Starting 5: Top teams drop like flies, Kentucky’s freshmen get wakeup call, Marcus Carr and a great week ahead
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
Basketball is not an easy game to play by any means, but the premise is very simple. As Mark Titus and Tate Frazier like to say on their popular “Titus & Tate” podcast, at the end of the day, you have to make shots.
Well, the Kentucky Wildcats and their No. 1 freshman class learned that lesson the hard way on Sunday against Richmond, losing at home to the Spiders 76-64. That loss won’t look as bad come NCAA Tournament time, as the Spiders might win the A10 title and will most likely make the March Madness field even if they don’t. But, that doesn’t mean Sunday’s outcome should be brushed aside by John Calipari and the Wildcats.
Let’s start with the positive. Kentucky’s athleticism and size is going to be a problem for many opponents this year. The Wildcats out-rebounded the Spiders 54-31 on Sunday and appear to have a solid defense. But — and here’s the big issue — no team has ever won a game 0-0.
Thus, we come back to making shots. That’s what the Wildcats didn’t do. Yes, Brandon Boston Jr., the top-rated player in the Kentucky class, had a 20-point, 10-rebound double-double. Yes, Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr also had a double-double (17 points, 11 boards) and looks like a guy with a great post/mid-range game:
El sello Kentucky es garantía cara al draft. No obstante, el francés Olivier Sarr debería de gozar de un mercado muy potente en Europa.
Un center grande, móvil y con bastantes recursos para imponer su ley en los dos cristales.
Buen arranque de partido (6'). pic.twitter.com/K1S0jclLFg
— Diego (@DiegoAlv82) November 29, 2020
But, Kentucky went 0-for-10 from 3-point range. The Wildcats were also only 22-for-61 (36.1%) from the floor and 20-for-33 (60.6%) at the free-throw line. None of those percentages are good enough to win.
In order to make shots, you have to take shots, and the Wildcats had trouble doing that, too. Against Richmond, the Wildcats had a whopping 21 turnovers. Sarr led the way with 5 and Terrence Clarke had 4.
Obviously, that’s too many. Kentucky had the size advantage and the rebounding advantage. If they would have simply taken more shots, there’s a good chance they would have gotten a few additional offensive rebounds. That could have been the difference.
Moving forward, not all hope is lost. Early inexplicable losses have been somewhat common under Calipari. He has to integrate several new players each year, so it is understandable. He’s great at using these losses as teaching moments and getting his team back on track.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the Wildcats beat Kansas on Tuesday night. We’ll have more on that game later. For now, let’s take a look around the rest of the SEC.
2. Home-court advantage
To start this section, I want to talk about a freshman I didn’t give proper attention to heading into the season. That would be Cam Thomas, the
After scoring 27 points in his college debut in a win over SIUE, Thomas scored 25 in a loss to Saint Louis. He earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors in the process. Then, on Monday night, he scored 21 points in a big win over Southeastern Louisiana.
Coach Will Wade said he’s as complete of a freshman as he’s ever coached:
Will Wade on Cam Thomas: "Our players have great confidence in him and search him out. He's a phenomenal person, a phenomenal young man. He's been raised great by his mother. It's prepared him for this moment. He's as mature and ready a freshman as I've coached for the big stage"
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) December 1, 2020
Meanwhile, college basketball insider Jon Rothstein said Thomas reminds him of former Oklahoma superstar Buddy Hield:
So much Buddy Hield in Cam Thomas….
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 1, 2020
Thomas only has a grand total of 7 rebounds and 6 assists in his 3 games, but he’s an elite scorer, and that’s good enough for now. If he keeps this up, he’ll lead the SEC in scoring when all is said and done.
Now, let’s take a look at some other SEC headlines:
- We all knew it was going to be a tough year for Auburn. The Tigers self-imposed a 1-year postseason ban, and that’s looking like a better decision with each game. On Monday, the Tigers lost to UCF in awful fashion, shooting just 8-for-22 from the free-throw line. And, we all know Bruce Pearl’s teams like to launch 3-pointers, but that strategy needs to be reassessed after Auburn went 7-for-34 from long range against the Knights. Pearl was right to say the performance set the game of basketball back a few years:
Bruce Pearl: "Well, that was ugly. Set the game of basketball back a few years."
— Tom Green (@Tomas_Verde) December 1, 2020
- There are bright spots, though. Junior Jamal Johnson scored 18 points to lead the Tigers against UCF. He also grabbed 5 rebounds. It’s going to take awhile for Pearl to figure out his rotations, but Johnson made a case for more playing time on Monday.
- Alabama lost to Stanford in blowout fashion on Monday night, falling 82-64 in the Maui Invitational quarterfinals. No, coach Nate Oats’ offense has yet to hit its stride this year, but it might not have mattered on Monday night, regardless. That’s because the Tide ran into star Stanford freshman Ziaire Williams, who had a heck of a college debut. He scored 19 points and had 8 rebounds. He also hit this ridiculously deep 3:
Stanford star freshman Ziaire Williams has some raaaaaaange pic.twitter.com/OWfgNc4k9p
— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) December 1, 2020
- Keep an eye on Williams moving forward. The Cardinal can win the entire tournament if he plays like that. The Tide, meanwhile, will face UNLV on Tuesday night.
- The Arkansas Razorbacks are 2-0 and scored 142 points in their season opener. Big 7-3 transfer Connor Vanover scored 23 points in that game, but I liked what he did against North Texas in the Hogs’ second game even more:
- He only scored 6 points, but if he can grab 16 rebounds and block 6 shots every now and then, Arkansas is going to be one of the best teams in the SEC. His size and versatility on both ends of the floor has the potential to be special.
Now, let’s take a look at what’s happening elsewhere in the college basketball world.
3. Road trip
This season was always going to be a weird one, with COVID-19 wreaking havoc on teams’ ability to practice and prepare for actual games. Thus, it’s not a big surprise that several top teams have already suffered losses to unranked foes.
To start this section, we’ll discuss the still-reigning national champion Virginia Cavaliers, who were the No. 4 team in the AP preseason poll. After the Hoos looked great in a season-opening win over Towson, many analysts were touting Virginia as the best team in the country.
However, that bandwagon quickly crashed, as the Cavaliers lost their next game 61-60 to San Francisco. Yes, the Dons only scored 61 points, so it wasn’t a bad defensive performance from Tony Bennett’s squad. But, as I mentioned earlier about Kentucky, you have to make shots to win.
That’s especially true for the Cavaliers, who play at such a slow pace that every possession is crucial. The Dons had a plan and executed it well. They wanted to shoot a ton of 3s and hope for the best, and that’s what they did, knocking down 13 of their 28 long-range attempts. Virginia went 3-for-12 from behind the arc.
Oh, and the Dons had an occasional answer for Virginia’s infamous “pack line” defense:
San Francisco had lots of success down the stretch spreading out the Virginia pack line with the Point series from straight out of the Princeton pic.twitter.com/GJkm7qFWeO
— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) November 27, 2020
If other teams start having success with San Francisco’s blueprint, it’ll be interesting to see how Bennett and the Cavaliers respond.
Now, let’s look at some other top stories from around the country:
- Virginia wasn’t the only top-5 team to lose in Bubbleville. Then-No. 3 Villanova also lost in upset fashion, going down to Virginia Tech 81-73 in overtime. The Hokies, led by ACC Player of the Week Keve Aluma’s 23 points, took a late lead on this nice dish:
so good pic.twitter.com/trKGEvL5Cv
— Andy Dieckhoff (@andrewdieckhoff) November 29, 2020
- Villanova forced overtime, but it was all Hokies from then on. We’ll see if Mike Young’s crew can continue to pull off impressive wins. This is a good start, though.
- I’ve talked a lot about Ayo Dosunmu and the Fighting Illini already this year, but he’s worth every word. He was at it again to help the Illini improve to 3-0 over the weekend, hitting a pair of clutch free throws late to give Illinois a 76-75 lead in a game it went on to win 77-75. But, I’d be remiss not to also mention Ohio guard Jason Preston, who scored 31 points and had 8 assists. It was quite the guard battle to watch:
Ohio's Jason Preston (31-6-8) vs. Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu (27-7-8)
Worth moving Preston to your daily watch list. No speed but uses IQ, hesitation, scoring improvisation around key. Taking/making more 3s.
Ayo's execution, processing look sharper so far. pic.twitter.com/RGKKGq44Ve
— Jonathan Wasserman (@NBADraftWass) November 30, 2020
- Preston is going to be a name to watch moving forward. NBA teams certainly took notice of his big day against the now-No. 5 team in the country.
- Sticking with the Big Ten, get to know Marcus Carr if you don’t know him already. The Minnesota guard has ice water in his veins. In 3 games this year, Carr has scored 35, 28 and 26 points. None were bigger than his final 3 points, though. As you can see here, he uses a devastating step-back 3-pointer to break a late tie against Loyola Marymount:
Marcus Carr, you madman. pic.twitter.com/6uOHrCITBy
— Minnesota Men's Basketball (@GopherMBB) December 1, 2020
- It’s not ideal that the Gophers needed a last-second shot to beat Loyola Marymount, but it was the second time they’d played in 3 days thanks to creative COVID-related nonconference scheduling. Carr is a serious candidate to lead the B1G in scoring this year.
Next, let’s take a look at the week ahead in the college basketball world.
4. Outlet pass
There are a couple of incredible showcases coming up this week that I can’t wait for. On Tuesday night, we have the Champions Classic, featuring Michigan State at Duke and Kentucky vs. Kansas in Indianapolis. Then, on Wednesday, we have the Jimmy V Classic, also in Indianapolis, featuring West Virginia-Gonzaga and Baylor-Illinois. It’s going to be a fun week! Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to see:
- No. 5 Illinois vs. No. 2 Baylor (Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN) — This is a battle between 2 of my preseason Final Four teams. I also picked Illinois to win the title. Oh, and one of my best friends went to Baylor for law school. Serious bragging rights are involved in this game for me.
- No. 11 West Virginia vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) — This is a matchup of the No. 11 team and the No. 1 team, but the KenPom.com rankings are a bit higher on the Mountaineers. KenPom has West Virginia at No. 6 in the nation. Bob Huggins’ crew will be hungry for an upset. Can they pull it off in Indianapolis?
- No. 8 Michigan State at No. 6 Duke (Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) — This is part of the Champions Classic, but it will be played at Cameron Indoor Stadium instead of in Indianapolis with the Kentucky-Kansas game. We’ll see if the Spartans can pull off an impressive road upset.
- No. 20 Kentucky vs. No. 7 Kansas (Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) — The Wildcats and Jayhawks have both suffered early losses. Kansas, of course, lost to a much better opponent in No. 1 Gonzaga. But, these aren’t the same powerhouse Jayhawks they were last year. We’ll see if the Wildcats can bounce back after a tough home loss to Richmond.
- No. 21 Oregon vs. Mizzou (Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on FS1) — Yes, this is a bit of a homer pick, but I think the Tigers can pull off the upset in Omaha against the Ducks. The Tigers are an experienced squad and this will be Oregon’s first game. We’ll see if I’m right!
Also, be sure to keep an eye on the Maui Invitational, which is being held in Asheville, North Carolina, this year. The final will be on Wednesday and should be a good matchup.
5. Buzzer beaters
Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here for the day:
Are you pro-Bill Walton as a broadcaster or not?
Personally, I love Bill Walton. He has a great voice. He knows the game. And, most importantly, he has fun. Yes, he goes on weird tangents sometimes, but that’s fine. I always learn something when I watch a game he’s calling. He’s on the broadcast for the Maui Invitational this year, as he always is. I’d hate him as a radio broadcaster, but on TV, where I can watch the game with my eyes, I think he’s a real treat to listen to.
Who’s your pick to be the No. 1 overall selection in the 2021 NBA Draft?
After last night, it might be Stanford’s Ziaire Williams! However, if I had to bet, I’d still take the safe choice in Oklahoma State guard (and 2020’s No. 1 prospect) Cade Cunningham. It’s still early, and Kentucky freshmen Brandon Boston Jr. and Terrence Clarke could also work their way into the mix (ditto Tennessee’s Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson), but for now, give me Cunningham.
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.