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 Duke Blue Devils end the regular season with an overall record of 11-11. And, they went out with a whimper on Saturday, falling 91-73 at rival North Carolina. For a team fighting for its NCAA Tournament life, it was a horrible effort, as the game was never really close.

North Carolina dominated Duke inside. Armando Bacot had 18 points and 6 rebounds, getting to the rim early and often:

Caleb Love and Kerwin Walton also had 18 points for the Tar Heels. North Carolina is now solidly in the NCAA Tournament field. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Heels as a 9 seed. Meanwhile, as of Monday, he didn’t even have Duke on the “Next Four Out” line:

Coach Mike Krzyzewski said on Monday that he doesn’t think the Blue Devils belong in the NCAA Tournament as things stand right now and it’s hard to disagree with him:

“As we start our ACC Tournament tomorrow, we’ll play Boston College,” Krzyzewski said (via 247Sports). “You know, for us to even have a dream of getting into the NCAA Tournament, we have to do an amazing job to get into this tournament. Quite frankly, we haven’t earned that right. Even if we had beaten North Carolina, I still think we’d need to do more because we lost close games, and you have to reward the teams that do it, not just the fact that we’ve done it as a program. You’ve got to do it.”

Now, the Blue Devils need a lot of help to keep their streak of March Madness appearances alive. If you take Lunardi’s bracketology as fact (which it’s absolutely not, but I’ll treat it as such for this exercise), the Blue Devils need at least 8 other teams to lose early in their conference tournaments (including ACC rival Syracuse) and no bids to be stolen. Duke hasn’t missed a tournament since 1995, but it looks like that streak is coming to an end this year.

First, though, we’ll see if there’s a magical run left in Coach K’s tank, starting with Tuesday’s game against Boston College to start the ACC Tournament.

Now, let’s move on to some SEC news.

2. Home-court advantage

Welcome back, John Fulkerson. The Tennessee big man was a preseason first-team All-SEC selection, but he hasn’t played like it at all. In 5 of his past 6 games entering Sunday’s game against Florida, he’d only managed to score 4 points.

On Sunday, he seemed to break out of his slump, finishing with 14 points and 7 rebounds. Those are hardly “great” stats for a guy with his pedigree, but it was a good sign entering the SEC Tournament.

The confidence Fulkerson had getting to the rim was nice to see, as he looked like the Fulky of old:

Keon Johnson also had 14 points and showed why he’s a potential lottery pick:

But, Sunday was all about Fulkerson and the Vols overcoming a halftime deficit to build some momentum heading into the tourney in Nashville. Fulkerson was overcome with emotion when he was checking out of the game:

https://twitter.com/SECNetwork/status/1368647503516680201

That’s the kind of passion Fulkerson needs to bring over the next week. Tennessee has the talent to win the whole tournament if Fulkerson plays like he’s capable of playing. If he goes back to scoring 4 points per game, the Vols won’t be around very long in the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

Now, let’s look around the rest of the SEC:

  • It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a pure scorer like Cam Thomas in the SEC. The LSU freshman has now scored 20 or more points in 10 straight games. On Saturday, he had 29 points against Mizzou, and it was one of his more-efficient games of the year. Normally a volume shooter, Thomas only shot 13 times against Mizzou, making 9. He went 10-for-12 from the free-throw line. The degree of difficulty of some of his shots never fails to amaze me:

https://twitter.com/SECNetwork/status/1368332860080480268

  • He and Arkansas’s Moses Moody are neck-and-neck for the SEC Freshman of the Year award (and maybe for the SEC Player of the Year award, too). If Thomas can keep putting up points efficiently, LSU has the talent to win it all in Nashville. Oh, and speaking of Moody …
  • Moody and the Arkansas Razorbacks got an unexpectedly tough battle from Texas A&M on Saturday. But, in the face of adversity, Moody showed poise beyond what freshmen normally show. In a tie game with less than 2 minutes remaining, Moody blocked an A&M shot then got an open 3 and buried it at the other end of the floor:

  • The way the SEC Tournament is set up, we could get an Arkansas-LSU matchup in the semifinals. It’d be great to see Moody and Thomas share the floor one more time before they both (most likely) go on to the NBA Draft. It’ll also be interesting to see what voters decide to do with regards to the SEC Player and Freshman of the Year awards between these 2 elite players.
  • BJ Boston and Isaiah Jackson are finally looking like the highly-rated recruits they were entering the season. In a 92-64 blowout win over South Carolina on Saturday, Boston led the Wildcats with 21 points, making 6 3-pointers in the process. Jackson had a 13-point, 10-rebound double-double. But, transfer PG Davion Mintz was the driving force for Kentucky in the blowout win. He scored 20 points and also hit 6 3-pointers. He had 7 assists and 5 rebounds. He’s not hesitating with his shot:

  • And, when he’s hot, he feels empowered to shoot, which I don’t think was the messaging he was getting earlier this year:

  • If Mintz continues to score points and also create opportunities for his teammates, Kentucky can make a deep run in the SEC Tournament.
  • Auburn big man Dylan Cardwell had not attempted a 3-pointer all season entering the Tigers’ finale on Saturday. So, what did he do? Well, he absolutely drained this turnaround jumper with the shot clock running down:

https://twitter.com/AuburnMBB/status/1368278709958963202

  • We’ll see if he becomes a 3-point specialist as a sophomore next season. Don’t count on it, but maybe he’ll take 2 long-range shots in 2021-22?
  • The SEC Tournament will feature 13 of the league’s 14 teams, with Auburn serving a self-imposed 1-year postseason ban. We’ve seen crazy things happen before in March, so let’s give each team playing this week in Nashville some hope. In this week’s Starting 5 video, I give 1 reason why each team can win the SEC Tournament (with some reasons being way more realistic than others, obviously):

  • Who will actually cut down the nets in Nashville? Well, we’ll find out starting on Wednesday night! Can’t wait!

Now, let’s take a look around the rest of the college basketball landscape.

3. Road trip

It’s safe to say Baylor is back to its pre-COVID pause level of dominance. Since a loss to Kansas in the Bears’ second game back from a 3-week pause, they’ve won 3 in a row, all against ranked teams. On Sunday, they finished the regular season with an 88-73 win over Texas Tech.

In my last Starting 5 column, I raved about all the things Jared Butler does to help his team win. This time, let’s talk about a couple of the other guys, starting with MaCio Teague.

Teague tied a school record by making 10 3-pointers in his 35-point outburst. Just watch these shots. They’re all so pure:

That’s about as hot as a shooter can be. He finished an incredible 10-for-12 from long range. He’s a great sidekick for Butler, but he’s also capable of being “the guy” when needed.

Then, there’s Mark Vital. At 6-5, Vital is listed as a guard, but he’s built like a fullback and plays more like a center. He only averages 6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, but his defense and hustle makes Baylor elite.

Look at him save the ball from going out of bounds, getting it to Teague, who naturally drains a 3:

That play sums up Vital and Teague in a nutshell, and shows why Baylor is so elite. Vital and Teague were genuinely thrilled for each other after that play. That kind of pure joy is fun to watch.

Vital finished that game with a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double. Now, we’ll see if he and his teammates can keep the good times going in the Big 12 Tournament.

Next up, let’s look at some other top stories from around the country:

  • Ayo Dosunmu came back on Saturday for the Illinois Fighting Illini after missing a couple of games with a face injury. He wasted no time getting back into his groove, scoring 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting, even while wearing a mask. Naturally, he also hit the shot that gave the Illini the lead with less than a minute to play:

  • Andre Curbelo also scored 19 points (while dishing out 6 assists and grabbing 5 rebounds). He’s quickly become one of my favorite players to watch. It’s easy to see why when he consistently does things like this:

  • The Illini enter the Big Ten Tournament having won 3-straight road games over ranked teams — No. 23 Wisconsin, No. 2 Michigan and No. 7 Ohio State. Are they peaking at the right time for a run to the title?
  • Speaking of Wisconsin, the Badgers have gone the opposite direction. After a 77-73 loss at Iowa over the weekend, they’ve lost 5 of their last 6 games. The problem against Iowa? They couldn’t stop big man Luka Garza, who finished with 21 points and 16 rebounds:

  • After the game, there was a special moment where Iowa revealed it would retire Garza’s jersey number after the season:

  • What a great honor for a great player, who will likely be named the National Player of the Year here soon.
  • Just a few short weeks ago, it looked like there was no chance Michigan State would make the NCAA Tournament. Now, it’d be surprising if the Spartans DIDN’T make the field of 68 teams. On Sunday, the Spartans added a nation’s best third win over a top-5 team to their tourney résumé by beating rival Michigan 70-64 in East Lansing. They split with the Wolverines, yes, but with recent wins over Illinois and Ohio State, the Spartans have one heck of a case for March Madness inclusion. Rocket Watts had perhaps his best game of the year, scoring 21 points. The Spartans are better when he attacks the rim and gets to the free-throw line:

  • Let’s just say Watts had some extra motivation, as his mom was watching him play for the first time as a Spartan:

  • If he can stay hot, Michigan State has shown it can slay giants. Don’t be surprised if the Spartans make a run in the B1G Tournament this week.
  • It’s March, and that means Madness. So, let’s end this section with a pair of wild buzzer-beaters. First, in the Pac-12, Tahj Eaddy hit a fall-away 3 with less than 2 seconds left to help the USC Trojans down rival UCLA:

  • Then, there’s this tip-in from Kevin Obanor of Oral Roberts to help the Golden Eagles take down South Dakota State — the No. 1 seed in the Summit League Tournament:

  • It’s going to be a fun month of tournament action, and we’re just getting started!

Now, let’s take a look at some of the best games on the schedule this week.

4. Outlet pass

Conference tournaments are heating up this week! Many of the major conferences are getting started, while mid-major conferences are finishing up and crowning champions. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch this week (Note: I only included matchups that are already set to keep things simpler. There are some other potential matchups and title games I’ll also enjoy watching, but those haven’t been set yet):

  1. No. 12 Oklahoma State vs. No. 10 West Virginia (Thursday at 11:30 a.m. ET on ESPN or ESPN2) — The Cowboys and Mountaineers just played a thriller on Saturday, with Oklahoma State earning an 86-80 victory in Morgantown without star freshman Cade Cunningham. Now, they’ll meet again in the Big 12 Tournament’s 4 vs. 5 matchup. Can the Mountaineers get some revenge?
  2. Michigan State vs. Maryland (Thursday at 11:30 a.m. ET on BTN) — Michigan State is likely safe in the NCAA Tournament picture after beating Michigan on Sunday. Maryland, however, probably needs to win this game to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive. We’ll see if the Terps can pull off the upset.
  3. Boston College vs. Duke (Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. ET on ACCN) — If Duke loses this game, there’s no way the Blue Devils will make the NCAA Tournament. Even with a win, Duke has some work to do. We’ll see if Coach K’s squad can keep its slim postseason hopes alive.
  4. Georgia vs. Mizzou (Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on SECN) — Mizzou has struggled down the stretch of the regular season. One of the Tigers’ losses was against Georgia after having a big lead in the second half. Can Mizzou avenge that loss to improve its NCAA Tournament seeding? Or, will the Tigers’ struggles continue?
  5. No. 20 Texas Tech vs. No. 13 Texas (Thursday at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN or ESPN2) — Texas put together a nice 3-game road winning streak to close the regular season. The Red Raiders lost to Baylor on Sunday afternoon. Can the Longhorns stay hot and move on to challenge Baylor and Kansas for the Big 12 Tournament title?

There’s going to be near-constant basketball on TV this week and in the coming weeks as the NCAA Tournament gets started. It’s a wonderful time to be a sports fan!

5. Buzzer beaters

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

With conference tournaments getting underway this week, which team do you think will win the NCAA Tournament title?

I picked Illinois before the season, and the Illini have rewarded me by putting together a great season that will likely earn them a No. 1 seed in the tournament. So, I’m going to keep riding with them. I also picked Gonzaga, Baylor and Kentucky to make the Final Four alongside the Illini. I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to decide which of those picks I now massively regret. But, yeah, I’m sticking with Illinois as my champion.

Should Sharife Cooper stay at Auburn for another year or go pro?

After dealing with an NCAA issue at the start of the year and ending the season on the sidelines with an ankle injury, Auburn PG Sharife Cooper only played in 12 games as a freshman this year. But what a 12 games they were. He averaged 20.2 points, 8.1 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1 steal per game. His court vision was leaps and bounds better than anyone else’s in the SEC. If he receives a lottery grade heading into the 2021 NBA Draft, he should go pro. You can’t turn down a lottery opportunity. If he comes back, he can certainly work on his 3-point shot, but if he gets the lottery grade, he should head to the NBA.

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.