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

To paraphrase the great Nick Saban, it seems the Georgia Bulldogs may have been eating the rat poison after a 6-0 start. Many analysts started to take notice after a blowout win over Cincinnati (I had already been on the Dawgs’ bandwagon, but even more so after the Cincy win). When that much praise is being heaped on a team not used to winning so much, a letdown is often in the cards.

It looked like Georgia was heading toward a major setback on Tuesday night against Northeastern. The Bulldogs came out flat and trailed 45-32 at halftime. But, coach Tom Crean must have given a heck of a speech in the locker room, because the Bulldogs flipped the script in incredible fashion after the intermission.

After halftime, the Dawgs held Northeastern to only 13 additional points, coming all the way back for a convincing 76-58 victory.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again — the Dawgs have yet to be truly tested. Cincinnati is a name-brand school, but the Bearcats are potentially in a down year. Still, to be 7-0 right now is a huge testament to this year’s Bulldog squad.

What I particularly liked in this game is that star PG Sahvir Wheeler (yes, I think he’s earned the “star” designation) had a rough night, shooting 4-for-12 from the field for 10 points, only 2 assists and 4 turnovers. But, other guys stepped up. Andrew Garcia had 15 points and 5 rebounds:

Toumani Camara is going to be the next Bulldog to get the “star” designation if he continues to play this well. He was named the SEC Player of the Week after last week’s performances and he scored 13 points, grabbed 8 boards and had 2 blocks.

This team still needs a 3-point shooter, but Justin Kier could transition into that guy eventually. He had 7 points and a team-high 6 assists against Northeastern. Oh, and 5 steals.

This year’s Dawgs are showing they’re a better team than they were last year with Anthony Edwards, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. That’s not an indictment on Edwards, who is insanely talented. Rather, the Bulldogs simply didn’t have the right players to put around Edwards last season.

This season, Wheeler and Camara are coming into their own as Crean has supplemented their talents with transfers like Garcia, Kier, P.J. Horne and others. The Bulldogs will play the other SEC Bulldogs (Mississippi State) in the conference opener on Dec. 30. If they win that game, it could be a fun year in Athens. If they lose, the bottom could fall out pretty quickly.

No pressure.

Next, let’s take a look at some other SEC stories.

2. Home-court advantage

Here’s a first-half recap of the Mizzou-Bradley game on Tuesday night:

The Tigers didn’t shoot much better in the second half. Here’s a not-so-fun statistic for Tiger fans: players not named Xavier Pinson on the Mizzou roster combined to shoot 0-for-14 from 3-point range (Pinson went 3-for-7). As a team, the Tigers shot 25.4% from the floor, but still managed to pull off a 54-53 win over a tough Braves squad.

Big man Jeremiah Tilmon came up with the clutch play, making this shot from an impossible angle with 1 second remaining to tie the score. Then, the 37% free-throw shooter stepped to the line and knocked down the game-winning free throw:

Tilmon said that was the first game-winning shot he’s ever had. He finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds. And, most importantly, he went 6-for-9 from the free-throw line. But, Tilmon was quick to give credit to Pinson for passing up an attempt at the game-winning shot:

Pinson does deserve a lot of credit there. I’ve seen a ton of players keep the ball in that situation, even when a pass is clearly the right play. This Mizzou team is incredibly unselfish, and that’s a big reason why the Tigers are 6-0.

Now, let’s take a look elsewhere around the SEC:

  • Kentucky is off to a rough start to the season, and that’s an understatement. The Wildcats are 1-5 and freshman Cam’Ron Fletcher has been asked to leave the team for a while:

  • Coach John Calipari has said he expects Fletcher to return at some point, but who knows when that will be. People are also ripping Cal for this announcement:

  • Considering Calipari makes more than $8 million a year, many fans and media members think this is something that belongs on his plate. The Wildcats play rival Louisville this Saturday. Win that, and things can quickly get better. Lose, and the spiral could continue.
  • Tennessee still isn’t getting much from Yves Pons, and I’m not sure what’s going on there. He’s still playing strong defense. Pons comes from the help side more naturally than anyone in college basketball, as you can see by this photo of one of his 2 blocks against South Carolina Upstate this week:

  • But, Pons finished with only 5 points, 2 rebounds and 1 assist in the game. Yes, Tennessee won 80-60, but that’s hardly a result to be proud about against a team that fell to 0-8 with the loss. Victor Bailey Jr. has become a talented scorer, leading the Vols with 18 points in that game. And, Josiah-Jordan James continues to improve. He scored 11 points and had 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. He also did this:

  • James has drawn a lot of praise for that hustle, but man, I’m glad he didn’t get hurt doing that. There’s a line between hustle and recklessness. I disagree with Ben McKee, who sent the above tweet. Coaches everywhere should not be showing players a video of a guy diving for a ball he had no chance of getting and nearly separating his shoulder. Still, it energized his teammates when he got up and shook it off, and he’s quickly becoming a leader of this team.
  • And, finally, check out the latest Starting 5 video! This week, I donned a Santa hat (mostly because everywhere is closed and I can’t get a haircut) to dish out Christmas gifts to each SEC team. Enjoy!

Now, let’s move on to some other college basketball storylines.

3. Road trip

For the second edition in a row, I’m going to lead this section with Rutgers hoops. It’s crazy, I know. Last time, though, it was praising the Scarlet Knights for their impressive win over Illinois. This time, it’s about their collapse against Ohio State.

The Scarlet Knights led by 10 points at halftime and had a 48-32 lead with 15:36 left in the second half. Then, it all came crumbling down. The Buckeyes not only came all the way back to win, they won by 12 points, 80-68!

What changed? Duane Washington Jr. came alive for the Buckeyes, scoring 16 of his 22 points in the final 15 minutes of the game. EJ Liddell also had a great night, scoring 21 points. And, big man Kyle Young had a 17-point, 12-rebound double-double. Those 3 guys are Ohio State’s leaders, and Young and Liddell are absolute bullies in the post:

And Washington is never afraid to pull up for a 3-point shot:

There’s nothing quite as devastating for a defense as giving up a transition 3.

This just shows how tough the Big Ten is going to be on a nightly basis this season. You’d better keep your foot on the gas pedal for 40 minutes.

Speaking of B1G comebacks …

  • Illinois lost its B1G opener to Rutgers and looked like it was going to lose at Penn State on Wednesday night, too. The Nittany Lions held a 32-20 lead with 8 minutes left in the first half, but by halftime, the Illini had evened the score at 43-43. The second half was all Illini, as they cruised to a 98-81 win. I mentioned Young and Liddell being bullies in the post earlier. Well, how about Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn? Look at his physicality in this clip:

  • Notice how on all but 1 of those plays, Cockburn catches the ball deep in the post. He is great at positioning himself for post passes and offensive rebounds. He finished that game 11-for-13 from the floor for 23 points and 6 rebounds. Meanwhile, Ayo Dosunmu scored 30 points and had 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals:

  • Yeah, that’s an NBA player who is still wearing a college uniform. And, don’t sleep on Andre Curbelo, the freshman guard who scored 15 points and dished out 8 assists, like this one:

  • The future is bright in Champaign, even after Cockburn and Dosunmu leave for the NBA.
  • At No. 2 in the country, Baylor is still the team to beat in the Big 12. But, the Kansas Jayhawks are up to No. 3 and look like an elite team once again. They most recently took down No. 7 West Virginia in Lawrence. The Jayhawks trailed by a point at halftime before coming back to win 79-65. As a Mizzou grad, I can’t even honestly complain about the Jayhawks getting home-court treatment in this game. Kansas was whistled for 17 fouls to only 11 for West Virginia. And, both teams shot 10 total free throws, with Kansas making 7 and West Virginia making 5. Both teams also had 11 turnovers. Christian Braun had a great night, scoring 22 points and dishing out 7 assists:

  • Kansas’s starting 5 (hey, that’s the name of this column!) is one of the best groups in the nation. Braun, Jalen Wilson (17 points), Marcus Garrett (15), Ochai Agbaji (11 points, 10 rebounds) and David McCormack (10 points, 11 rebounds) work together so well. The bench only scored 4 total points against West Virginia, but it didn’t matter. Circle Jan. 18 on your calendars, because that’s when Kansas travels to Baylor in one of the biggest games of the Big 12 season.
  • Finally, let’s talk about the North Carolina Tar Heels. They were (are) ranked No. 17 in the country, but at 5-3 now, they might fall out of the AP Poll. On Tuesday, the Tar Heels went to Raleigh and lost to NC State. Not a good look for the Heels. But, the highlight I really want to talk about is this baseline dunk from Shakeel Moore:

  • The 6-1 freshman scored 17 points in 15 minutes coming off the bench, but that dunk. I mean, the way he explodes off the court and throws it down with authority over much bigger North Carolina defenders is incredible. I’ll be keeping an eye on him the rest of the year.

Next up, let’s take a look at some of the best games taking place over the Christmas weekend.

4. Outlet pass

The Big Ten will be providing the Christmas Day entertainment, with 4 games on the schedule. Then, it’s an exciting Saturday of college hoops action, too! Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch between now and Monday:

  1. No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Virginia in Fort Worth (Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on CBS) — Gonzaga’s nonconference schedule is always impressive, but it has to be, since the West Coast Conference isn’t on par with major conferences. Can the Bulldogs’ elite offense figure out Virginia’s pack-line defense? It’ll be a big-time clash of styles in Fort Worth on Saturday!
  2. No. 9 Wisconsin at No. 12 Michigan State (Friday at 12:30 p.m. ET on FOX) — What a great game to get the Christmas slate started! Both of these teams will be in the Big Ten title hunt, even after the Spartans’ inexplicable B1G-opening loss at Northwestern. Can they bounce back against a tough, experienced Badger squad?
  3. Kentucky at Louisville (Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN) — I’m still holding on to a sliver of hope that the Wildcats can turn things around in time for SEC play. However, if they can’t beat their in-state rivals on Saturday, I’ll lose a ton of confidence in this team. Things are a mess in Lexington right now, but beating a rival would work wonders.
  4. Indiana at No. 18 Illinois (Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on BTN) — This rivalry game is always an intense one. Illinois needs to get back on track after a B1G-opening loss at Rutgers. Can the Illini take the Hoosiers’ best shot and survive?
  5. Colorado at Arizona (Monday at 9:30 p.m. ET on Pac-12 Network) — Both of these teams are fringe contenders in the Pac-12. Whichever team wins this matchup in Tucson will build a lot of positive momentum, while the other will be scrambling to recover.

All these games will be important when it comes time to pick teams for the NCAA Tournament. Conference play starts next week for many leagues that haven’t already started it, too. It’s a fun time to be a college basketball fan!

5. Buzzer beaters

Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here and enjoy our Christmases:

Who is the Freshman of the Year in the SEC as things stand right now?

There’s still a ton of time before the results are decided, obviously, so Kentucky’s freshmen — Brandon Boston Jr., Terrence Clarke, Devin Askew, Isaiah Jackson and others — and Tennessee’s 5-star freshman duo of Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson still have time to get going and make names for themselves. But right now, I have it as a 2-player race between Arkansas’s Moses Moody and LSU’s Cam Thomas. I’d give a very slight edge to Moody right now, just because he’s a better rebounder and defender, but Thomas is a lights-out scorer. It should be a fun battle to watch when conference play starts!

Which is the worst, most frustrating fantasy sport to play — football, baseball or basketball?

I’m going to say football, but I swear it’s not because I’ve never won the league my high school friends and I started 14 years ago. It’s because of the NFL’s propensity for injuries. What, I’m supposed to draft Christian McCaffrey as the best player in the NFL and then watch him miss the second half of the season? I’m supposed to spend a ton of money or a high draft pick on Michael Thomas only to have him have one of the most bizarre seasons for a star receiver ever? So frustrating. At least with baseball and basketball, there are games every day, so if you play the waiver wire right, you can manage your way around injuries and other bizarre situations.

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.