Starting 5: Illinois rolls without Ayo, Dru Smith dominates Florida and the funniest free throw ever
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 No. 4 Illinois Fighting Illini weren’t supposed to be competitive at No. 2 Michigan on Tuesday night since star guard Ayo Dosunmu was out with a facial injury, but apparently, no one told that message to Trent Frazier, Andre Curbelo and Kofi Cockburn.
The Illini absolutely owned the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, cruising to a 76-53 win that probably shouldn’t have even been that close. Frazier scored a game-high 22 points, showing off his knack for getting tough buckets:
But, I want to talk more about Curbelo. He finished the Michigan game with 17 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists in 19 minutes off the bench. Why so few minutes? Well, he had 4 fouls, so he was plagued by foul trouble during the contest.
Still, his talent is undeniable. This is a wild layup where he drives through the entire Michigan defense:
— Man of many hobbies. (@VolsAndDraft) March 3, 2021
Oh, and no one has more fun on the bench than Curbelo. Look at this pure joy and love for his teammates and coach:
— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) March 3, 2021
— Bret Beherns (@WCIA3Bret) March 3, 2021
My buddy Robert said to me recently that he would take Curbelo over Dosunmu in the NBA Draft if he thought he could fix Curbelo’s jump shot. I thought it was a hot take at the time, but Curbelo’s potential is undeniable.
I think Ayo is going to be a heck of an NBA player and I’m honestly surprised he’s not in more lottery discussions. He can create his own shot at any time and has the unteachable “clutch” gene. I absolutely want that guy on my team.
But, looking at Curbelo, the potential is there. Robert compared him to Russell Westbrook when Westbrook was coming out of UCLA. I wanted to call him crazy, but … he might be right? Curbelo (and fellow freshman Adam Miller) are going to be absolute stars at Illinois next year and are going to keep Brad Underwood’s team in the top 25.
Will he be a better NBA player than Dosunmu? That remains to be seen, but for this year, Dosunmu’s absence in the Michigan beatdown will only serve to make Miller, Curbelo, Cockburn, Frazier and others on the Illini roster more confident moving forward. That’s a scary thought.
Don’t feel too bad for Michigan, though. The Wolverines clinched the Big Ten regular-season title on Thursday night with a 69-50 rout of rival Michigan State. And, they’ll get another crack at their rivals on Sunday.
Now, let’s move on to some of the top stories in the SEC.
2. Home-court advantage
The Missouri Tigers shook off some recent rust with a big 72-70 win at Florida on Wednesday. Was it frustrating? Absolutely, but that’s the Tiger way. Mizzou held an 8-point lead with 2 minutes left and let the Gators battle back to tie it.
Fortunately for Mizzou fans (including me), Dru Smith made a great play to make sure the game didn’t go to overtime:
Watch that game-winning layup again. The degree of difficulty was insane, as Smith had Colin Castleton and Anthony Duruji on either side of the rim trying to block it. But, the key to the play was Smith refusing the screen from Mitchell Smith. When Mitchell pops back behind the 3-point line, Castleton jumps out on him, giving Dru the sliver of space he needed to get to the rim and win the game.
It was a very smart play by Dru Smith, but that’s what the Tigers have come to expect. After all, he did this earlier in the game:
Florida has defended inbound plays like that all year, inexplicably. Maybe coach Mike White should go back to the drawing board on that? We’ll see what happens moving forward with the Gators.
Smith is also a menace on defense. I currently have him atop my SEC Defensive Player of the Year standings as he seems poised to lead the league in steals for a second-straight season:
My current SEC Defensive Player of the Year rankings: pic.twitter.com/KN5ac2IDgq
— Adam Spencer (@AdamSpencer4) March 4, 2021
For now, though, the Tigers will gladly take that win after they tried their hardest to give the game away. We’ll see if they can keep the momentum going at home against LSU on Saturday.
Now, let’s look around the rest of the SEC:
- Want to stop the LSU Tigers? Don’t let Darius Days score 10 or more points. The Tigers are now 15-1 when Days scores 10+ points and 0-7 when he either doesn’t play or doesn’t score 10 points. So, why are the Tigers so good when Days gets going? Well, it’s simple, really. He’s the beneficiary when LSU’s other offensive players are making the right plays. He made 3 early 3s against Vandy, and he was wide open. Each was a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. Here’s the first:
- Doesn’t get much easier than that. Then, there’s the third of his 3 early long-range makes:
- Days punishes teams for helping on guys who drive to the basket. He makes more open 3s than anyone in the country, it seems. If Mizzou wants to stop LSU on Saturday, it will have to keep a guy on Days at all times.
I sent this tweet after Alabama beat Auburn 70-58 on Tuesday night:
It’s time we stop calling Alabama an elite offensive team and acknowledge the Tide for what they really are.
They’re an elite defensive team that plays smart offense and often gets hot from 3-point range.
— Adam Spencer (@AdamSpencer4) March 3, 2021
- Sorry to all the folks who thought I was talking about the football team (which is weird since I mentioned “3-point range”). But, it’s absolutely true. The Tide CAN be an elite offensive team at times (just ask LSU or Georgia), but the defense is more consistent. KenPom.com has Alabama as the No. 3 team in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency (behind Memphis and Loyola-Chicago). It’s easy to see why the Tide are rated so highly on that end of the floor when you look at plays like this:
One of the shot clock violations Alabama forced in the first half. Juwan Gary gets switched onto Flanagan and does an awesome job. pic.twitter.com/HIvd6876gz
— Bama Basketball Film Room (@BamaFilmRoom) March 4, 2021
- Auburn never had a chance on that possession. It was an absolute mismatch. But, credit to the Alabama players. Even when their offensive games aren’t going as planned, they give their all on defense. That’s a trait that will help them make a deep run in the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
- The Arkansas Razorbacks are the hottest team this side of Gonzaga. They’ve won 7 games in a row after a 101-73 beatdown of South Carolina on Tuesday night and have a 10-game SEC winning streak. Moses Moody put together some great tape for media members who haven’t decided on his SEC Freshman of the Year accolades yet:
Moses Moody, the 12th prospect in @DraftExpress' current 2021 #nbadraft rankings on ESPN, went for 28 PTS (10/15 FG, 4/9 3FG) in @RazorbackMBB's 101-73 win over #SouthCarolina. The 6-6 + 18-year-old has shown a quick release on transition spot ups, is up to 37% 3PT% on 124 3FGA pic.twitter.com/qSZtwmjDHy
— DraftExpressContent (@DXContent) March 4, 2021
- That’s 28 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals for the freshman. He made 10 of his 15 shots, too. He’s an efficient player who is a major key for this team, perhaps even more so than big man Justin Smith, who is making a late push for SEC Player of the Year. Credit to coach Eric Musselman. Smith is a transfer from Indiana, while Moody is a recruit. Musselman just gets guys who know how to play, and it has the Hogs in a great position to win the SEC Tournament.
- Vanderbilt traveled to Cincinnati on Thursday night to get an extra game in before Saturday’s showdown at Ole Miss. Scotty Pippen Jr. returned from a COVID pause and was better than ever. He scored a whopping 36 points in Vandy’s 78-64 win, including this 4-point play:
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) March 5, 2021
- That’s such a tough hit to take as a shooter. If this were football, the defender would have been ejected for targeting. No matter. Pippen still buried the long-range 3. If he can play like that, Vandy will be a tough out next week in Nashville.
Now, let’s take a look around the rest of the country.
3. Road trip
After a brief misstep at Kansas, Baylor is back! The Bears will likely move back to No. 2 in the AP Poll on Monday after a week that saw them win 2 games over ranked opponents.
First, they went on the road and won 94-89 in overtime at No. 6 West Virginia on Tuesday night. Then, on Thursday, they beat No. 17 Oklahoma State 81-70 in Waco. Yeah, that’s just Scott Drew’s team reminding everyone why we had them on the same level as Gonzaga a few weeks ago before they went on a lengthy COVID-19 pause.
Today, let’s talk about the guy who makes the Bears go. That would be star guard Jared Butler. First, let’s give the rest of the guys some credit. Baylor is very much a team that can beat you in a number of ways. MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell, Mark Vital, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, Adam Flagler, Flo Thamba and Matthew Mayer round out the 8 guys in Drew’s rotation, but Butler is the star.
He had 25 points at West Virginia and followed it up with a 22-point night against Oklahoma State. He threw down this poster dunk:
— Viral CBB (@FSClips) March 5, 2021
He also made this heads-up play after a ridiculous spin move in the lane:
Jared Butler is a badddddd man. The absurd handle into the finish, then fakes out the inbounder, resulting in a jump ball. What a player. pic.twitter.com/CvojCXM2nf
— Brandon Simberg (@BrandonSimberg) March 5, 2021
But, today, I want to focus specifically on his passing. I have praised Florida’s Tyree Appleby as one of the best alley-oop passers in the country. Butler is absolutely on that level. Here’s a lob from half-court to Mayer:
— Baylor Basketball (@BaylorMBB) March 5, 2021
And, even more impressively, here’s a crazy pass to Tchamwa Tchatchoua for an oop:
I mean, look at how early he starts making that pass:
This is an absolutely insane pass from Jared Butler to Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua.
— Adam Spencer (@AdamSpencer4) March 5, 2021
Jared Butler deserves to be getting more mentions alongside Ayo Dosunmu and Luka Garza in the National Player of the Year discussion. He’s an incredible player. As he goes, so go the Bears.
As Cage the Elephant sings, though, there “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” as Baylor will be at it again on Sunday afternoon against No. 18 Texas Tech. More on that game later.
For now, let’s take a look around the rest of the college basketball landscape:
- Matt Coleman III can add “Sooner Killer” to his résumé. The Longhorns took down their biggest rivals 69-65 on Thursday night, and Coleman was clutch. This shot iced the game for the Longhorns:
Ice in Matt Coleman's veins.pic.twitter.com/IeFBhRTlQB
— Heat Check CBB (@HeatCheckCBB) March 5, 2021
- If that clutch shot against Oklahoma looks familiar, it’s because this isn’t the first time Coleman has downed the Sooners at the last second. This was on March 3 of last season:
TEXAS WINS AGAIN, 52-51. I don't know what's better, Matt Coleman III's clutch 3, or Andrew Jones' amazing reaction. pic.twitter.com/QvGvyUSCqq
— Jeff Jones (@JeffJonesSports) March 4, 2020
- Don’t look now, but the Sooners have lost 4-straight games to end the regular season. They’re in danger of an early Big 12 Tournament exit if they can’t get going again soon.
- Oregon took control of the Pac-12 title race on Wednesday night with an 82-74 home win over UCLA, one of the other top teams in the league alongside USC. The Ducks got a great effort from Chris Duarte. He doesn’t get much national attention, but he played like an All-American on Wednesday, scoring a team-high 23 points to go with 4 rebounds, 2 steals, an assist and a block. He was playing well on both ends of the floor:
— Picks & Parlays (@PicksParlays) March 4, 2021
- UCLA and USC get a lot of the headlines in the Pac-12, but the Ducks might be the team with the best chance of making a deep run in March Madness.
- I cannot stop laughing at this free throw. Seton Hall’s Bryce Aiken had been perfect from the free-throw line all year. So, he decided to do some trash talking against UConn. Let’s just say it didn’t go well:
"I ain’t never missing" CLANK pic.twitter.com/4mIEazn15F
— Gump Cathcart (@bubbagumpino) March 4, 2021
- Seton Hall lost by 11 points. Aiken went 0-for-2 from the line. You can’t write comedy like that.
- Want to know how bizarre the NET rankings are? Those rankings have Colgate — an 11-1 team in the Patriot League that is in second place (behind 12-1 Navy) — at No. 9 in the country. Seriously. No. 9 overall. In the country. I’m not joking. Colgate’s a fine team, but No. 9? No way. If you check KenPom.com, you have to scroll down to No. 93 before you find the Raiders. ESPN’s BPI has Colgate at No. 57. I’m fine with either 57 or 93. I’m not OK with No. 9 overall. That’s insane. We need to make some major changes to the NET rankings next year to prevent them from being seen as a total joke.
- Finally, let’s leave this section on a positive note. Texas Tech student manager Ty Larson was ruled eligible by the NCAA this morning. He played 1 minute against Iowa State in the Red Raiders’ lopsided senior night victory. And, what a minute it was. He stepped up and drew this charge:
— Viral CBB (@FSClips) March 5, 2021
- That’s a moment he and his teammates will remember forever. It’s awesome to see Chris Beard and Texas Tech giving the senior student managers some love. And what a play by Larson!
Now, let’s take a look ahead to the best games of the weekend.
4. Outlet pass
This time next week, we’ll be deep into the conference tournament action around the country. But, this weekend, there are some big regular-season finales to keep an eye on. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch over the weekend:
- No. 4 Illinois at No. 7 Ohio State (Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN) — Illinois just demolished Michigan to potentially put itself in the No. 1 seed discussion for the NCAA Tournament. The Illini did that without star Ayo Dosunmu. Will Dosunmu be back for this game in Columbus? If so, it could spell trouble for the Buckeyes.
- No. 18 Texas Tech at No. 3 Baylor (Sunday at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN) — Texas Tech is currently in seventh place in the Big 12 despite being ranked No. 18 in the country. The Red Raiders would love to beat the Bears to avoid having to play a first-round game in the Big 12 Tournament. But, Baylor might have its momentum back.
- No. 17 Oklahoma State at No. 6 West Virginia (Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN2) — This game is hugely important both for Big 12 Tournament seeding and NCAA Tournament seeding. Can freshman sensation Cade Cunningham keep the Cowboys rolling? Or, will a trip to Morgantown send Oklahoma State into the conference tournament on a sour note?
- No. 25 Wisconsin at No. 5 Iowa (Sunday at 12:30 p.m. ET on FOX) — Wisconsin has lost 4 of its last 5 games, beating only Northwestern in that span. To be fair, though, the Badgers’ losses have all come against ranked teams — Iowa, Michigan, Illinois and Purdue. They need to enter the Big Ten Tournament with some sort of momentum, so this game is really important.
- Duke at North Carolina (Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN) — This game isn’t for the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament or a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, but there are still plenty of stakes. North Carolina is currently comfortably in the March Madness field, but the Tar Heels can help themselves with a big win over a rival. Meanwhile, if Duke loses, the Blue Devils might be left out of the field of 68 teams on Selection Sunday.
There’s a lot to play for over this last weekend of the regular season. We’ll see which top teams gain some momentum heading into their conference tournaments and which teams take a step back. It’ll be intense!
5. Buzzer beaters
Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here and enjoy our weekends:
If you were an 8/9 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which No. 1 seed would you want to meet in the second round?
As things stand right now, let’s say Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan and Illinois are the 4 No. 1 seeds, in that order. Of those teams, Illinois has the most losses, with 6 total. But, the Illini just demolished Michigan even though they didn’t have star guard Ayo Dosunmu. I’d probably want a crack at Michigan if I were the coach of an 8/9 seed this year.
What’s the best strategy for drinking during March Madness, particularly the first 2 days of the tournament?
You’re going to want to start with a breakfast drink if you’re anywhere other than the East Coast. I recommend a mimosa or a Bloody Mary during the first set of games. Then, for the second set, switch to domestic brews. I prefer Bud Light. For the third set of games, go with a beer you like best. That’s time to break out the IPAs or stouts or whatever you want. Then, for the final games of the night, have a nightcap with some bourbon or a nice cocktail of your choice. Make sure to finish your night with a big glass of water and thank me later. (Another answer is that there’s no wrong way to drink during March Madness. To each their own!)
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.