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. The Opening Tip

The Kentucky Wildcats are one of the hottest teams in the SEC, surprisingly. After going to Knoxville and knocking off Tennessee on Saturday, the Wildcats have now won 3 games in a row and are 7-7 in conference play.

So, it’s not totally crazy to ask this question — can the Wildcats win the SEC Tournament? That would guarantee them a berth in the NCAA Tournament, even if they still have a losing record at this point (they’re 8-13 overall right now).

It’s not implausible to think the Wildcats could make a run in Nashville. Freshman big man Isaiah Jackson has been playing the best basketball of his season lately. Look at this shot and this dunk he had against the Vols:

And, the Wildcats have finally learned to utilize the 3-pointer effectively. No longer is a zone defense effective against them, because now they’re actually making 3s:

Am I putting this out into the ether to encourage the Cats? Is this all because I picked them to make the Final Four before the season started? Perhaps. But, also, Kentucky is showing why so many analysts were high on them entering 2020-21.

Crazier things have happened in the SEC Tournament. John Calipari’s team will be a tough out in Nashville.

2. Home-court advantage

How about that Cam Thomas guy? The true freshman from LSU leads the SEC with an impressive 22.8 points per game. He simply can’t be stopped offensively. Elsewhere, yeah, his game needs some work, but he is a scoring machine.

He scored 27 points against Auburn in a 104-80 win on Saturday, and almost all of his shots came in traffic or with a hand in his face:

He’s leading the SEC Freshman of the Year race, and if Alabama’s Herb Jones doesn’t finish strong, it’s fair to wonder if he can win the SEC Player of the Year award, too. It’s going to be an exciting stretch run.

Get a good look at Thomas down the stretch and in the postseason, because he’s probably going to be a lottery pick (or at least a first-round pick) in the 2021 NBA Draft. He’s that good.

Now, let’s look at some other SEC stories:

  • Speaking of making tough shots, how about Jaden Shackelford at Alabama? He only went 1-for-9 from 3-point range in an 82-78 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday. But, he still scored 27 points to lead the Tide. How did he do that? He got to the free-throw line and made tough shots in the lane like this:


  • Herb Jones’ back is clearly still bothering him. John Petty Jr. can be streaky. The Tide are going to need Shackelford to be consistently good if they’re going to accomplish their goals this year. On Saturday, he showed he can score in a variety of ways.
  • Mizzou finally snapped its 3-game losing streak with a big win at South Carolina on Saturday. It should come as no surprise that it also coincided with big man Jeremiah Tilmon returning to the court after missing 2 games because of a death in the family. He is a major difference maker, even though he didn’t start on Saturday. He managed to put up 17 points. He’s all over this highlight reel:


  • He managed to make every shot he attempted on Saturday, no easy feat for a big man. He made all 5 of his shots from the floor and went a perfect 7-for-7 from the free-throw line. The Tigers should continue to win if he keeps playing well.
  • Basketball is a funny game. Even if you’re getting good shots, they don’t always fall. Georgia learned that lesson the hard way on Saturday in a 70-63 loss to the Florida Gators. That’s one of the Dawgs’ best defensive performances of SEC play, but their shots weren’t falling on the other end. Per ShotQuality, Georgia should win a game like that 65% of the time based on shot selection:


  • Fortunately for Florida, basketball isn’t played on paper or in a computer. The Gators gritted out a tough win and now have some momentum heading into the stretch run of the season.

Now, let’s look around the rest of the country.

3. Road trip

Is Michigan State a “blueblood” program? That’s a difficult question to answer. There was a comment on my last Starting 5 column in response to me saying Michigan State was the most disappointing blueblood of the season. The comment basically laughed at me saying the Spartans were in that group.

Most analysts and fans agree that Duke, North Carolina, UCLA, Indiana, Kentucky and Kansas are safely in the “bluebloods” category. Syracuse is also generally given the nod, as the Orange are in the top-10 all time in wins, along with those other schools.

But, Michigan State isn’t in that group. The Spartans are currently No. 27 on the all-time wins list. But, they have some history. They’ve won 2 titles (1979 and 2000) and have been elite since 2000.

My friend Robert is a Big Ten homer, but he’s always good at bringing things like “facts” and “statistics” to his arguments. He saw the comment about Michigan State and then looked at the total wins for certain programs since 2000-01 and here’s what he found:

  • Kansas: 607
  • Duke: 597
  • Gonzaga: 595
  • Kentucky: 555
  • North Carolina: 534
  • Michigan State: 519
  • Villanova: 510
  • Syracuse: 507
  • Arizona: 500

That’s the list of big-name teams with 500 wins since 2000-01. Gonzaga has been elite, but it doesn’t have the title pedigree Michigan State does. Villanova is close to being a blueblood, in my opinion, if it isn’t there already.

It doesn’t really matter, as there isn’t any real benefit to being labeled a “blueblood” per se, but I’d say let Villanova and Michigan State into the bluebloods group. And, once Gonzaga wins a title, the Bulldogs can join the group, too.

If Indiana is still considered a blueblood, there’s no reason the Spartans, Wildcats and Bulldogs can’t be in the mix, too.

Now, let’s take a look around the rest of the country:

  • There have been 4 triple-doubles in Illinois history, and 2 of them have come from Ayo Dosunmu in the past 4 Illini games. Dosunmu had 19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a big win at Minnesota over the weekend:

  • I honestly have no idea how he’s not on par with Iowa’s Luka Garza in the National Player of the Year discussion. It’s possible Dosunmu wins Big Ten Player of the Year and Garza wins the national award. That would be weird, especially since Dosunmu was also great during nonconference play. Either way, he’s a ton of fun to watch. And he’ll need to keep playing well if the Illini are going to make a Final Four run.
  • No. 3 Michigan took a stranglehold on the third No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, beating No. 4 Ohio State in Columbus. The game turned on this ill-advised behind-the-back pass in a clutch situation, leading to an Isaiah Livers layup that gave the Wolverines a lead the Buckeyes couldn’t overcome:


  • I’m not going to hammer the guy for that, but it was not the best idea, to put it mildly. Still, this is an elite Ohio State squad that has the talent to win the Big Ten Tournament and make it deep into the NCAA Tournament.
  • Don’t look now, but Duke is hot. The Blue Devils dominated against Syracuse in a battle of bluebloods (there’s that word again) on Monday night. They’ve now won 4 games in a row after eking out a win over No. 7 Virginia on Saturday. They’re 11-8 overall and in 4th place in the ACC standings. That’s pretty wild. They’re actually on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble at this point. We’ll see if they can hold onto that spot!

Now, let’s take a look ahead to the next few days of college basketball action.

4. Outlet Pass

Time is running out on the regular season. The next few days will feature a few matchups of ranked teams. In fact, 4 ranked matchups lead this section. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to see between now and Friday:

  1. No. 10 West Virginia at No. 2 Baylor (Thursday at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — After a long, COVID-related layoff, Baylor returns to the court Tuesday night against Iowa State. They’ll need to shake off the rust quickly, as the Mountaineers will head to Waco on Thursday afternoon. West Virginia is fresh off a big upset win at Texas, so this won’t be an easy game for Scott Drew’s Bears.
  2. No. 6 Alabama at No. 20 Arkansas (Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — The Razorbacks are in second place in the SEC, 3 games behind Alabama. They’ve won 7 SEC games in a row, but they’ll need this one to keep their slim regular-season title hopes alive. Either way, it should be much closer than Alabama’s 90-59 win over the Hogs on Jan. 16.
  3. No. 9 Iowa at No. 3 Michigan (Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) — Michigan just established itself as the third No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament race by beating Ohio State on Sunday. The Wolverines’ reward? A game against potential National Player of the Year Luka Garza and the Hawkeyes, who have won 4 games in a row.
  4. No. 17 Kansas at No. 14 Texas (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN) — The Big 12 is so top-heavy that every game is important for seeding in the Big 12 Tournament. The loser of this game will face a much harder first-round tourney matchup than the winner. Expect plenty of fireworks in Austin!
  5. No. 5 Illinois at Michigan State (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on FS1) — The Illini should take care of business here. But, the Spartans are desperate for any sort of positive momentum. Can Ayo Dosunmu play hero again?

These games will help decide some of the top seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Who will win? We’ll find out over the next few days!

5. Buzzer beaters

Now, let’s answer a random question before we get out of here for the day:

Has the Big 12 made a case for the best conference in college basketball?

Well, there is certainly plenty of depth in the league. But, the Big Ten is also loaded — it just has more teams. I’m not going to penalize the Big Ten for that. The Big Ten has 4 top-10 teams in the AP Poll. The Big 12 only has 2. I’m going to say it’s the Big Ten’s world right now, but the Big 12 is no joke.

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.