or tournament titles and won’t get beyond the first weekend of March Madness. Mark that down now.
What was Juwan Howard thinking on Thursday night against Iowa? He picked up the dumbest technical of the year, touching a live ball on the court:
Juwan Howard thought he was still playing? pic.twitter.com/myIfX4n7Eb
— Gump Cathcart (@bubbagumpino) February 18, 2022
- I did something like that when I was 10 and playing little league baseball. The throw from the catcher sailed over the pitcher’s head. I was on second base and had taken my leadoff. Trying to be helpful, I scooped up the ball and handed it to the shortstop, who immediately tagged me out. I was 10 years old. Juwan Howard is a millionaire coach of an elite program. Get it together, coach!
Now, let’s take a look around the ACC.
4. ACC notes
Coach K wasn’t feeling well during the Wake Forest-Duke game on Tuesday night, leaving the game at halftime. Duke held a 42-33 lead at the intermission and looked like it was going to cruise to a win over the Demon Deacons.
But, Coach K probably didn’t feel much better watching his team struggle in the second half, coughing up its entire lead. The game was tied 74-74 with only a few seconds left.
That’s when Mark Williams made a big-time play to help the Blue Devils pick up a majorly important win:
Re: Duke’s W last night on Mark Williams’ put-back … is this not basket interference? I’m not 100% on the rule interpretation here. The first tap is clean and legal. The second one, it appears there’s a quick touch as the ball is back over the cylinder. Refs counted the bucket. pic.twitter.com/rryYLSfixy
— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) February 16, 2022
Yes, there was some controversy, but it appears the officials made the right call. I know – Duke getting a seemingly favorable call at home? Seems suspicious. But, this one time, it appeared to be the correct decision.
That was a super-important victory for Duke, as it keeps the Blue Devils tied with Notre Dame atop the ACC standings. Those 2 teams are 1 game ahead of Miami and 2 games ahead of North Carolina.
If Coach K isn’t back for Saturday’s game against Florida State, Duke could struggle like it did in the second half against Wake. We’ll see what his status is soon enough.
- How do you stop this year’s North Carolina Tar Heels? Limit the damage big man Armando Bacot can do. Even entering this week’s game against Pitt, North Carolina was on the NCAA Tournament bubble with an 18-7 overall record and a 10-4 mark in ACC play. That’s how far the ACC has fallen this year. Now, the Heels’ tourney position is on even more perilous footing, as they fell to 18-8 (10-5 in ACC) with a 76-67 loss to the Panthers. Bacot only attempted 6 shots, scoring 7 points to go with 8 rebounds. He could only stay on the court for 26 minutes due to foul trouble. Pitt executed its plan perfectly. Now, we’ll see if other teams can copy that blueprint. If they can, UNC is in danger of missing out on March Madness. That was a really bad home loss.
- Basketball is just a game, but sometimes, it means so much more. Tuesday night was one of those times for the Florida State Seminoles. Yes, they entered the game against Clemson on a 6-game losing streak and wanted to snap it. But, more importantly, they were playing for manager Jared Lynn. Coach Leonard Hamilton revealed after the 61-60 FSU win that Lynn had recently been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer:
#FSU HC Leonard Hamilton got emotional in his postgame presser, saying that the team played to win for Jared Lynn, a student manager recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer
“I thought our guys played with their hearts, wanted to make sure to put a smile on his face.” pic.twitter.com/WSK4VhWjHY
— Tomahawk Nation (@TomahawkNation) February 16, 2022
- FSU fought for Lynn all night long, overcoming its recent struggles to pick up an emotional win:
— Florida State Men’s Basketball (@FSUHoops) February 17, 2022
- Lynn seems to be keeping a positive attitude on Twitter, which is great to see:
Starting chemo today. Whole goal of chemo is basically to destroy everything in your body in hopes of destroying the cancer too. I’ve had Taco Bell before tho so I think I’m prepared
— Jared Lynn (@JaredLynn9) February 17, 2022
Just finished my first round of chemo and I’m feeling great. No side effects at this point. pic.twitter.com/d1Bd2KLjOQ
— Jared Lynn (@JaredLynn9) February 17, 2022
- You got this, Jared! We’re all rooting for you!
Next, let’s take a look ahead to another busy weekend of college hoops.
5. Outlet pass
I’m going to officially declare it – we’ve hit the stretch run of the season. The conference title races are heating up and No. 1 seeds in conference tournaments are very much on the line across the country this weekend. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch over the next few days:
- No. 16 Tennessee at No. 23 Arkansas (Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Tennessee might be undefeated at home, but the Vols haven’t faced many challenges like playing at Bud Walton Arena this year. It’s sure to be a rocking environment in Fayetteville on Saturday. Arkansas can stay in the mix for the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament with a win. There are plenty of stakes on both sides here.
- No. 12 Illinois at No. 19 Michigan State (Saturday at noon ET on ESPN) – Both of these teams are coming off of bad losses. Illinois got stomped by Rutgers. Michigan State fell at Penn State. The winner of this game in East Lansing can turn things around and get back in the B1G regular-season title race. The loser will have an even bigger hole to dig out of.
- No. 25 Alabama at No. 4 Kentucky (Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on CBS) – Alabama is tough in big games. If TyTy Washington can’t play in this one, Kentucky will find it difficult to get open looks offensively. The Wildcats’ defense is still good enough to carry them in this game, but you never know which Tide team you’re going to get.
- Rutgers at No. 5 Purdue (Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on FS1) – Rutgers, as we discussed in the opening section today, is on a historic hot streak. The Scarlet Knights’ reward? A trip to West Lafayette to take on Jaden Ivey and the Boilermakers. Can Rutgers keep its great streak going?
- No. 2 Auburn at Florida (Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Auburn hasn’t won at Florida since 1996. That seems crazy, but it’s true. If the Tigers are going to cement themselves as legitimate title contenders, though, this is a game they must win. We’ll see if Bruce Pearl’s team can get the job done and all but end Florida’s NCAA Tournament hopes.
The stakes are high this weekend. There are some massive games in both the SEC and the Big Ten. By the time we hit Monday, we’ll have a great look at which teams are still in contention for their league titles and which teams have faltered under the pressure. It’s going to be a fun weekend of hoops!
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.