Starting 5: Can anyone stop Gonzaga? Rutgers dominates, Alabama’s problems and Tennessee’s explosion
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, and they look unstoppable. Coach Mark Few has never been one to shy away from a challenge, so the Bulldogs’ 5-0 record is absolutely legitimate. Four of their 5 wins have come against West Virginia, Auburn, Kansas and Iowa.
And they haven’t just been winning against those top teams, they’ve dominated. They only beat West Virginia by 5, but they took down Kansas by 12, Auburn by 23 and Iowa by 11. Even after losing last year’s leading scorer Filip Petrusev to pro ball abroad and key contributors like Admon Gilder, Ryan Woolridge and Killian Tillie, the Bulldogs have reloaded.
One of the biggest keys to their success is 5-star freshman G Jalen Suggs. He’s been incredible this year. In the Bulldogs’ 99-88 win over then-No. 3 Iowa in South Dakota, Suggs was magnificent. He scored 27 points, grabbed 7 rebounds and also had 4 assists, 3 steals and a block:
Some clips from Jalen Suggs performance against Iowa on Saturday. Suggs ended with 27/7/4/3/1 w/ 7 3PM, displaying his improved movement shooting, vision and defensive instincts/versatility. Don’t anticipate much movement in my Top 2 in this class. pic.twitter.com/Xi0j0IXsf3
— HoopsWill (@HoopsWill) December 21, 2020
He has NBA shooting range (7-for-10 from beyond the arc against Iowa) and isn’t afraid to launch a shot when he gets a sliver of space:
Good to see Jalen Suggs establishing himself as a legit elite shooting prospect, this kind of quick trigger and range on his pull-ups is big: pic.twitter.com/msO9KQt57Z
— Ben Pfeifer (@Ben_Pfeifer_) December 22, 2020
Also, Joel Ayayi is a spacing master. No one cuts to the basket better than him:
This is why cutting is just so important for all basketball players.
Iowa is on a large run and the clock was winding down, but Joel Ayayi makes such a perfect cut to make it a somewhat easy pass for Aaron Cook. pic.twitter.com/cizujQ4dAA
— Aram Cannuscio (@AC__Hoops) December 19, 2020
He had 11 points, a whopping 18 rebounds and 6 assists against Iowa. He’s the type of unselfish player that makes the whole Gonzaga system work. Gonzaga is full of them.
Can anyone slow down the Bulldogs’ offense? Gonzaga has the No. 2 offense in the nation, per KenPom.com (behind Iowa, interestingly enough). The Bulldogs are scheduled to play No. 16 Virginia the day after Christmas. That might be the last real test they face during the regular season. Should be fun!
Now, let’s head to the SEC and discuss some top storylines in the conference.
2. Home-court advantage
In my opinion, Kentucky is the most-disappointing SEC team thus far. But, Alabama is quickly catching up. So, we’ll discuss the Wildcats in a minute. First, I want to talk about the Crimson Tide, who are fresh off a 73-71 loss to Western Kentucky.
The biggest problem in that game was Alabama’s lack of size and depth in the post. No one could stop WKU big man Charles Bassey, who finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds, showing why he’s a legit NBA prospect. He puts so much pressure on defenses with his ability to run the floor:
— WKU Hilltopper Basketball (@WKUBasketball) December 19, 2020
But, this was also about Alabama’s offense. Or, lack thereof, rather. Jahvon Quinerly, out of the starting lineup for defensive reasons, managed to commit 6 turnovers in 21 minutes off the bench. Meanwhile, outside of Herb Jones, this offense just can’t hit shots. John Petty Jr. and Jaden Shackelford combined for 21 points, but they did so on a dismal 5-for-19 shooting, including 3-for-12 from 3-point range.
When those guys aren’t clicking, Alabama isn’t going to win many games. Unfortunately for coach Nate Oats, they haven’t been able to get going this year. Petty’s shooting has been wildly inconsistent, while Shackelford is experiencing a rough sophomore slump.
This team is still going to be dangerous in SEC play because it can shoot the lights out on any given night, but until it happens more consistently, the Tide won’t be a top-5 SEC team.
Speaking of inconsistent squads, let’s discuss Kentucky next:
- The Kentucky Wildcats are 1-5 and off to their worst start since 1926-27 after a loss to North Carolina over the weekend. The Wildcats actually showed some of the promise that makes them such a frustrating team to watch, leading the Tar Heels 38-34 at halftime. But, late in the game, the wheels fell off. After leading 48-42 with 13 minutes left, Kentucky collapsed. From that point, North Carolina outscored the Wildcats 33-15 as Kentucky lost the game 75-63. The story is the same — bad shooting and turnovers. The Wildcats went 3-for-13 from 3-point range and had 16 turnovers. There are too many bad misses like this:
Shooting continues to be an Achilles Heel for Kentucky. They had plenty of open looks Saturday that were missed. B.J. Boston has a look but also has Jackson for a dunk on the dump down. Roy Williams took a page out of the Rick Barnes playbook by denying the post reversal. pic.twitter.com/RUa1oGpYnJ
— David Sisk (@CoachDavidSisk) December 21, 2020
- At least Davion Mintz had a good game, scoring 17 points and grabbing 8 rebounds. He also made all 3 of the Wildcats’ 3-pointers. He is developing into a team leader, which Kentucky desperately needs. We’ll see how the ‘Cats fare on Saturday against Louisville.
- Now, let’s talk about some good stories. Tennessee’s offense has caught up to its defense! The Vols have scored more than 100 points in back-to-back wins over Tennessee Tech and Saint Joe’s. The best news for the Vols is that Yves Pons scored 10 and 13 points in those games, respectively. He’s never been a volume shooter, but he was struggling to start the year. His defense continues to be spectacular, but now his offense is coming around. Look at him guarding the point guard here:
Yves Pons versatility defensively is incredible, he’s capable of guarding multiple positions due to his mixture of size, length, and athleticism. Look at him guarding a Point Guard here and forcing St Joe’s guard to travel. He has struggled shooting the ball this year up to now. pic.twitter.com/1ZXvWiSSlm
— NBA Draft Scouting (@NBADraftScoutin) December 21, 2020
- If he keeps playing like this, Tennessee will be the best team in the SEC this year, no question.
- Speaking of teams heating up, how about Auburn? I thought this would be a rebuilding year for the Tigers, and it still is to an extent, but the young guys are playing great! Justin Powell has become one of the best shooters in the SEC, JT Thor stepped up against Troy this weekend and Allen Flanigan is becoming a team leader. Thor had 10 points in 19 minutes (it was a blowout, so he didn’t need to play much), and showed his great offensive game:
This is a pro move from JT Thor.
You're not going to stop that, especially with a smaller defender on him. You just gotta hope he misses.
Love the confidence here. Early shot clock attack too. pic.twitter.com/LwZNokv588
— Drew (@orangeanddrew) December 20, 2020
JT Thor, mismatch nightmare.
6'10 forward taking it off the dribble from the logo and yamming on his defender.
SHEESH. Ridiculous stuff. pic.twitter.com/RyCgJSCEzD
— Drew (@orangeanddrew) December 20, 2020
- And Auburn’s defense was incredible, too, allowing only 10 points to Troy in the first half. They might not be a top-5 SEC team this year, but the Tigers will definitely be fun to watch.
- Finally, the Georgia Bulldogs are 6-0 and finally have a nice win on their resume. They absolutely dominated Cincinnati 83-68. They held a 49-26 halftime lead before letting up a bit in the second half. Toumani Camara has been one of the breakout stars of the season thus far, scoring 19 points and grabbing 10 rebounds against the Bearcats. Justin Kier, Sahvir Wheeler, Tye Fagan, Andrew Garcia and PJ Horne are also talented players and have contributed to Georgia’s hot start. I could honestly see the Bulldogs being in the top half of the SEC standings when all is said and done. And, potentially, they could make a run for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Next, let’s see what’s going on around the rest of the country.
3. Road trip
I didn’t think I’d ever be leading off a section discussing Rutgers, but 2020 has been crazy, y’all. The Scarlet Knights are up to No. 11 in the AP Poll after taking down a ranked Illinois squad in New Jersey over the weekend.
I’m high on Vanderbilt PG Scotty Pippen Jr., but there’s another son of a former Chicago Bull on the Scarlet Knights’ roster who deserves your attention, too — Ron Harper Jr. He scored 28 points (5-for-8 from 3-point range) and had 9 rebounds in Rutgers’ 91-88 victory:
Ron Harper Jr está a un nivel 🔝. Ayer cada vez que Illinois intentaba acercarse a Rutgers, allí estaba Ron para responder. 28 puntos 9 rebotes 5/8 en triples y nivel de Big Ten All-Conference
Rutgers encadena triunfos ante Syracuse, Maryland e Illinois!pic.twitter.com/pQWEbNeBk1
— NCAA España (@ncaabspain) December 21, 2020
This Rutgers team is deep and talented, and Harper is the driving force behind it all. Can the Knights take their show on the road? We’ll discuss their upcoming game at Ohio State in a bit.
For now, let’s talk about some other top stories:
- Michigan State entered its game against Northwestern as the No. 4 team in the country. The Spartans plummeted down to No. 12 after getting blown out by the Wildcats in Evanston 79-65 in their Big Ten opener. Boo Buie, who has an absolutely incredible name, was spectacular, scoring 30 points against the Spartans:
Boo Buie might be the best name in college basketball
— Hoops Alley (@thehoopsalley) December 21, 2020
- Pete Nance also came up big for the Wildcats, scoring 15 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. I’m not sure what to make of this surprising result. I have a feeling it could just be a minor blip for the Spartans, but we’ll see how both these teams fare in their next games.
- Louisville-Wisconsin is a B1G/ACC Challenge game that was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns. It was played over the weekend, but the Cardinals probably wish it was just canceled altogether. Wisconsin led 44-18 at halftime and didn’t let up in the second half, cruising to an 85-48 victory. Louisville committed 18 turnovers and only made 17 of its 47 shot attempts. Wisconsin, meanwhile, shot the lights out from beyond the arc, draining 16 of its 25 3-point attempts. This year has shown that the ACC is struggling, while the Big Ten is a juggernaut. Never has that been more clear than in this game of 2 teams toward the top of their conferences.
OK, now, as we head toward Christmas on Friday, let’s take a look at some of the best upcoming games!
4. Outlet pass
There are no games on Thursday for Christmas Eve, but there are some intriguing matchups tonight and tomorrow! Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to see between now and Friday:
- No. 7 West Virginia at No. 3 Kansas (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — The Big 12 has 3 teams in the top 10 of the AP Poll, and this is a matchup of 2 of them. Which of these squads will be the biggest challenger for No. 2 Baylor? We’ll learn a lot tonight.
- No. 22 Xavier at No. 13 Creighton (Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET on FS1) — Xavier has been a surprise at 8-0, but Creighton is still the cream of the Big East crop. However, if the Musketeers go into Omaha and take down the Blue Jays, we may have to revisit that thought.
- No. 11 Rutgers at No. 23 Ohio State (Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. ET on BTN) — As we mentioned earlier, it’s time to start taking Rutgers seriously. But, if this is going to be a truly special season for the Scarlet Knights, they have to go into Columbus and make another statement with a tough road win.
- UCLA at No. 25 Oregon (Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — UCLA lost to Ohio State over the weekend, but this Pac-12 matchup at Oregon will be even more important. Can the Bruins get back on track against a tough Ducks team?
- Saint Mary’s at San Diego State (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on CBSSN) — These are 2 non-power conference teams that always seem to be in the mix for good seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, Saint Mary’s has to share a conference with Gonzaga, but the Gaels are always tough to beat. Can they go into SDSU and win?
Enjoy these exciting Christmas week games while you hopefully have some time off work to relax. It’s going to be a fun few days!
5. Buzzer beaters
Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here for the day:
Is this the year Scott Drew finally wins something of note at Baylor?
Scott Drew has been at Baylor since 2003, but he has never actually won anything, other than the 2013 NIT. No Big 12 regular-season titles, no Big 12 Tournament titles, no Final Fours — nothing. I do feel bad for the Bears, though, because they had a heck of a team last year that didn’t have the chance to compete for postseason titles. This year, they return a number of those key guys and look like a championship contender along with Gonzaga. The Big 12 is talented this year, but I’ll predict either a regular-season or tournament title for the Bears, so Drew will get his first big-time trophy.
What’s the most-overrated holiday food item — candy corn at Halloween, cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving or eggnog at Christmas?
Well, I’m honestly not a fan of any of those things, but I’m sure I wouldn’t turn down some spiked eggnog. I’m going to go with candy corn. It just isn’t a good type of candy. I’d rather eat almost anything else, even cranberry sauce. Cranberry sauce is fine — I just wouldn’t even notice if it wasn’t put out at 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.