Starting 5: Baylor looks like title contender vs. Illinois, Mizzou takes down Oregon and Michigan State’s road dominance
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 Baylor Bears opened the season as the No. 2 team in the AP Poll. On Wednesday night in Indianapolis, they faced off against No. 5 Illinois in one of the best matchups of this young season so far.
I picked those 2 teams as part of my preseason Final Four projections (along with Gonzaga and Kentucky) and the Bears didn’t disappoint. They used a big second half to cruise to an 82-69 victory over the overmatched Illini. And that’s not even meant as a slight at Illinois, who I still think is 1 of the 4 best teams in the country.
That’s just how good the Bears are under coach Scott Drew this year. It should come as no surprise, as Baylor almost certainly would have been a 1 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament if it hadn’t been canceled.
So, how did they beat a team as good as Illinois? Well, they effectively eliminated big man Kofi Cockburn from the game. Cockburn was targeted by the Bears in the pick-and-roll game and that caused him to get in foul trouble early in both halves. He finished the game with only 7 points and 4 rebounds.
Davion Mitchell and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua run the pick-and-roll like pros. Look at how early Mitchell has these lobs out of his hands:
2 Baylor lobs off the same empty ball screen set in the 2nd half tonight pic.twitter.com/2fbnrRCcFg
— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) December 3, 2020
That’s the result of hours of work and the trust that can only be built through repetition. Speaking of Mitchell, it was a big night for him, in general. He scored 15 points and had 7 assists, making 4 of his 5 3-point attempts:
6’2 PG Davion Mitchell showcased his versatility on both ends of the floor in last night’s win v. Illinois.
Hit 3’s off-the-dribble & off savvy re-location, had some great finds in the PnR & as always, was locked in defensively.
— LEAGUE HIM. (@LEAGUEHIM_) December 3, 2020
Mitchell playing like that, Tchamwa Tchatchoua finishing with 9 points and 9 rebounds and Adam Flagler scoring a team-high 18 points is a great sign for the Bears, as those 3 guys aren’t even the big stars you think of when you think of Baylor.
MaCio Teague (11 points), Jared Butler (12 points) and Mark Vital (6 points) didn’t have their best nights, but it didn’t matter, as the Bears are so balanced they can beat you with any combination of guys playing well.
Baylor’s defense also bothered Illinois’ top scorers all game. Ayo Dosunmu finished with 18 points, but he only made 6 of his 18 shot attempts. Freshman sensation Adam Miller got his first dose of how tough the college game can be, scoring only 4 points on 2-for-11 shooting (0-for-6 from deep).
This will be a learning experience for the Illini, who are still a top-10 team in the country, in my opinion. But, Baylor showed it is a top-2 team, no questions asked. Interestingly enough, the Bears will face No. 1 Gonzaga in Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon in a game that might be a national championship preview. But, more on that game later.
For now, let’s head to the SEC and take a look at some of the top stories.
2. Home-court advantage
In a year with so many COVID-related disruptions, it isn’t only games that are being impacted. Teams are having trouble getting enough practices in to implement offensive systems and build team chemistry. Thus, teams that return talent this year are going to have a bit of an advantage. That’s why it’s no surprise Gonzaga, Baylor, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and others are atop the rankings.
The Missouri Tigers also fall into that category, as they return nearly every key contributor from last year. No, the Tigers didn’t dominate the SEC last year, finishing with a disappointing 15-16 overall record and a 7-11 conference mark.
However, the Tigers are off to a strong start this season. On Wednesday night, Mizzou went to Omaha to take on the No. 21 Oregon Ducks, who were playing in their first game of the season. The Tigers hit 6 3-pointers in the first half to take a halftime lead.
From then on, it was the Xavier Pinson show. He scored 19 of his team-high 22 points in the second half. He’s all over this second-half highlight reel:
Inizia male la stagione di Oregon: Missouri cala l'upset, 83-75
Xavier Pinson guida i Tigers con 19 punti nella ripresa (alla fine per lui 22 punti con 5/11 al tiro e 9/10 ai liberi)
Ai Ducks non basta l'impressionante losing effort di Eugene Omoruyi (31 punti e 11 rimbalzi) pic.twitter.com/WCv8ZTqNZ6
— Basketball NCAA (@BallNcaa) December 3, 2020
Pinson is the Tiger most likely to make a jump toward stardom this season, and he’s showing that through the first 2 games. Combine him with Mark Smith’s knock-down shooting, Dru Smith’s distribution and Jeremiah Tilmon’s improved post presence, and the Tigers have the ability to surprise more teams this year.
The Oregon win is a great one for Mizzou’s resume, but there will be plenty more victories to come if Pinson plays like that.
Now, let’s take a look at more stories around the SEC:
- I’ve preached patience with this year’s Kentucky team, and I’m sticking with the Wildcats even after a loss to Kansas on Tuesday night. The 65-62 loss was much better than last week’s loss to Richmond, so it was a step in the right direction. Losing to a team like Kansas is never a horrible thing. Freshman big man Isaiah Jackson had an incredible stat line: 7 points, 12 rebounds and 8 blocks. Yes, 8 blocks! Here are just a few:
More Isaiah Jackson blocks. pic.twitter.com/fwb7POFjRM
— Will Smith (@ddiop) December 2, 2020
7th block for Isaiah Jackson pic.twitter.com/ru2b1gDlUC
— Will Smith (@ddiop) December 2, 2020
Isaiah Jackson's 8th block. pic.twitter.com/xe1PMi8N0Q
— Will Smith (@ddiop) December 2, 2020
- This Kentucky team can certainly play defense. Three-point shooting, on the other hand, continues to be a problem. The Wildcats only made 3 of their 21 (14.3%) long-range attempts. Yikes. That needs to change in a hurry or the Wildcats are going to suffer a few more losses, particularly to teams that can actually make 3s (Kansas only hit 5 of its 21 3-pointers).
- Get to know the name Sahvir Wheeler now. The Georgia Bulldogs might not have Anthony Edwards this year, but Wheeler looks ready to become the team leader. He had a 12-point, 12-assist double-double in the first game of the season and followed it up with a second double-double (17 points and 10 assists). No, the Dawgs haven’t been playing the best opponents thus far, but this is a positive sign, and Georgia will take positive signs where it can get them.
- Alabama was blown out by Stanford in the first round of the Maui Invitational, but bounced back in a huge way against UNLV and Providence to end the tournament on a high note. It appears as though the Tide will go as John Petty Jr. goes this year. He scored 7 points against Stanford, then bounced back with 22 against UNLV and 16 against Providence, leading the Tide in each game. He’s a streaky shooter at times, but when he’s hot, Alabama is tough to beat.
Next, let’s take a look at the headlines from around the rest of the college basketball landscape.
3. Road trip
Texas might actually be back. No, not on the gridiron, as the Longhorns might be heading toward a coaching change this offseason.
On the basketball court, though, the Longhorns are champions. Coach Shaka Smart’s squad won the Maui Invitational in incredible fashion, thanks to Matt Coleman III:
Matt Coleman. ONIONS. pic.twitter.com/bUWgyUAW8u
— Kyle Boone (@Kyle__Boone) December 2, 2020
He scored 22 points in the game, so he was consistently making an impact, not just at the last second. Still, that shot is one for the ages in the Maui Invitational lore. The tournament may have taken place in Asheville, North Carolina, this year, but the Longhorns head back to Austin with the Maui bump.
But, unlike previous Maui champions who have had their place in the AP Poll rise after winning the title, Texas faces another tough test before next week’s poll. Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats come to Austin on Sunday.
If Texas wins that game against the No. 12 Wildcats, it’ll be time to start talking about the Longhorns as the top challenger to Baylor in the Big 12.
There’s still a long way to go before we get to that point. For now, though, let’s take a look around the rest of the college basketball world:
- If you were watching No. 1 Gonzaga against No. 11 West Virginia on Wednesday night, you saw sensational freshman Jalen Suggs go down with a scary injury. It looked like it might have involved his Achilles, as he was in a ton of pain:
Jalen Suggs non-contact injury, doesn’t look good pic.twitter.com/aDmKfeyYgi
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) December 3, 2020
- Suggs improbably came back for the second half, which was incredible to see. But, he wasn’t quite the same dynamic player he’s shown he can be. Fortunately, Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard scored 19 points and had 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals:
#CollegeBasketball #NCABB #WVUvsGonzaga #NBADraft
• #1 Gonzaga v #11 West Virginia
• Lottery Prospect Jalen Suggs with leg injury (returns)
• Andrew Nembhard: 19 Pts – 6 Ast
• Final= (87) Gonzaga v (82) WVU pic.twitter.com/wv09h8lC0V
— Lock It or Leave It (@EverythingH00PZ) December 3, 2020
- It’s almost not fair how deep the Bulldogs are. Saturday’s game against No. 2 Baylor is going to be so much fun to watch.
- If you’re a college basketball fan, there’s a great chance you’ve heard of referee Teddy Valentine. He’s earned the nickname “TV Teddy” because he frequently inserts himself into the narrative during big, televised games. Well, he was at it again this week when Stanford played North Carolina, calling Stanford freshman Ziaire Williams for a technical foul when all he seemed to do was hang on the rim for a split second longer to protect his knee. FOX’s Mark Titus broke down what he saw on Twitter:
In first half Teddy was chumming it up with Ziaire right in front of @tatefrazier and I during a dead ball. ZW was laughing along as TV asked him about his leg brace
We joked that you could tell ZW was a freshman and had no idea what was coming. And then this happened lmao https://t.co/kdLL1bM06h
— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) December 1, 2020
- That’s TV Teddy to a T. The guy can’t help himself. When he’s on a primetime, nationally televised game, he’s going to make a call that makes you scratch your head. It has been years of this same story, and the NCAA hasn’t done anything about it, so you can bet he’ll continue to make awful calls for years to come.
- Let’s get this out of the way right now — Duke is overrated at No. 6. The Blue Devils have no business being that high in the poll at this point in the season. Therefore, it was only somewhat of a surprise to see No. 8 Michigan State roll into Cameron Indoor Stadium on Tuesday night and escape with a 75-69 win. The Spartans have a star in the making in Rocket Watts, who had a team-high 20 points:
— Frankie Vision (@Frankie_Vision) December 2, 2020
- But, it’s not just Watts. Marquette transfer Joey Hauser had an 11-point, 10-rebound double-double. Aaron Henry had 14 points. Malik Hall had a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double off the bench. Julius Marble II had 12 points in only 12 minutes off the bench. I’ve already mentioned Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin being top B1G squads. The Spartans absolutely belong in that conversation. The B1G race is going to be incredible this season.
Next up, let’s take a look at the top games coming up between now and the next Starting 5 column on Tuesday.
4. Outlet pass
There aren’t many great games on TV over the weekend, but instead of quantity, we have a lot of quality. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to see between now and Tuesday:
- No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 2 Baylor (Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on CBS) — This is a potential Final Four or national championship preview. These 2 teams have been the top teams in the country this year, bar none. Will Gonzaga’s dynamic offense or Baylor’s stingy defense win out?
- No. 12 Villanova at No. 17 Texas (Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN) — Texas is fresh off a last-second victory in the Maui Invitational title game. The Wildcats suffered a tough loss to Virginia Tech earlier this season, but are still a top team in the country. Can the Longhorns keep their hot start going?
- No. 4 Wisconsin at Marquette (Friday at 7 p.m. ET on FS1) — Wisconsin is the top-ranked team in the Big Ten, and many think the Badgers have what it takes to claim the conference crown. First, though, a trip to play an in-state rival looms large.
- Mizzou at Wichita State (Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — I put the Mizzou-Oregon game on the list in Tuesday’s column, and the Tigers responded with a big win over a ranked squad in Omaha. Can Mizzou’s experienced roster pick up another win away from Columbia against a solid program that is going through a coaching change? If the Tigers win this one, buzz will skyrocket around Cuonzo Martin’s program.
- Xavier at Cincinnati (Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN) — The Musketeers and Bearcats have one of the most intense rivalries in college basketball. This game is always fun, no matter the records. But the records are good this year, too, as Xavier is 5-0 and Cincinnati is 1-0.
See? Some must-see matchups in that bunch. Make sure you don’t get too caught up in college football on Saturday, because that Gonzaga-Baylor game is going to be incredible!
5. Buzzer beaters
Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here for the day.
Which team not currently ranked in the AP Poll has the best chance to be in the top 10 by the end of the season?
Well, I wish I’d been asked this next week, when Kentucky is likely out of the poll. I’ll go with 2 teams here — Michigan and Alabama. Michigan has the potential to surprise some teams in the Big Ten. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wolverines were right there with Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan State at season’s end. Meanwhile, Alabama suffered a tough loss to Stanford at the Maui Invitational, but if this team is able to go on a long stretch of hot shooting, a rapid rise in the poll is a possibility.
On your Christmas tree, do you prefer multicolor or white lights?
I’m a big fan of the multicolor lights, but my wife likes the all-white lights. Fortunately, I’m in charge of Christmas in our house, so our tree is multicolor. (Don’t worry, she gladly gave me Christmas so she can be in charge of Thanksgiving. Fair trade, in my opinion.) And, yes, our Christmas tree has been up since the day after Thanksgiving.
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.