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

Alabama just won the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, beating Ohio State 52-24. So, why not start today’s column by sending some more praise to the Crimson Tide (as if they don’t get enough).

Alabama went undefeated during the 2020 football season. It is also undefeated against SEC foes in men’s hoops, with a current 4-0 league record. The Tide held off a feisty Auburn team on Saturday afternoon, winning 94-90. The win puts them at 9-3 on the season, but they’re still on the outside looking in when it comes to the AP Poll.

So, what has changed since a nonconference loss to Western Kentucky? Well, for one, forward Herb Jones has been playing like an SEC Player of the Year candidate. I think he is the current favorite for the award, and he showed why against the Tigers.

We’ve known for a while now that he’s a super-athletic wing player who can throw down alley-oops like this:

https://twitter.com/SECNetwork/status/1347967268383305728

He’s also always been a guy who can hold his own in the post, like he does here, rebounding his own miss before laying it back in:

He’s the second-best defender in the SEC, behind only Yves Pons at Tennessee. These are all things we’ve known about Jones. So, what has changed? Why is he suddenly in the SEC Player of the Year conversation?

Well, it’s the fact that he’s gotten more comfortable with the ball in his hands. He constantly makes the right decisions and can even take defenders off the dribble. Look at this incredible play where he just goes right by an Auburn defender:

https://twitter.com/CrimsonXover/status/1347972247814877189

Then, there’s this play, where he drives the lane and then kicks it out to the open shooter, Jordan Bruner:

That sort of point-forward play is making the entire Alabama team better. And, since the Tide are 4-0 in SEC play, it’s easy to see why I consider Jones my SEC Player of the Year frontrunner at this point.

He finished the Auburn game with 19 points (on 7-of-9 shooting), 8 rebounds, 5 steals, 2 assists and 2 blocks. All in all, that’s become a pretty typical box score for him, which is incredible. He’ll need to keep playing at an elite level tonight, as the Tide travel to Kentucky. More on that game later.

For now, let’s move on to some other big stories around the SEC.

2. Home-court advantage

The Kentucky Wildcats still haven’t lost a game in 2021. They improved to 3-0 in SEC action with a big 76-58 win at Florida on Saturday. The Gators looked completely overmatched by Kentucky’s athleticism.

This was the type of game many were expecting to be common from the Wildcats this season. So, what changed? Well, for one thing, Keion Brooks Jr. was back from an injury. He wasn’t a big part of the Wildcats’ rotation last year, so how big of an impact could he really make?

Well, he did plenty. He finished with 12 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. No, those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but he looked like a leader out there on the court. Here’s Brooks playing some nice 2-man basketball in the post with Isaiah Jackson:

And here he is picking up 1 of his 4 assists, finding a cutting Davion Mintz (who has also been playing well lately):

We all knew this Kentucky team was talented coming into the 2020-21 season. No, nonconference play didn’t go how anyone expected, but the Wildcats look like a legitimate threat to make a run for the SEC regular-season title. It’ll take a lot of work to get there, but if Brooks can play like he did against Florida, the Wildcats won’t be an easy out.

Next, let’s take a look at some more stories from around the SEC:

  • We discussed Alabama and Herb Jones in the first section. Here, we need to talk about 5-star Auburn freshman Sharife Cooper, who made his long-awaited debut against the Crimson Tide. He did not disappoint, scoring a game-high 26 points to go with 9 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals. He is a natural around the rim and his court vision creates easy buckets for his teammates:

  • He only went 1-for-7 from 3-point range, but this is a beautiful step-back 3:

  • Here’s 1 of his 9 assists, a beautiful alley-oop pass to fellow freshman JT Thor:

https://twitter.com/SECNetwork/status/1347972018331934722

  • He’s already showing his skills. He’s a budding superstar, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch him moving forward.
  • How good has Tennessee’s defense been? Well, in 10 games, the Vols have scored 768 points. They’ve allowed only 568 points against them. For those of us who struggle with math, that’s a 200-point differential. That’s incredible. Even though Yves Pons has struggled offensively, he’s still the best defender in college basketball, bar none. Then, on offense, when Santiago Vescovi can make it look like he’s playing a casual game of “Around the World” with his 3-point shot, the Vols are going to be tough to beat:

https://twitter.com/SECNetwork/status/1348021431192473606

  • Mississippi State continues to impress. The Bulldogs narrowly escaped against Vanderbilt on Saturday, but hey, they’re 3-1 in SEC action. DJ Stewart Jr. and Iverson Molinar are 1 of the best backcourt tandems in the league. On Saturday, it was Molinar’s turn to carry the load. He scored 24 points and had 8 rebounds and 4 steals. You can’t give him easy transition buckets like this:

  • With Molinar and Stewart playing like this, the Bulldogs are going to be dangerous in every game moving forward.
  • Finally, let’s discuss the Florida Gators, who lost both of their games last week, to Alabama and Kentucky. Where has Scottie Lewis gone? The super-athletic wing scored 2 points against Alabama and followed it up with 2 points against Kentucky. He was 2-for-10 shooting in those games. That’s crazy to me. He has to be one of Florida’s best players for the team to have success. If they can’t get him more involved, more losses are coming.

Next, let’s take a look around the rest of the country.

3. Road trip

Winning at West Virginia isn’t easy. The Mountaineers have consistently been a tough squad under Bob Huggins. Even though this year’s team isn’t the chaotic, press-happy defensive team it has been in years past, West Virginia is still strong.

Thus, it was a huge deal for Shaka Smart and the Longhorns to go in there and pull off a 72-70 win on Saturday. And, the way the Longhorns did it was incredible. As you can see below, Andrew Jones — the player who survived a fight with cancer a couple of years ago — knocked down the game-winning 3:

If that doesn’t warm your heart, you might be dead (or a West Virginia fan). Courtney Ramey led the Longhorns with 19 points, but Jones added 16, including the game winner. Freshman forward Greg Brown continues to develop into a star. He had 12 points and 14 rebounds, which is no easy feat going against West Virginia big man Derek Culver, who had 14 points and 16 boards:

Still, it wasn’t enough, as the Mountaineers suffered another difficult loss against a top Big 12 team. Meanwhile, Texas keeps its march toward a potential Big 12 title going strong. That’s something I didn’t think I’d be writing at the beginning of the year.

Now, let’s move on to some additional headlines from around the country:

  • Speaking of buzzer-beating 3-pointers, how about this one from Xavier’s Colby Jones against Providence?

https://twitter.com/CBBonFOX/status/1348329807076089857

  • That is just good team basketball. No one was selfish. No one tried to rush a shot. They just worked the ball around and got Jones an open look. It was his first 3-point attempt of the game, and he absolutely buried it. Xavier is now 10-2 overall, with a 3-2 mark in Big East play. The Musketeers might not be elite, but they’ll be a factor in the Big East race.
  • Next up, let’s discuss an Iowa player not named Luka Garza. Yes, they do exist. And one of them is named Jordan Bohannon. He helped the Hawkeyes avenge an earlier loss to Minnesota over the weekend, scoring 19 points and dishing out a whopping 14 assists to go with 7 rebounds. Here are a couple of his clutch 3-pointers:

  • Of course, Garza was still a superstar, scoring 33 points and grabbing 5 rebounds. But when Iowa is getting major contributions from other players, they’re almost impossible to beat.
  • The Illinois Fighting Illini are one of the best teams in the Big Ten (and in the country) in my opinion. But, my goodness, do they look bored sometimes. The offense can go from outstanding to stagnant (or vice versa) at the flip of a switch. The Illini lost 66-63 at home against Maryland over the weekend, and let’s just say it was ugly. Ayo Dosunmu had a game-high 23 points, but he did it on 9-for-23 shooting. Kofi Cockburn played well, posting a 21-point, 10-rebound double-double, but outside of those 2 stars, the Illini combined for 19 points total. Da’Monte Williams and Trent Frazier both started and combined for exactly 0 points in 55 minutes of action. That’s inexcusable. Illinois is a team with enough talent to win a title, but until it develops some more consistency, these sorts of losses are going to happen.
  • Finally, let’s take a trip out West and check in with the Pac-12. UCLA continues to dominate conference foes, leading the league with a 6-0 Pac-12 mark. Sophomore Tyger Campbell was huge in a win over Arizona over the weekend, putting up 22 points without attempting any 3s. He’s one of the most-underrated players in the country. Just look at his skills in the paint:

  • As long as he is making the right decisions with the ball and scoring some points along the way, the Bruins should remain the class of the Pac-12.

Now, let’s take a look at the week ahead in the college basketball world.

4. Outlet pass

Now that college football is over, college hoops is showcasing its best games. Here’s a look at the 5 games I can’t wait to watch between now and Friday:

  1. No. 9 Wisconsin at No. 7 Michigan (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) — Michigan has proven it is for real. The Wolverines are the only undefeated team left in the Big Ten, but this game will be a real test for Juwan Howard’s squad. Can they handle the senior-laden Badgers in Ann Arbor?
  2. Alabama at Kentucky (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN) — Alabama is 4-0 in SEC play. Kentucky is 3-0. This is an early battle for first place in the league. The Crimson Tide already have a road win at Tennessee on their resume. Can they go into Rupp Arena and hand Kentucky its first loss of 2021? Or, will the Wildcats remain perfect in the new year?
  3. No. 15 Texas Tech at No. 4 Texas (Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — The Longhorns nearly had a home letdown against Iowa State after beating Kansas in Lawrence 2 weeks ago. This past weekend, they beat West Virginia in Morgantown (as we discussed above). This time, Texas can’t afford an off night, as a tough Texas Tech team heads to Austin.
  4. No. 19 Duke at No. 20 Virginia Tech (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ACCN) — After a couple of tough nonconference losses, Duke has bounced back in ACC play. The Blue Devils are 3-0 in league play, but this road trip to take on the Hokies won’t be easy. The winner of this one will have a signature win to add to its resume.
  5. No. 6 Kansas at Oklahoma State (Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on Big 12/ESPN+) — Even when the Cowboys don’t have the presumptive No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft (Cade Cunningham), this trip to Stillwater has been a nightmare for Bill Self during his time at Kansas. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jayhawks struggle once again in the state of Oklahoma.

That’s a great slate of games to transition from the college football to college basketball season. Will we see any major upsets? We’ll find out starting tonight!

5. Buzzer beaters

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

If there was a College Football Playoff-style tournament for hoops instead of the NCAA Tournament, which 4 teams would you put in right now?

That’s a really tough call. Heck, even with 68 teams making the NCAA Tournament field each year, there are always bubble teams upset they didn’t get in. Obviously, Gonzaga and Baylor are in as the top 2 teams. I’d also probably give Iowa a spot because Luka Garza is the frontrunner for the Naismith Player of the Year award. That fourth spot can go in a number of directions. I’d have Michigan, Texas, Kansas, Villanova and Tennessee all in the mix. I’ll be a bit of an SEC homer and say I’d take Tennessee. The Vols’ defense, as we discussed earlier, is legit. They’d be an interesting matchup for those top 3 offensive-minded squads.

Now that Shaka Smart has seemingly coached his way off the hot seat at Texas, which coach at a major program is most in danger of being fired?

Interestingly enough, I’m going to go with a pair of brothers who I think are both on the hot seat — Sean Miller at Arizona and Archie Miller at Indiana. The Hoosiers are currently 8-5 overall with a 3-3 mark in Big Ten play. That’s not bad, by any means, but it’s probably not an NCAA Tournament-worthy record at this point. Plus, the Hoosiers still face a brutal stretch in B1G action. Meanwhile, after going 6-0 in nonconference play, Arizona has a mediocre 3-3 mark in Pac-12 action. If Sean Miller can’t get the Wildcats to the big dance, he could be in trouble, too.

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.