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 Gonzaga Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in the country. They’ve picked up some impressive wins while going 15-0 thus far, including taking down Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia.

But, now the Zags are in the West Coast Conference portion of their schedule. Yes, they’re still an elite team, but it’s hard to stay focused on them when they’re beating Pacific 95-49, trouncing Saint Mary’s 73-59 and roughing up Pepperdine 95-70.

Meanwhile, the Baylor Bears are at No. 2 in the AP Poll. The Bears are 14-0 with wins over Illinois, Texas Tech, Kansas, Oklahoma State and others. Sadly, we were robbed of a chance to see Gonzaga and Baylor square off earlier this year due to COVID-19 issues.

Let’s start with the team leader — Jared Butler. He’s every bit as good as any Gonzaga player (which is saying something, since the Bulldogs are full of superstars). He’s averaging 17.1 points per game and has been electric lately:

Butler is 1 of 4 Baylor players averaging double-digit points. MaCio Teague (14.8), Davion Mitchell (11.5) and Adam Flagler (10.1) are the others. That’s a lethal combination of 4 guards. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Mark Vital form one of the top defensive tandems in college basketball.

How efficient is the offense? Well, this is a pretty great sign:

Speaking of offensive efficiency, KenPom.com has the Bears at No. 3 in adjusted offense, behind No. 1 Iowa and No. 2 Gonzaga. But, the Bears rank No. 1 in adjusted offense, ahead of Gonzaga (No. 12) and Iowa (No. 98). Still, the Bears are No. 2 in the KenPom rankings, which seems strange to me.

Should the Bears be No. 1? There’s certainly a case to be made. But, I suspect Butler and his teammates don’t much care what the rankings say as long as they keep winning.

My verdict? It’s fine to keep Gonzaga at No. 1 for now, but if the Bears win at No. 5 Texas on Feb. 2, it’s time to make the switch. The Bears would have, in my opinion, a more impressive resume at that point. I don’t like faulting Gonzaga for playing in the WCC, but there are no other NCAA Tournament-worthy teams in that league. Baylor still has several ranked teams left on its schedule.

Either way you slice it, though, those are, by far, the 2 best teams in the country. Now, let’s dive into some SEC news.

2. Home-court advantage

It’s a shame the NCAA robbed Auburn freshman PG Sharife Cooper of so many games during an unnecessarily long investigation into his eligibility status. If Cooper had been able to take the court for the Tigers all year, it’s quite possible he’d be one of the frontrunners for the SEC Player of the Year award.

I know I love to talk about Cooper, but I’m not trying to say he’s perfect. He still isn’t firing on all cylinders from 3-point range and he still commits a few too many turnovers, but for a guy who has the ball in his hands as much as he does, he’s been simply incredible.

He impacts the game in so many ways, as he showed in Auburn’s 109-86 win at South Carolina on Saturday. It was the most points the Tigers had ever scored in an SEC road game, and Cooper was at the heart of it all.

He finished with 16 points, which is below his season average, but he had 12 assists, 6 rebounds and even 2 blocks. His passing continues to impress me. I think this was the play of the game against the Gamecocks:

Allen Flanigan (who finished with a team-high 24 points) couldn’t see that the lane was open. Cooper saw it and used his pass to bring Flanigan into the empty space. That led to an easy bucket.

On this play, Cooper gets himself into perfect position for a chase-down block, timing his jump perfectly:

You can’t coach instincts like that. Finally, you also can’t coach shot-making ability like this. Look at how Cooper creates space for himself with this devastating step-back 3:

The Tigers are simply a different team when he’s on the court. This week, we’ll get to see how he fares against some of the toughest opponents he’ll play all year — No. 12 Mizzou on Tuesday night and No. 2 Baylor on Saturday. Expect Cooper to keep the Tigers in both games!

Now, let’s look around the rest of the SEC:

  • Entering Saturday’s game at Tennessee, the Missouri Tigers were 3-0 in SEC play when big man Jeremiah Tilmon recorded a double-double and 0-2 when he didn’t. Well, the Vols game-planned for that, taking Tilmon out of his rhythm (9 points, 5 rebounds). But, that just left more room for Xavier Pinson to thrive. He scored a season-high 27 points, dominating the Vols all night long:

  • I predicted before the season that Pinson would be Mizzou’s breakout player. However, Tilmon has filled that role for the Tigers thus far. If Pinson can keep playing like this, though, he’ll rise up NBA Draft boards in a hurry.
  • The Gators were awful a couple of weeks ago, losing a road game against Mississippi State. Just when it seems coach Mike White is on the verge of getting fired, though, the Gators play their best basketball. After mopping the floor with Tennessee in the middle of last week, the Gators continued their hot streak with a win over Georgia. Tre Mann showed what made him such an intriguing prospect coming out of high school. He finished with 24 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists:

  • Interestingly, it’s Florida, not sharpshooting Alabama, that leads the SEC in 3-point percentage. The Gators have knocked down 37.2% of their 3s this year, compared to 36.2% for the Tide. However, the Tide have made 179 3s this year, compared to 84 for the Gators. Maybe Florida should fire way from long range more often? Speaking of the Tide …
  • Alabama continues to roll. The Tide got a tough test from Mississippi State on Saturday, but escaped with an 81-73 win. John Petty Jr. sealed the win with (what else?) a 3:

  • The star of the game was Herb Jones, though. I still think he’s the SEC Player of the Year. He scored 17 points and had 7 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 blocks. That’s an insane stat line. Oh, and he threw down this impressive transition dunk:

  • What a player he’s become. The more he continues to play like that, the more the Tide will win.
  • Making Brandon Boston Jr. come off the bench a couple of weeks ago seems to have sent a strong message to the Kentucky freshman. He’s been much better ever since rejoining the starting lineup. In an 82-69 home win over LSU on Saturday, Boston scored 18 points. He still does too many silly things (like flip shots and scoop shots in the lane), but when he gets to the basket like this, he’s a great scorer:

  • He’s finally learning what he needs to do to be successful in college, and that makes Kentucky a dangerous team moving forward.
  • Moses Moody. What else can I say? The Arkansas freshman is my current pick for SEC Freshman of the Year. He continues to do it all as a leader for the Razorbacks. In a win at Vanderbilt on Saturday, he showed just how versatile he is:

  • He finished with 26 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists. He needs to start getting more 2021 NBA Draft lottery buzz.

Next up, let’s look elsewhere around the college basketball landscape.

3. Road trip

The Kansas Jayhawks are in one of their worst slumps of the Bill Self era. They’ve lost 3-straight games for the first time since the 2012-13 season. They’re now 10-5 overall. With 5 losses, you’d think Kansas would be out of the AP Poll, right?

Wrong. On Monday, the Jayhawks checked in at No. 15 in the poll. They’re 1 of 3 teams with 5 losses in the poll. The other 2 are Illinois (No. 19) and Minnesota (No. 21).

Yes, 3 of Kansas’s losses were to Gonzaga, Baylor and Texas. All of those teams are in the mix for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. However, losses at unranked Oklahoma State and Oklahoma were less ideal for Self’s squad.

Saturday’s loss at Oklahoma wasn’t even that bad, based on the numbers. The Jayhawks had decent shooting numbers and only turned it over 11 times (the same as the Sooners). But, the big problem came on the glass. The Jayhawks were out-rebounded 36-26. Marcus Garrett was the only Jayhawk who crashed the boards, recording a 21-point, 12-rebound double-double. No one else on the team had more than 3 rebounds. That’s an issue.

Defensively, the Jayhawks had no answer for De’Vion Harmon. Harmon started hot, scoring 8 points within a minute to get the offense going for the Sooners:

He finished with a game-high 22 points. After the win, the Sooners are now in the AP Poll at No. 24. They’re 9-4 overall and, at 5-3 in Big 12 play, they’re ahead of the 4-4 Jayhawks in the Big 12 standings. That’s a bit surprising. But, for some reason, they’re still behind the Jayhawks in the AP Poll.

Back during the 2012-13 season when the Jayhawks lost 3 games in a row, they went on to win the Big 12 Tournament. This year’s team will have a tougher battle if it wants to win the tourney title.

Now, let’s take a look at some other top stories from around the country:

  • Is there a bigger whiner when things don’t go his way than Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski? No one likes losing, but there’s a thing called being a gracious loser, and Coach K just ignores it. His latest questionable decision after a loss? Calling out a student reporter for an innocent question after the Blue Devils fell to 5-5 overall (3-3 in ACC play) following Saturday’s loss at Louisville:

  • Coach K called the student journalist to apologize at some point after the clip of his snobby answer went viral (and the reporter, Jake Piazza, even turned the exchange into a column), but those apologies wouldn’t be necessary if he handled losing a little better. Coach K makes more than $7 million per season (second only to Kentucky’s John Calipari) to be the face of the Duke program. He needs to do better.
  • I started the column making a case for Baylor to be No. 1. As I explained, that’s no slight at Gonzaga, as the Bulldogs continue to make mincemeat of their WCC opponents. I’ve got another great Jalen Suggs pass to send your way:

  • That’s just an insane play to make while falling out of bounds. Drew Timme also deserves some credit for a nifty behind-the-back pass to an open Corey Kispert for the easy basket. Even though they’re blowing WCC teams out every time they step on the court, they’re still entertaining to watch for plays like that.
  • Now, we head to the Big Ten, where the top teams continue to beat up on each other. The latest victim? Wisconsin. The Badgers lost a 74-62 decision to then-No. 15 Ohio State. EJ Liddell simply out-muscled the Badgers in the paint, scoring a game-high 20 points and grabbing 7 rebounds. He finished this and-one with authority:

  • Both the Buckeyes and Badgers are 12-4 overall. Ohio State is 6-4 in B1G play and Wisconsin is 6-3. It’s that kind of year in the Big Ten. It’s going to be tough to sort all this out come NCAA Tournament time.
  • UCLA was a perfect 8-0 in Pac-12 play entering Saturday’s game against Stanford in Santa Cruz. It looked like the Bruins were going to hold on for a 72-71 overtime win over the Cardinal, but Oscar da Silva had other plans. With only .8 seconds left, UCLA’s defense broke down, giving up this buzzer-beating layup:

  • It is unforgivable that da Silva was that open. You absolutely cannot allow a layup with .8 seconds left. If it was a jump shot off the inbounds play, there’s a chance the shot doesn’t get off on time. Instead, the Bruins cost themselves a chance at a 9-0 Pac-12 record. Brutal.
  • Monday night’s game between No. 10 Texas Tech and No. 11 West Virginia in Morgantown turned into the Mac McClung vs. Miles McBride show. McClung led all scorers with 30 points, but McBride got the last laugh, hitting this insanely difficult shot with 6 seconds left:

  • McClung got the ball back and took the final shot, but just missed. These 2 teams both look primed for deep NCAA Tournament runs, and McBride and McClung are 2 huge reasons why.

Now, let’s take a look at the week ahead in the world of college hoops.

4. Outlet pass

As we hit the middle of the conference season, there are some big games on the schedule. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch between now and Friday:

  1. No. 12 Mizzou at Auburn (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — As a Mizzou grad, this game makes me really nervous. This is exactly the kind of game Mizzou tends to lose. Auburn star freshman Sharife Cooper is a problem. JT Thor is a matchup nightmare. And, you can’t let Allen Flanigan get hot. Cuonzo Martin’s squad will have its hands full on The Plains.
  2. No. 24 Oklahoma at No. 5 Texas (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — I’m not sure if Oklahoma is ranked because it’s a good team or if the rest of college basketball is struggling, but the Sooners do have home wins over ranked West Virginia and Kansas squads (though everyone is beating the Jayhawks right now). This rivalry game will be an intense one, so we’ll see if the Longhorns can stay red-hot.
  3. Kentucky at No. 9 Alabama (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) — Kentucky just beat up on a tough LSU squad. Alabama is 8-0 in SEC play, but this looms large as a difficult matchup. The Wildcats have plenty of length and athleticism on defense. Can they affect Alabama’s elite 3-point shooters?
  4. No. 3 Villanova at UConn (Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on FS1) — Villanova has had some issues staying on the court due to COVID-19. The Wildcats are 2-0 since returning to the action, though. Meanwhile, UConn is putting together a strong season. This won’t be easy for the Wildcats if they want to stay atop the Big East standings.
  5. No. 17 Creighton at Seton Hall (Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on FS1) — This is another important Big East showdown. Creighton is second in the conference with a 7-3 record. Seton Hall is right behind at 6-3. The winner of this game will stay within striking distance of Villanova. The loser will have some work to do to catch up.

Plenty of intriguing matchups on the schedule! Let’s see which teams can continue to build their NCAA Tournament resumes and which take steps back.

5. Buzzer beaters

Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here for the day:

With the conference seasons almost half over for most teams, who are your 4 No. 1 seeds for the NCAA Tournament as things stand now?

Let’s start with the obvious ones — Gonzaga and Baylor. They’re both No. 1 seeds, and it’s not even close. Then, as things stand in the AP Poll at the moment, No. 3 Villanova and No. 4 Michigan would be in line for the other 2 top seeds. However, I don’t think Villanova has played enough games at this point to truly earn a No. 1 seed. Michigan is third on my list and I’d give the final top spot to Texas at this point. Though, I still have Houston, Iowa, Alabama, Virginia and Villanova (after it plays more games) in contention. It’ll be interesting to see what happens down the stretch.

There have been college basketball games in football stadiums, on an aircraft carrier and other unique places. Where is a unique spot you’d like to see a game played?

It would never happen, because the courts are asphalt and not hardwood, but I’d love to see a game played at Rucker Park in New York City. That iconic court has been home to some of the best basketball players ever to play the game. It would be really cool to see St. John’s and a team like Fordham square off at Rucker Park in an exhibition or something. It would probably end up being a pretty painful game for the players, though. Lots of elbow and knee scrapes.

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.