Starting 5: Arkansas stays red-hot, Kentucky nears .500 in SEC play and Ayo vs. Luka
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 Arkansas Razorbacks are one of the hottest teams in the SEC right now. They’ve won 7 straight conference games and have answered the questions about their NCAA Tournament resume this past week by beating a ranked Mizzou squad on the road and also taking down Florida.
What’s been the key to their success lately? Well, they’re a completely different team when Indiana transfer Justin Smith is on the floor. College basketball insider Jon Rothstein has the numbers:
Arkansas is 16-2 with Justin Smith in the lineup and 1-3 when he's been out. Can you say X-Factor? Grad transfer from Indiana has found a home in Fayetteville.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 18, 2021
Yeah, it’s safe to say Smith is the key to this Arkansas team. The Hogs are up to second place in the SEC thanks to Smith’s efforts recently. In a tight win over Florida on Tuesday night, Smith scored 15 points to go with 6 rebounds, 5 steals, 4 assists and 2 blocks. That’s doing it all.
But, obviously, Smith isn’t doing it alone. I’ve been aboard the Moses Moody-for-SEC Freshman of the Year train for a while now (and I still am), but let’s give some credit to fellow Arkansas freshman Devo Davis.
Davis scored a team-high 18 points against Florida and has been getting better as the year goes on. Moody had 14 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists in another great performance, but Davis has been the best freshman on the roster this past week.
Can he keep it going at Texas A&M on Saturday and in a huge showdown at home vs. Alabama on Wednesday? We’ll see what happens with the Hogs’ big SEC win streak and the 2 talented freshmen down the stretch.
As for now, they’re looking like world-beaters.
Next, let’s take a look at some other headlines from around the league.
2. Home-court advantage
Don’t look now, but the Kentucky Wildcats are 1 win away from being .500 in SEC play. Yes, they still sport an abysmal 7-13 overall record, but they’re 6-7 in SEC play after Wednesday night’s win over Vanderbilt.
Vandy’s Dylan Disu was the star of the game, scoring 29 points to go with a whopping 16 rebounds. But, as is too often the case with the Commodores, it wasn’t enough to win. He was getting to the rim at will, as you can see in this highlight reel:
Career-high 29 points, most rebounds by a Commodore (16) since 2016 and first Dore with 10+ boards in three straight games since 2017.
— Vanderbilt Men's Basketball (@VandyMBB) February 18, 2021
But, the Wildcats had the last laugh. Davion Mintz had a team-high 18 points for the Wildcats and hit this huge 3 to help ice the win:
This was a huge possession late after Vandy cut it to 3. It was all Davion Mintz. Not sure if he was waving off Keion Brooks or calling for the ball screen. Brooks leaves & Mintz buries the contested pull-up 3 late in the shot clock. @KentuckyRivals pic.twitter.com/wmkTkueRZT
— David Sisk (@CoachDavidSisk) February 18, 2021
Mintz has emerged as the team leader. If he can continue to hit big shots, Kentucky can continue to win. John Calipari needs to continue to draw up plays for the transfer guard to get him open. If he does that early against Tennessee on Saturday, the Wildcats could end up pulling off the big upset.
Now, let’s move on to some other SEC stories:
- Victor Bailey Jr. That’s it. That’s all I want to say. (I have to say more? OK, then.) Just when I was ragging on the Vols’ upperclassmen (Yves Pons, John Fulkerson and Bailey), they all scored in double figures in Wednesday’s 93-73 home win vs. South Carolina. Bailey led the way with 29 points, scoring early and often:
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 18, 2021
- Fulkerson added 19 points and 6 rebounds. Pons had 10 points, 9 rebounds, 2 steals, a block and an assist. That performance is the sort of performance that can get the Vols to the Final Four. Now, the question becomes — can they do that consistently?
- Is there a more frustrating team than Mizzou in SEC play lately? The Tigers have lost 3-straight games after rising to No. 10 in the AP Poll. The most-recent loss was at Georgia. Andrew Kauffman has the details of the Tigers’ second-half collapse:
#Mizzou was up 48-35 with 15:36 to go in the game. Georgia ended up outscoring MU 45-22 the rest of the way.
— Andrew Kauffman (@AndrewABC17) February 17, 2021
- Justin Kier made plenty of big shots for the Dawgs in the game, scoring a team-high 16 points. Even his ridiculous heat-check shots were going in:
Terza sconfitta consecutiva per Missouri: Georgia s'impone per 80-70
Cinque giocatori in doppia cifra per i Bulldogs: Justin Kier (16 punti), Toumani Camara (15), Andrew Garcia (13 in 16'), Sahvir Wheeler (12), K.D. Johnson (10)pic.twitter.com/ZF2KT46k9q
— Basketball NCAA (@BallNcaa) February 17, 2021
- The Dawgs are still clinging to life in the NCAA Tournament race. But, their schedule down the stretch does them no favors, as they still have to play Florida, LSU and South Carolina to close out the season. We’ll see what happens!
- Sadly, we didn’t have our full slate of games this week. Alabama-Texas A&M, LSU-Ole Miss and Auburn-Mississippi State were all postponed. This late in the season, we’ll see if the games are able to be made up or not. Alabama probably wouldn’t mind not having to go play the Aggies in a game that would do them no good in the eyes of the Selection Committee win or lose. We’ll see what happens!
Now, let’s take a look around the rest of the country.
3. Road trip
Would you be surprised if I told you I wanted to lead this section by talking about Ayo Dosunmu again? Probably not, if you’re a frequent reader of this column.
But, I can’t help it. He was at it again this week against Northwestern. Yes, he only scored 13 points in Illinois’ less-than-comfortable 73-66 win against the reeling Wildcats. But, he scored 6 clutch points down the stretch.
The second of his 2 game-icing 3-pointers was truly something to behold. Look how confident he was taking this shot from near the half-court logo:
AYO DOSUNMU IS THE BEST CLOSER IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL 🗣🗣🗣
— #5 Fighting Illini (Fan Nation) (@TheIlliniFN) February 17, 2021
Dosunmu is one of the only players who can take and make that shot in that situation. Nothing fazes him. He’s the National Player of the Year, in my opinion.
The clutch gene has always been there, too. Look at this highlight video of big shots Dosunmu has made in his Illinois career:
Ayo Dosunmu: The Closer
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) February 17, 2021
The Illini will go as far as Dosunmu can carry them in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. Fortunately for them, he has the capability to carry them to championships.
Now, let’s look around the rest of the country:
- Luka Garza isn’t giving up his Player of the Year award easily, though. He scored 30 points and had 8 rebounds in Iowa’s 77-62 win over Wisconsin on Thursday night. He was getting to the rim:
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) February 19, 2021
- And also knocking down some impressive long-range shots:
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) February 19, 2021
- The Hawkeyes now have 6 wins over ranked teams — the most ranked wins in the country. And, their final stretch of the season is brutal, too. They still have games at No. 4 Ohio State, at No. 3 Michigan and vs. No. 21 Wisconsin remaining on the schedule. We’ll learn a lot about Garza and the Hawkeyes in that stretch.
- Another guy who isn’t going away in the Player of the Year discussion is Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert. He’s a pure scorer who can put up points from anywhere on the court. He scored 20 points in Gonzaga’s rout of rival Saint Mary’s on Thursday night. He can shoot the 3 at a high percentage, but he’s just as comfortable taking it strong to the hole:
— Gonzaga Basketball (@ZagMBB) February 19, 2021
- The Bulldogs continue to impress, and Kispert is a big reason why. This looks like a team that will be undefeated well into the NCAA Tournament. Is this the year Mark Few snags his first national championship?
Next up, let’s take a look at the weekend’s slate of college basketball action.
4. Outlet pass
There are a couple of huge games in the Big Ten this weekend, and some intriguing matchups in the Big 12 and SEC, as well. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to see over the busy weekend of college hoops action:
- No. 3 Michigan at No. 4 Ohio State (Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on CBS) — This is a huge game for both programs. At 10-1 in Big Ten play, Michigan can take a stranglehold lead in the race for the B1G regular-season title. Ohio State is in third place with an 12-4 conference mark, half a game behind second-place Illinois (11-3). Major stakes will be on the line in this big-time rivalry game.
- No. 13 West Virginia at No. 12 Texas (Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on ABC) — Both of these teams are 7-4 in Big 12 play. The winner will stay in the race for the No. 2 seed in the Big 12 Tournament behind Baylor. The loser will be in a major jumble with teams like Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. If last weekend’s Oklahoma-West Virginia game was any indication, this should be a fierce battle.
- No. 5 Illinois at Minnesota (Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX) — The Golden Gophers are a completely different team at home. They’re 13-1 on their home court, with wins over Iowa, Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan (Michigan’s only Big Ten loss so far). The Illini might be the No. 5 team in the country, but this game won’t be easy. The Gophers are giant killers at home.
- No. 15 Texas Tech at No. 23 Kansas (Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN) — As mentioned above with the West Virginia-Texas game, these 2 teams are very much alive in the race for the No. 2 spot in the Big 12. If the Red Raiders can win in Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas should once again fall out of the top 25.
- Kentucky at No. 19 Tennessee (Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on CBS) — Which Tennessee team will show up? If it’s the team that scored 93 points against South Carolina on Wednesday night, the Vols will dominate Kentucky. If it’s the team that scored 50 points in a loss at Ole Miss a couple of weeks ago, the Wildcats can pull off this upset. It’ll be an entertaining Saturday afternoon showdown.
Things are only going to continue to heat up as the regular season winds down. Let’s see which teams are up to the challenge this weekend!
5. Buzzer beaters
Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here for the day:
Which blueblood team has been the most disappointing this year?
There are plenty of contenders, that’s for sure. Duke is 9-8 overall. Kentucky is 7-13 (but 6-7 in SEC play). But, for my money, the answer is Michigan State. The Spartans are 10-9 overall, but are only 4-9 in Big Ten play. That’s tied for 12th with Penn State. Yikes. This comes after 3 years in a row where the Spartans won at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season title. They miss Cassius Winston really bad. Until this team finds a new point guard, the struggles will continue.
Michael Scott and DeAngelo Vickers — both managed Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch, both enjoy basketball. Who do you have winning a 1v1 matchup?
Well, Will Ferrell (who plays DeAngelo) is 6-3 and Steve Carell (who plays Michael) is 5-9, so DeAngelo has the edge there. If we’re assuming this game takes place before DeAngelo’s dunk-related injury, I think he wins. Michael would have to take a lot of 3s, but he didn’t show he was capable of making anything from long-range. In fact, he shot a free throw over the backboard. Give me DeAngelo in a blowout.
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.