Starting 5: Fixing the Big 12/SEC Challenge, LSU’s tightrope act and Iowa heating up
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.
1. The Opening Tip
The Big 12/SEC Challenge took place Saturday, and it was quite a showdown, ending in a 5-5 tie. Now, in the 7 years of the challenge, the Big 12 has won 4 times, the SEC once and there have been 2 ties.
The matchups are decided before the regular season, which seems a bit strange to me. If I were in charge, I’d do it a little differently.
For example, I know Kentucky and Kansas both play in the Champions Classic at the start of the season (Kentucky beat Michigan State this year and Kansas lost to Duke), meaning they can’t exactly square off again in certain years, but they could have this year. However, it would make sense for them to wait until nonconference play is over to set the matchups.
Here’s how the matchups would have looked this year if we’d used each team’s record through the end of the calendar year 2019 before conference play started (Note: If 2 teams had the same record, I just picked the best matchup for purposes of fan interest):
- No. 1 Big 12 seed West Virginia vs. No. 1 SEC seed Auburn
- No. 2 Big 12 seed Baylor vs. No. 2 SEC seed Arkansas
- No. 3 Big 12 seed Kansas vs. No. 3 SEC seed Kentucky
- No. 4 Big 12 seed Texas vs. No. 4 SEC seed LSU
- No. 5 Big 12 seed Oklahoma State vs. No. 5 SEC seed Mississippi State
- No. 6 Big 12 seed Oklahoma vs. No. 6 SEC seed Alabama
- No. 7 Big 12 seed Texas Tech vs. No. 7 SEC seed Florida
- No. 8 Big 12 seed TCU vs. No. 8 SEC seed Tennessee
- No. 9 Big 12 seed Kansas State vs. No. 9 SEC seed Mizzou
- No. 10 Big 12 seed Iowa State vs. No. 10 SEC seed Texas A&M
That’s probably a fairer way to do things, instead of judging teams on their performances the past season. The pros are we get a Kentucky-Kansas matchup, a solid matchup between Texas Tech and Florida, a showdown of football schools in Alabama and Oklahoma and a fun matchup between West Virginia and Auburn.
I’m mostly just mad that my hapless Missouri Tigers had to go to Morgantown to take on the No. 14 Mountaineers. No one wanted to see that beatdown. Get it together, Big 12 and SEC!
2. Home-court Advantage
I’ll be a little briefer in my breakdown of the weekend’s SEC action since I just did an in-depth look at fixing the Big 12/SEC Challenge above. However, I do want to mention LSU and the tightrope walk the Tigers continue to do.
If you play with fire, you’re going to end up getting burned. That’s where the Tigers are heading, as they have now won 6 consecutive games by 4 or fewer points. This past week, LSU beat Florida by 2 and then went on the road and beat Texas by 2.
LSU has had big leads in several of these games, only to allow opponents to climb back late. Fortunately for coach Will Wade, it hasn’t hurt the Tigers yet, but he’s getting sick of watching leads evaporate:
Will Wade doesn't care about 15-4 or 6-0 in the SEC or 22nd in the nation.
"I've tried to be real nice about getting this stuff corrected, but it ain't getting corrected, so I darn well know how to get it corrected, and that's to be a raving lunatic. And it'll work." pic.twitter.com/nIO0eBG7Ym
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) January 27, 2020
LSU hosts Alabama on Wednesday night (more on that later). The Crimson Tide can score in bunches, so the Tigers will need to be sharp for 40 full minutes to win that one.
Now, for some other SEC news:
- There are a couple of things I want to point out from the Kentucky-Texas Tech game. First, I love that a Kentucky assistant was so upset with the Tech scorekeeper after the game that he was overheard calling him a cheater. Secondly, in an era of 1-and-dones at Kentucky, Nick Richards has taken his time and is really emerging as a junior. He finished with 25 points, 14 rebounds and 4 blocks in the win. This and-1 shows how solid his game has become:
Nick Richards winning SEC Player of the Year gonna be a helluva story. pic.twitter.com/yWADMQepHS
— Not Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton2) January 26, 2020
- He’s playing like an SEC Player of the Year, so we’ll see how far he can carry the Wildcats this season.
- On the other end of the spectrum, Georgia has absolutely collapsed in SEC play after ending nonconference action with a huge win over a ranked Memphis team in Memphis. The Bulldogs are now 1-5 in SEC play and just lost by 10 at home against Ole Miss. Anthony Edwards and company need to turn things around in a hurry if they want to have any chance at all to play in the NCAA Tournament.
- Alabama is playing like a confident basketball team right now, and we all know what elite guard play can do in tournaments. Kira Lewis Jr. has become a star and against Kansas State on Saturday, he showed legitimate NBA 3-point range:
Kira Lewis with a deep 3- this is promising pic.twitter.com/XwZfh2buGU
— Mavs Draft (@MavsDraft) January 27, 2020
- That was part of a 26-point effort in the Tide’s win over the Wildcats. The Alabama offense is clicking on all cylinders heading into Wednesday’s showdown at LSU. That will be a huge game in the SEC standings.
Now, let’s take a look at what’s going on in the rest of the college basketball world.
3. Road Game
Don’t look now, but the Iowa Hawkeyes are heating up at exactly the right time to make a run for a Big Ten regular-season title. After coming back to beat Wisconsin 68-62 on Monday night, the Hawkeyes have now won 5 consecutive Big Ten games and sit at 6-3 in conference play — 1 game behind co-leaders Illinois and Michigan State.
Luka Garza is becoming a star before our eyes, and you can see his highlights all over this video from the game:
— Iowa On BTN (@IowaOnBTN) January 28, 2020
Garza had 21 points, 18 rebounds and 3 blocks against the Badgers. He was a one-man wrecking crew in the paint and looks almost unstoppable.
However, this will be a tough week for the Hawkeyes. First, they head to Maryland on Thursday night (more on that game later). Then, Saturday, they host No. 19 Illinois in a big-time matchup in the Big Ten standings.
What’s going on elsewhere? Let’s take a look:
- Every time Arizona seems to have things figured out, it ends up shooting itself in the foot instead. That happened again Saturday, as the Wildcats blew a 43-30 halftime lead, falling 66-65 at rival Arizona State. Here’s the late layup by Alonzo Verge Jr. that sunk Arizona’s spirits:
The positives have been few and far between so far tonight in Tempe, but this Alonzo Verge Jr. crossover and finish is certainly one of them. pic.twitter.com/sf29OM0tbT
— Jacob Rosenfarb (@jacobrosenfarb) January 26, 2020
- Did he travel? Maybe. Should Arizona have even been in a position to lose that game after dominating in the first half? No. Bad look for Sean Miller and his squad, which can’t seem to keep any sort of momentum going in Pac-12 play.
- A team that can keep momentum going is Baylor. The No. 1 Bears clearly took it personally that they were underdogs heading into a game at unranked Florida on Saturday night. That motivation led to a comfortable 72-61 win, marking 16 consecutive victories for Scott Drew’s squad. The Bears are a legit No. 1 team and look to have all the makings of a potential Final Four run. Watch out.
- As an Illinois native, I’m really enjoying watching this year’s Illini team. This is the most fun I’ve had watching Illinois basketball since the 2004-05 season when the Illini made it to the Final Four before losing to North Carolina in the title game. Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn form one of the best duos in the Big Ten. On Saturday at Michigan, Dosunmu was the one to dominate, scoring a career-high 27 points and making this incredible shot to give the Illini a victory:
Ayo Dosunmu is the best closer in the Big Ten and it’s not close. Good lord what a shot.
First place in the Big Ten pic.twitter.com/X5AWwz7RgU
— Isaac Trotter (@isaac_trotter2) January 25, 2020
- The Illini are 7-2 in Big Ten play and tied for first place with Michigan State. They’ll host Minnesota this week before heading to Iowa on Saturday in a game that will show whether the Illini are real Big Ten title contenders or not.
Now, let’s take a look at the next few days in college basketball.
4. Outlet Pass
As we inch ever closer to March, the games are getting more and more important. Here’s a look at the top 5 games over the next few days:
- Alabama at No. 22 LSU (Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — Alabama might be a bad matchup for the Tigers, who have been living dangerously lately. The Tide can light it up from 3-point range, while LSU usually doesn’t. We’ll see whose style of play wins out on Wednesday night.
- No. 4 San Diego State at New Mexico (Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on CBSSN) — The Aztecs are 21-0 and cruising through the Mountain West. However, playing at The Pit against a tough New Mexico team might be the toughest game left on their schedule.
- No. 5 Florida State at Virginia (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) — The reigning champion Cavaliers might not make the NCAA Tournament at the rate they’re going. A win over the No. 5 team in the country would go a long way toward padding their tourney résumé. We’ll see if they’re up to the task.
- No. 18 Iowa at No. 15 Maryland (Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET on BTN) — These squads are battling for position behind Illinois and Michigan State atop the Big Ten. This game will be huge for both.
- No. 7 Dayton at Duquesne (Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on CBSSN) — Duquesne started 15-2 but has lost its past 2 games. With Dayton and star big man Obi Toppin coming to town, they’ll be desperate for a win.
Conference action should come down to the wire this year in most conferences, so buckle up as we prepare to head into February.
5. Buzzer Beaters
Now, it’s time to answer a couple of random questions! The first one comes to us courtesy of my good friend Robert:
Which early-season result looks the strangest in retrospect? Michigan routing Gonzaga, North Carolina over Oregon and Mizzou beating Illinois all stand out to me.
Those are definitely all games that look bizarre now, but I’ll throw another Mizzou result in there. How about the Tigers’ 91-75 home victory over Florida on Jan. 11? The Tigers haven’t won another SEC game and lost at home against a not-great Texas A&M squad last week. So, yeah, Mizzou beating Illinois and Florida is definitely weird looking back.
Which weekend of the NCAA Tournament is best — first-round/round of 32, Sweet 16/Elite Eight, or Final Four/championship game?
Oh, it’s definitely the first round/round of 32 weekend. I love those first 2 days of the tournament, where you have several games on at any given time throughout the day. The first round, which takes place on Thursday and Friday, should be a national holiday.
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.