Starting 5: Who is the best team in the ACC? Luka Garza or Kofi Cockburn? Is Tennessee elite?
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
Normally, the ACC is one of the deepest leagues in the country when it comes to college basketball. The last national champion (Virginia) hails from the conference, and North Carolina and Duke have also won national titles this decade.
But, as the 2020-21 season enters conference play, the ACC is without its usual cadre of top-flight title contenders. Yes, there are still plenty of ranked teams (6, in fact), but none are ranked in the top 10. Virginia, ranked in the top 5 in the preseason poll, lost to San Francisco and has had trouble getting games in due to COVID-19 issues.
Meanwhile, Duke lost at home to both Michigan State and Illinois, then canceled the remainder of its nonconference games. Oh, and North Carolina is ranked, but they lost to ranked Texas and Iowa teams. So, those are the traditional powers in the ACC. Who are the other contenders?
Clemson was a good story to start the season, but the Tigers lost their ACC opener to Virginia Tech. The Hokies are 5-1 on the season and have a win over Villanova on their resume, so keep an eye on them.
Florida State (4-0), Louisville (4-0) and Wake Forest (2-0) are the only undefeated ACC teams at this point. Don’t expect the Demon Deacons to keep that going, but the Cardinals and Seminoles are teams to watch. FSU’s MJ Walker has come into his own, averaging 16.8 points per game.
He even stepped over a Florida player after throwing down this dunk:
MJ Walker might be arrested after the game for this.
— Henry (@seminole4life22) December 12, 2020
You have to have a ton of confidence to do something like that. Florida State lost Devin Vassell and Patrick Williams as lottery picks in the 2020 NBA Draft. The 2019-20 Seminoles could have made a Final Four run if the NCAA Tournament wasn’t canceled. But, this year, coach Leonard Hamilton is doing another fantastic job for this team. If I had to choose right now, I’d pick FSU to win the ACC.
No matter how you slice it, it’s a down year in the ACC. Will the league be able to turn it around in order to have a couple of teams compete for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament? That would require a team or 2 to step above this logjam atop the conference and dominate league play. We’ll see if anyone has the talent to accomplish that.
Now, let’s head to the SEC and see what’s going on.
2. Home-court advantage
The Tennessee Volunteers are the top-ranked team in the SEC, checking in at No. 10 in this week’s AP Poll. However, the offense was off to a slow start in the team’s first 2 games, albeit against strong defensive squads like Colorado and Cincinnati.
That all changed on Tuesday night against an overmatched Appalachian State team. The Vols defense continued to look like one of the best in the country, only allowing 38 points to the Mountaineers. But, finally, the offense came to life, scoring 79 points.
Yves Pons still hasn’t gotten it going as a shooter, but it hasn’t hurt the Vols yet. He’s scored 2, 8 and 7 points in 3 games this year. For the first time this year, though, someone not named “John Fulkerson” led the team in scoring. Victor Bailey Jr. scored 13 points, including 2 on this steal and dunk:
Victor Bailey Jr. with the steal and dunk. pic.twitter.com/6E33tnkXs1
— Trey Wallace (@TreyWallace_) December 16, 2020
At no point during that sequence did Bailey look comfortable with the ball in his hands, but hey, you can’t argue with that result! If Bailey can become a consistent offensive weapon, it only adds more depth for the Vols. Fulkerson had 12 points, Jaden Springer added 11 and so did Josiah-Jordan James.
It’s looking like the Vols’ SEC opener on Dec. 30 at Mizzou will be one of the best games of the year in the SEC.
Now, let’s move on to some other SEC headlines:
- Alabama fans breathed a deep sigh of relief on Wednesday night when the Crimson Tide managed to avoid a home loss against a feisty Furman team. The Paladins have been a handful for a couple of years now. They took a 47-37 lead into halftime on Wednesday night, but the Tide battled back, earning a tough 83-80 win. The biggest surprise for the Tide is that Herb Jones has led the team in scoring the past 2 games. He’s already one of the best defenders in the SEC, but when he can do things like this offensively, that’s incredible:
Herb Jones (@_hoopinglife) is playing his way on to several NBA Draft Boards! The other night, he finished with 18 points 12 boards and 4 assists in a win against Furman. He’s come up big for Alabama this year! pic.twitter.com/G5Agvy8161
— JEFE ISLAND (@JefeIsland) December 17, 2020
- He finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks. That’s incredible. John Petty Jr. continues to be a streaky shooter, though. He only had 6 points and was 0-for-6 from 3-point range on Wednesday. That’s a problem for Nate Oats’ squad.
- Vanderbilt put up one of the strangest score sheets of the year in a 78-67 home loss to Richmond on Wednesday. The Commodores had 4 players with at least 10 points — Scotty Pippen Jr. (25), Jordan Wright (17), Trey Thomas (15) and Dylan Disu (10). If you do the math, that adds up to 67 points. That’s right, literally no one else scored for the Commodores. Six other players took the court for Vanderbilt and combined to go 0-for-11 from the floor for exactly 0 points. Incredible. That’s going to be a problem for Jerry Stackhouse’s crew. But, I’m still very much aboard the Scotty Pippen Jr. hype train.
- Finally, let’s give you an update on Florida star Keyontae Johnson, who is still in the hospital after collapsing on the court last week at Florida State. The Gators released a statement saying Johnson was awake and talking to family and doctors. He continues to improve, which is fantastic news after watching him get stretchered off the court last weekend. Our continued thoughts are with him and his family. The Gators have canceled their games through next weekend.
Now, let’s take a look around the rest of the college basketball landscape.
3. Road trip
The Big Ten features 2 of the best big men in the country — Iowa’s Luka Garza and Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn. Both could have probably been drafted in the 2020 NBA Draft, but they decided to come back to school for (at least) 1 more year.
The 2 dominant big men have very different styles, though. So, it’s worth a look at what makes each of them so successful. Let’s start with Garza.
Garza finished just behind Dayton’s Obi Toppin in the National Player of the Year race last season. This year, he’s a frontrunner for the award and might be even better than he was in 2019-20. Earlier this season, he had back-to-back games where he scored 30 points in the first half.
This highlight video from his game against Western Illinois is incredible. Watch how much work he does before he even gets the ball in the post. That’s the sign of a good big man:
He also steps outside and hits a couple of 3-pointers in that video, which is an increasingly important part of a big man’s game in today’s NBA. Garza reminds me of a young Kevin Love, only with a bigger body and not quite as good of a passer.
Cockburn, on the other hand, is a typical post bruiser. He has only attempted 1 3-pointer in his 2 years with the Illini, and I’m sure coach Brad Underwood was furious with him afterward. But, Cockburn’s biggest advantage over Garza is his footwork on both ends of the court. He is always in the right spot defensively, as Minnesota learned the hard way on Wednesday night:
— Steve Finamore (@CoachFinamore) December 16, 2020
He is also a master of getting to the dunk spot and scoring easy baskets because he does the hard work before he gets the ball:
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) December 16, 2020
— Sports Parade (@SportsParade) December 16, 2020
He finished the Minnesota game with a career-high 33 points to go with 13 rebounds and 2 blocks. He’s so strong, but he can also run the floor in transition. He reminds me of a guy like Tristan Thompson.
So, who is a better fit for the NBA at this point? Probably Garza because he’s a threat from long range, but teams would be wise to try to scoop up either of these dominant B1G big men. Mark your calendars for Jan. 29, because they’re scheduled to meet up for a highly anticipated game in Champaign.
Now, let’s see what’s going on elsewhere around the country:
- Oklahoma State flirted with disaster at Wichita State recently, but star freshman Cade Cunningham bailed the Cowboys out with a last-second 3 for the win. The Cowboys started Big 12 play with a home game against TCU on Wednesday night, and it didn’t have the same ending. This time, TCU’s RJ Nembhard got to play hero, hitting this jumper with 10 seconds left to give the Horned Frogs the lead and, eventually, the win:
Con esta canasta logró TCU imponerse a Oklahoma State (7⃣7⃣-7⃣6⃣). RJ Nembhard logró hasta un total de 21 puntos. pic.twitter.com/CMwSF3Ek5V
— Planeta NCAA (@PlanetaNCAA) December 17, 2020
- That’s obviously not the start to Big 12 play the Cowboys envisioned. How badly did they need that win? Well, their next 3 games are at No. 11 Texas, at No. 14 Texas Tech and vs. No. 8 West Virginia. Yikes.
- Last year, Ohio State started the year 9-0 and was looking like one of the best teams in the country. Then, after opening Big Ten play with a win over Penn State, the wheels fell off. The Buckeyes lost their next 4 B1G games and 6 of 7 games. The battled back in the second half of the season, finishing with an 11-9 B1G record. Are we in for a similar situation this year? The Buckeyes lost at Purdue to kick off Big Ten play this year after starting 5-0. Purdue’s Trevion Williams was a problem for Ohio State off the bench, scoring 16 points, grabbing 9 rebounds and dishing out 8 assists. Look at this pass and this nice post move:
"He seems content to be Magic Johnson."
Trevion Williams, your passing is ridiculous! pic.twitter.com/dFebAUua4O
— Purdue On BTN (@PurdueOnBTN) December 17, 2020
Purdue outmuscles #20 Ohio State (E.J. Liddell DNP), wins 67-60. Whether it’s with fans or without, the Boilermakers are tough to beat at Mackey Arena.
Trevion Williams: 16 PTS, 9 REB, 8 AST
— CollegeBB News (@CollegeBBNCAA) December 17, 2020
- The Big Ten is a gauntlet. Ohio State’s last 4 games of the season (when we reach that point) are against Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois — all of whom are in the AP Poll right now. Brutal.
- I’m glad I already issued my apology to Kansas for thinking it wasn’t a top-5 team. The Jayhawks went into a tough (and surprisingly full) Texas Tech arena and pulled off a thrilling 58-57 victory to start Big 12 play. I did not see Ochai Agbaji becoming a star, but here we are. He scored 23 points and had the game-winning shot on this beautiful inbounds play:
Ochai Agbaji wiiiiiide open off the screen the screener action on the oob underneath. pic.twitter.com/ou7vMiwuoE
— James Szuba (@JamesSzuba) December 18, 2020
- Honestly, that pass was a split-second late, as the inbounder wasn’t expecting Agbaji to be that wide-open. After a last-second Texas Tech shot was blocked, the Jayhawks secured the win. Now, on to the other issue. Blocks and charges are so difficult to call in real time, but refs have to do better. Look at this play:
I don’t know how it’s possible but every year officiating in college basketball gets worse. The fact this is even thought to be called a charge is a problem. pic.twitter.com/V5LVlJ5rfa
— Bobby Reagan (@BarstoolReags) December 18, 2020
- As Jay Bilas says in the clip, there is no way that’s a charge. None. These awful block/charge calls are going to make Bilas lose his mind, and I like Bilas, so I’d like to keep him sane as long as possible, please.
- Finally, here’s Coach K slapping a ref’s butt after a win over Notre Dame:
Who knew the Gott Man had the perfect pandemic-era show of respect all along! pic.twitter.com/xHL7oYlgSs
— Bret Strelow (@bretstrelow) December 17, 2020
- Do with that what you will.
Now, let’s take a look ahead to the best games coming up over the next few days.
4. Outlet pass
It was a somewhat slow middle of the week in college basketball, but boy, do we ever have a loaded weekend. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to see between now and the next Starting 5 column on Tuesday:
- No. 3 Iowa vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (Saturday at noon ET on CBS) — Cross your fingers and hope this game, which will be played in South Dakota, isn’t canceled. This would be a great consolation prize after No. 2 Baylor and Gonzaga had to cancel their game earlier. This matchup of Luka Garza against the Bulldogs’ depth will be fun to see.
- No. 13 Illinois at No. 19 Rutgers (Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — Illinois is 1-0 in Big Ten play after a dominant win over a previously undefeated Minnesota squad this week. But, Rutgers is the real deal this year. Can the Illini avoid an upset on the road?
- No. 23 Louisville at No. 12 Wisconsin (Saturday at noon ET on ESPN2) — This game was supposed to be part of the B1G/ACC Challenge, but it got postponed until this weekend due to COVID-19 issues. Either way, it should be a heck of a matchup. If Wisconsin can win this, it’ll head into the heart of its Big Ten schedule on a high note.
- No. 22 North Carolina vs. Kentucky (Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on CBS) — This game is a new one on the schedule after the Wildcats had their game against UCLA in Cleveland flipped to North Carolina. Meanwhile, Ohio State will play UCLA instead. Can the Wildcats get back on track? We’ll find out in this big game!
- No. 20 Ohio State vs. UCLA (Saturday at 4:15 p.m. ET on ESPN) — As mentioned above, the Buckeyes had a rough start to B1G play. But, both of these teams are 5-1, so this should be a solid nonconference matchup in Cleveland.
See? That’s a loaded weekend schedule. Make sure you mix these games in with your football viewing schedule! You won’t regret it.
5. Buzzer beaters
Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here for the day:
In your opinion, who is the best coach in college basketball right now?
That’s a tough question. Obviously, there are legends like Coach K, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim and others. Then, there are guys like Bill Self, Tony Bennett and Jay Wright. Kentucky’s John Calipari is the best recruiter in the country, hands down. And he gets his guys to the NBA, which is important. Scott Drew does incredible work at Baylor. But, for right now, I’m going to keep it simple and go with the coach of the No. 1 team in the country — Mark Few at Gonzaga. He quietly has built a powerhouse in Spokane. That program is on the map because of him. So, while he doesn’t have a national title to his name like everyone else I’ve mentioned (other than Drew), I’m taking Few as the top coach in the game right now.
What’s your pick for best Christmas movie?
I love Christmas and a lot of the movies, but if I had to pick just 1, I’d go with “Elf.” I know, I’m basic, but it’s a great movie and I’m a Will Ferrell fan. While I do consider “Die Hard” both a great movie and a fit in the Christmas genre, it doesn’t get me in the Christmas spirit like “Elf” does, so that’s my answer.
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.