Starting 5: Time to worry about Baylor? Arkansas or Alabama? Is Michigan a title threat?
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
Is it time to worry about the Baylor Bears? After a long COVID-19 related shutdown, during which 8 players reportedly dealt with the virus, the Bears haven’t been the same team. Their first game back after the 3-week layoff was a narrow 77-72 win over an awful Iowa State team.
Then, over the weekend, the Bears went to Kansas and lost 71-58 to the Jayhawks. Losing at Allen Fieldhouse is far from a bad loss, but the way Baylor lost is indeed concerning.
The shooting percentages were awful across the board — 23-for 66 (34.8%) from the floor, 6-for-26 (23.1%) from 3-point range and 6-for-16 (37.5%) from the free-throw line. Coach Scott Drew said the COVID pause really hurt his team:
Scott Drew: "We were the No. 1 shooting team in the country and we'll get back to that. But even Superman has Kryptonite. And I guess COVID protocols is ours."
— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) February 28, 2021
Kansas is one of the hottest teams in the Big 12. Baylor is still trying to shake off some rust. I’m not worried about Baylor yet, but we’ll see how concerned we should be over the next few days. I’ll break down the Bears’ next 2 games in the “Outlet pass” section, as Baylor will be involved in a ranked matchup at West Virginia on Tuesday and a ranked matchup vs. Oklahoma State on Thursday.
It’s time for Baylor to sink or swim. Drew has never won a Big 12 regular season title, a Big 12 Tournament title or an NCAA championship in his 17 previous years at Baylor. That has to change, or it might be time for both the Bears and Drew to move on.
Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde wrote that Scott Drew could be the right person to bring Indiana basketball back to national relevance. I don’t think he’d entertain that move after 18 years in Waco, but who knows?
If the Bears can’t get back to looking like 1 of the 2 best teams in the country and come up short once again in March, the rumor mill will start churning.
Now, let’s look at the top stories from the SEC.
2. Home-court advantage
The Alabama Crimson Tide have hit a bit of a snag. Since the start of February, this hasn’t been the same team that was consistently lighting up the scoreboard every night. Last week, the Tide failed to reach the 70-point mark in their 2 games — an 81-66 loss at Arkansas and a 64-59 win at Mississippi State.
The Mississippi State win clinched the SEC regular-season title for the Tide, but there are bigger goals on the horizon. And, if the Tide can’t get right offensively soon, they’ll struggle in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments.
Alabama went 7-for-28 from 3-point range against Mississippi State and 11-for-33 against Arkansas, so it’s fair to say the Tide aren’t shooting it as well as they normally do from long range. However, coach Nate Oats fought back against the notion that his team lives by the 3 and dies by the 3:
#Alabama basketball coach Nate Oats on people saying his team lives and dies by the 3: "They don't know what they're talking about."
— Tony Tsoukalas (@Tony_Tsoukalas) March 1, 2021
And, he’s absolutely right. Alabama’s offense isn’t just a “shoot as many 3s as possible” system. The Tide have success when they get to the rim and draw fouls. The problem? Against Arkansas, they weren’t drawing fouls. Arkansas shot 43 free throws compared to 8 for the Tide. Yes, that’s a ridiculous effort from the SEC refs, but the Tide weren’t attacking the rim as much as they normally do, either.
Against Mississippi State, Jahvon Quinerly was the leading scorer with 19 points, making some tough shots in the lane:
— NJ Basketball (@NJHoopRecruit) February 28, 2021
When Alabama players are finishing at the rim like that, they’re nearly unstoppable. The problem is not many players are hot right now.
Even when the offense isn’t clicking, though, the Tide can win with defense, like they did on Saturday. The defensive communication and effort on this play was incredible:
This defensive possession exemplifies why Alabama is so great on that end. Watch the pointing and talking on the ball screens, exchanges, and off-ball screens. pic.twitter.com/8XBW1Kdy7U
— Bama Basketball Film Room (@BamaFilmRoom) February 28, 2021
That’s winning basketball. Alabama is 14-2 in SEC play because it can beat you in multiple facets of the game, not just with the 3 ball. We’ll see if their long-range prowess comes back in time for the SEC Tournament.
Now, let’s take a look around the rest of the SEC:
- How about those Arkansas Razorbacks? They’re up to No. 12 in the AP Poll after taking care of business against LSU on Saturday. Moses Moody took home SEC Freshman of the Week honors after his big game, in which he scored 18 points and had 8 rebounds and 5 assists. He also out-hustled the entire LSU squad on this play:
Moses Moody out-hustling the entire LSU team. pic.twitter.com/7ZpVnFa8JR
— Aram Cannuscio (@AC__Hoops) February 27, 2021
- Big man Justin Smith also had a big game, scoring 19 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. The Hogs are the hottest team in the SEC right now, and peaking at the right time could lead to success in the conference tournament.
- Meanwhile, LSU has lost 2 in a row after Saturday’s defeat at the hands of the red-hot Hogs. A big problem? Darius Days has gone ice-cold. The Tigers are 14-1 when he scores 10 or more points. They’re 0-7 when he either doesn’t play or doesn’t score 10 points. Well, on Saturday, he was held scoreless in 18 minutes, going 0-for-8 from 3-point range. He scored 4 points in the loss to Georgia, going 0-for-5 from 3-point land. If LSU can’t get him going, the struggles will continue.
- Tre Mann is not ice-cold. He’s led the Gators in points and rebounds in each of their last 2 games. I mentioned Alabama’s struggles finishing at the rim earlier. Well, Tre Mann is not having those problems. Look at some of these insane finishes:
Tre Mann was in his BAG yesterday. Pull-ups, floaters, hesitations and finishes at the rim, crossovers…and that last stepback with the subtle shove was Jordan-like.
— Lucas Dolengowski (@LDolengowski) February 28, 2021
- But, let’s talk about Tyree Appleby, too. He had 5 assists in the win over Kentucky on Saturday and continues to be one of the best alley-oop throwers in the country. He hit Scottie Lewis on this one:
John Calipari called timeout before Scottie Lewis even landed 😂 pic.twitter.com/XIpA8HC0Ao
— CBS Sports CBB (@CBSSportsCBB) February 27, 2021
- And this one off the backboard to Anthony Duruji was a thing of beauty:
OFF THE GLASS 🔥 pic.twitter.com/czoTYTO162
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) February 27, 2021
- Devin Askew of Kentucky had his own off-the-backboard pass (or shot?) to Jacob Toppin, to even things up:
Pass or shot?
Either way, @Jtoppin0 made sure to finish it.
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) February 27, 2021
- That was a fun game to watch. Kentucky and Florida are both dangerous heading into the SEC Tournament. We’ll see if they can go on deep runs in Nashville.
- Finally, let’s give the Auburn Tigers some love. Even without superstar Sharife Cooper on Saturday, the Tigers beat a struggling Tennessee squad 77-72. Even if Cooper heads to the NBA after this season, the Tigers should be a force in 2021-22. JT Thor, Justin Powell and Allen Flanigan could all be back. Flanigan showed his skills with a 23-point effort on Saturday:
Allen Flanigan (@Allen_Flanigan2) w/ 23 PTS on 7-14 FG, 2-5 3PT & 7-11 FT, while grabbing 7 RBS & 3 AST in a winning performance vs. #25 Tenn. The 6'6 215lb Soph was physical on both ends & active on the glass. Excelled slashing to the rim & hit some tough shots off-the-dribble. pic.twitter.com/wCZHneG9Up
— League Him (@League_Him) February 28, 2021
- Auburn could (and should) be a top-5 team in the SEC next season. The talent is real. Now, it’ll just be about finishing the season on a high note. The Tigers will have a chance to pick up another signature win over rival Alabama on Tuesday night.
Now, let’s look around the rest of the college basketball world.
3. Road trip
The Bedlam rivalry between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State certainly lived up to expectations over the past 3 days. On Saturday, the Cowboys went to Norman and picked up a 94-90 win in overtime.
In that game, Oklahoma State freshman Cade Cunningham showed why he’s the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. He scored 40 points on 12-for-21 shooting (3-for-8 from 3-point range). He hit 13 of his 14 free throws and added 11 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocks and an assist:
Cade Cunningham (40 PTS) TOOK OVER to upset No. 7 Oklahoma in OT 😤 @brhoops
The potential No. 1 pick continues to impress pic.twitter.com/3OCSYJydsl
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 27, 2021
Look at that clip again. It’s impossible to guard Cunningham when he’s hot, as he can finish with either hand and goes left as well as he goes right (his dominant side). He’s so impressive to watch, and the Cowboys needed every bit of his effort on Saturday.
On Monday night, the 2 rivals were at it again, this time in Stillwater. Cunningham got off to a slower start in that game, but he hit some clutch free throws down the stretch as the Cowboys picked up another 4-point win over their rivals, this time by a final score of 79-75, no overtime needed.
Cunningham only had 15 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists on Monday night, but Kalib Boone picked up the slack, scoring a team-high 17 points to go with 9 boards.
Don’t look now, but the Cowboys, who are appealing their postseason ban from the NCAA, are climbing in the NCAA Tournament projections. They’re a No. 4 seed now, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi:
• Rutgers drops one full line to projected No. 9 seed.
• Carolina drops one full line to projected No. 10 seed.
• Syracuse into NEXT FOUR OUT (bumping Richmond). pic.twitter.com/faBLOEmBzL
— Joe Lunardi (@ESPNLunardi) March 2, 2021
As long as the NCAA doesn’t make a ruling on the Cowboys’ status over the next couple of weeks, they’ll be eligible for postseason play. This is a team capable of making a deep run in the Big 12 Tournament, and in the NCAA Tournament as well.
Now, let’s take a look at some other stories from around the country:
- Illinois picked up a huge win without star guard Ayo Dosunmu at Wisconsin on Saturday, beating the Badgers 74-69. But, it wasn’t easy, especially late, as D’Mitrik Trice got about as hot as you’ll ever see a player get. He scored 19 points in the game’s final 125 seconds, including an impressive 5 3-pointers:
— SLAM University (@slam_university) February 27, 2021
- That’s an unbelievable run, but Illinois deserves credit for continuing to put points on the board, too. Kofi Cockburn had 19 points and 7 rebounds, and he darn near tore down the basket on this ferocious dunk:
Kofi Cockburn almost tears it DAHN pic.twitter.com/86kmxrLqwV
— Hammer DAHN (@HammerDAHN) February 27, 2021
- Dosunmu, Cockburn, Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams, Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo give the Illini plenty of scoring options. This team is going to be dangerous come tourney time. First, though, they finish the regular season with a brutal pair of games — at Michigan on Tuesday (more on that later) and at Ohio State on Saturday. Brutal.
- Speaking of Ohio State and Michigan, those 2 teams are on differing trajectories. The Buckeyes have lost 3 in a row — vs. Michigan, at Michigan State and vs. Iowa. The Iowa loss was a tough one for the Buckeyes, as they were blown out 73-57 on their home court. Iowa big man Luka Garza was looking like the Player of the Year with his 24-point, 11-rebound double-double:
— B/R Hoops (@brhoops) February 28, 2021
- Not much you can do defensively against a guy like that. The Buckeyes must get some momentum going on Saturday against the Illini in their regular-season finale or they might make an early exit in the B1G Tournament.
- While the Buckeyes lost 73-57 over the weekend, the Michigan Wolverines picked up a 73-57 win at Indiana. The Wolverines beat Ohio State, beat Iowa and beat Indiana in their last 3 games. Now, they’ve leapfrogged Baylor into the No. 2 spot in the AP Poll. Isaiah Livers had a big night against the Hoosiers, scoring 16 points and grabbing 10 boards. He never gives up on a play, as he showed on this thunderous putback slam:
This Isaiah Livers PUTBACK 😳
— Bleacher Report CBB (@br_CBB) February 27, 2021
- The Wolverines are 16-1 and not slowing down. Illinois and Michigan State will have their hands full to try to pull off big upsets this week.
- I’m not sure what I think about this WCC Tournament bracket:
The WCC Tournament Bracket. pic.twitter.com/Y27O6wyp9p
— Rocco Miller (@roccomiller8) February 28, 2021
- Obviously, Gonzaga is a heavy favorite to win, but this bracket basically makes it highly unlikely any team outside the top 4 seeds will claim the title. Hopefully, it’s just a 1-year thing to keep Gonzaga and BYU healthy and rested for the NCAA Tournament. We’ll see.
- If you’re going to pick up a technical foul as a coach, this is a great way to do it:
— Brian Morehouse (@CoachMorehouse) February 27, 2021
- That’s Hope College women’s basketball coach Brian Morehouse who picked up the technical for sending all 9 of his seniors out for the opening tipoff on Senior Night. I love stuff like that. Great way to honor 9 players who have spent a lot of time with the school.
- Finally, the tweet of the week goes to ESPN broadcaster Dave Pasch. When one fan was criticizing Bill Walton’s broadcast partner for not being as good as Pasch, Pasch had to break the news to him:
Well…it was me. https://t.co/z0QzNS9Efv
— Dave Pasch (@DavePasch) February 28, 2021
- Perhaps the fan was just longing for some vintage Pasch? Who knows?
Now, let’s take a look at some of the best games of this coming week.
4. Outlet pass
This week, some conference tournaments for non-major conferences tip off. But, when it comes to the 6 major conferences, there are some incredible matchups taking place across the country between now and Friday. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch this week:
- No. 4 Illinois at No. 2 Michigan (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) — A little over a week since we got the thrilling matchup between No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Ohio State, the Wolverines are involved in another high-octane Big Ten matchup. The Illini might be without star Ayo Dosunmu as he continues to recover from a broken nose. But, since the Illini just beat Wisconsin without him, this should be a fun game regardless.
- No. 3 Baylor at No. 6 West Virginia (Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN) — After a long COVID-related layoff, Baylor struggled against Iowa State and then lost to Kansas over the weekend. But, there’s no time to rest for the Bears. Their remaining schedule is jam-packed with makeup games. This trip to Morgantown won’t be easy, but it’s a game the Bears need to win.
- No. 15 Texas at No. 16 Oklahoma (Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN or ESPN2) — Both of these teams have had some tough times lately, so they’ll be eager to get some momentum back heading into the Big 12 Tournament. The Longhorns lost 80-79 to the rival Sooners earlier this season, so hopefully this game provides plenty of drama, too.
- No. 14 Creighton at No. 10 Villanova (Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET on FS1) — With time winding down in the regular season, the Wildcats can put the Big East regular-season title out of reach with a win in this game. Villanova is 8-0 at home, too, so this won’t be easy for the Blue Jays.
- No. 17 Oklahoma State at No. 3 Baylor (Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — Another Baylor game? That’s right! As mentioned earlier, the Bears have some games to make up. If they aren’t ready to go in this one, they might lose to the hottest team in the Big 12. At least this game is in Waco, where the Bears are 9-0 on the season.
Welcome to March, everyone! That’s about as loaded of a midweek schedule as you could possibly want. What a great appetizer as conference tournaments begin around the country.
5. Buzzer beaters
Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here for the day:
Is this the year the Big Ten finally breaks its title drought?
The Big Ten shockingly hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament title since Michigan State in 2000. Since that time, the Big Ten has had 14 teams reach the Final Four. Of those teams, 7 have lost in the championship game. But, the league currently has 4 teams in the top 10 — No. 2 Michigan, No. 4 Illinois, No. 5 Iowa and No. 7 Ohio State. As things stand now, those teams all figure to be either 1 or 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. But, as the Big Ten knows all too well, high seeds don’t always translate to titles. I still think this is Gonzaga’s year to win it all. The Bulldogs are too deep and too talented. I’ll call it now — the Big Ten’s title drought continues this year.
Which non-power conference tournament are you most excited for?
There are plenty of great tournaments tipping off this week. But, one tourney I’m particularly excited for is the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in St. Louis. The Loyola-Chicago Ramblers are the No. 1 seed and are currently ranked No. 20 in the AP Poll. But, don’t forget about Drake. The Bulldogs were one of the last remaining undefeated teams earlier this season. It should be a really exciting Arch Madness tournament!
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.