Starting 5: Gonzaga survives major scare, Mizzou avoids another collapse and Virginia bursts Syracuse’s bubble
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 have only had 1 team come within 10 points of beating them this year. That was West Virginia back during nonconference play, when the Bulldogs eked out an 87-82 victory on a neutral court.
Well, it certainly looked like Gonzaga was going to break that streak on Tuesday night in the WCC Tournament title game. BYU — the No. 2 seed — led 53-41 at halftime. Then, the Bulldogs started the second half strong, tying the game. But, BYU didn’t go away, taking a 63-57 lead with 10:55 left.
From then on out, it was all Bulldogs. From that point in the game, Gonzaga outscored BYU 31-15 to win by double-digits once again, 88-78.
Jalen Suggs, the elite freshman point guard, showed once again that he’s not afraid of the spotlight. He put the game out of reach with these 2 huge 3-pointers:
CLUTCH 🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/i1QpVO35sx
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 10, 2021
He’s not afraid to shoot. When you can make those shots, like Suggs has shown he can, that’s a great quality to have in March.
Before those 2 3-pointers, Suggs also hit the shot that gave the Bulldogs a 75-73 lead. He finished with a game-high 23 points. Oh, and he led Gonzaga with 5 assists. He’s a special player, so appreciate him during the NCAA Tournament before he heads off to the NBA as a lottery pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
The Bulldogs are going to live and die with their starting 5 (hey, that’s the name of this column!) during March Madness. Against BYU, Gonzaga only played 7 guys. The 2 who came off the bench (Anton Watson and Aaron Cook) combined for only 20 minutes of action, scoring 3 points with 3 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 fouls.
That’s about as top-heavy as a team can get. But, when your starters are Jalen Suggs, Andrew Nembhard, Joel Ayayi, Corey Kispert and Drew Timme, you want to play them as much as humanly possible. That’s what Mark Few is doing, and it’s hard to argue with the results.
The Bulldogs survived their first real scare of the season. And, based on how they passed that test with flying colors, it’s hard to imagine them losing before the Final Four, at least.
Now, let’s move on to what’s happening in the SEC Tournament.
2. Home-court advantage
The Missouri Tigers have been a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde team this year. In nonconference play, the Tigers went undefeated, including a win over an Illinois team that is likely to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They also handed Alabama 1 of its 2 losses in SEC play.
But, the Tigers have also been dominated by Ole Miss twice, lost to Georgia, Auburn and others. So, you’ll forgive me if I wasn’t feeling confident in Mizzou’s double-digit lead late in the second half of Thursday’s Round 2 SEC Tournament game against Georgia:
11-point lead with 8 minutes left?
Nope, not gonna fall for this one, Mizzou. pic.twitter.com/Z1gr8uqCkg
— Adam Spencer (@AdamSpencer4) March 12, 2021
Lo and behold, the Tigers almost blew it. But, they managed to hold on. How did they earn the 73-70 victory? Well, Georgia, as it has often done this season, made the more costly mistake. How does this sort of egregious free-throw violation happen in such a clutch situation?
— Kris (@mizkris18) March 12, 2021
But, for Mizzou, it’s not exactly a resounding victory. Let’s just say I did not draw much joy from watching the Tigers win on Thursday night:
When you watch Mizzou blow a big lead but then still win but then realize you have to watch them again tomorrow… pic.twitter.com/nWwq94lsE0
— Adam Spencer (@AdamSpencer4) March 12, 2021
Me: “Mizzou won.”
My wife: “Didn’t sound like it.”
— Adam Spencer (@AdamSpencer4) March 12, 2021
Now, I (and all Mizzou fans) have to do it all over again on Friday. And, to make matters worse, this is a rivalry game against Arkansas — the hottest team in the SEC. Oh, great!
Now, before I get even more frustrated, let’s move on to some other SEC stories:
- Stop me if you’ve heard this one. The Kentucky Wildcats collapsed in the second half to lose a game. Yeah, that’s been the story of the year for coach John Calipari’s team. The Wildcats fell to Mississippi State 74-73 on Thursday after Iverson Molinar made a pair of clutch free throws to give the Bulldogs the lead with 8 seconds left. But, Dontaie Allen got a great look for 3 to win it and …
Wild game in Nashville. Dontaie Allen, who was 6-of-13 from 3 today and had a monster game, got a great look at a 3 that would have won it for Kentucky. Huge game from Mississippi State guard Iverson Molinar: 21 PTS on 10 shots. Put MSU on his back late. pic.twitter.com/ysNIK2YBNW
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) March 11, 2021
- Yep. That sums up Kentucky’s season pretty well. Now, we’ll see what sort of changes come to the roster this offseason. Meanwhile, Mississippi State has to play No. 1 seed Alabama on Friday.
- Tre Mann has become a superstar for Florida down the stretch. The Gators needed him badly against Vanderbilt on Thursday, escaping the 12-seeded Commodores 69-63. Mann had 22 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, including this alley-oop to Anthony Duruji:
Mann handled pressure well in this one, always staying in control & keeping his dribble alive, leading to opportunities like this. pic.twitter.com/q0mpxTYv6n
— The Scouting Rapport (@ScoutingRapport) March 12, 2021
- If Mann can play like that against Tennessee on Friday, the Gators can advance to the semifinals. Unfortunately for him, he’s going to need to be the hero, because his teammates aren’t stepping up around him too often.
- Ole Miss’s defense is stifling. The Rebels were last seen holding South Carolina to 59 points on Thursday night in a 76-59 win. Now, the Rebels have to turn around quickly to try to slow down perhaps the SEC’s best offense in LSU. That will be a game between 2 teams with vastly different styles of play. If the Rebels can keep the Tigers under 70 points, they’ll probably win. If the Tigers get into the 70s or 80s, they’ll probably win. We’ll know how this game is going in the first few minutes.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the biggest non-SEC headlines.
3. Road trip
The Masters is “A Tradition Unlike Any Other,” but another tradition that happens to be back this year is Syracuse’s life on the bubble. The Orange spend more time on the bubble than every other team in Division I combined, it seems.
On Thursday, Syracuse’s NCAA Tournament hopes took a big hit, as the Orange lost to Virginia on this devastating buzzer-beater from Reece Beekman:
🚨 BUZZER-BEATER! 🚨
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 11, 2021
A win over the Cavaliers likely would have put the Orange safely into the field. Now, they have to watch and wait to see what other bubble teams manage to do over the weekend.
Still, the Orange have life heading into Selection Sunday based on how poorly other bubble teams have been playing. We’ll see if they’re on the right side of the field of 68 teams or if we get a Jim Boeheim speech that begins with “With all due respect to Joe Lunardi…”
Nature is healing.
Now, let’s move on to some other stories from around the college basketball world:
- Sadly, the Duke Blue Devils won’t have a chance to continue their potential run to the NCAA Tournament. On Thursday morning, it was announced that the Blue Devils had to pull out of their ACC Tournament quarterfinal game against Florida State after a positive COVID-19 test in the program. Why college basketball insider Jeff Goodman needed to call out that it was a walk-on with the positive test is beyond me, but here we are:
Very cool and extremely necessary to throw the walk-on under the bus, well done everyone https://t.co/njNGc9iFZO
— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) March 11, 2021
- A win over the Seminoles would have made Selection Sunday really interesting for Duke. Now, the season is over. What an unfortunate situation for those players who had been playing their hearts out in the conference tournament.
- Duke and Syracuse weren’t the only bubble teams to suffer setbacks on Thursday. In the Big East, Xavier and St. John’s saw their tourney chances go down in flames. Meanwhile, Seton Hall kept its hopes alive. As mentioned above, Ole Miss won. Saint Louis lost in the semifinals of its conference tournament. Boise State lost. Not many bubble teams are having good showings thus far. There aren’t many days left to pad those resumes. We’ll see what happens on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but this is looking like a pretty weak bubble.
- The Michigan State Spartans are undergoing a name change. No, seriously. Let’s hope this doesn’t become a trend:
Michigan State announces basketball team will now be called "MSU Spartans Presented by Rocket Mortgage"
(No, we're not kidding)
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) March 11, 2021
- That might be, dare I say, too much advertising? Why couldn’t Rocket Mortgage just put a patch on the Spartans’ jerseys for advertising? And, maybe, kick the players some money when NIL rules come into effect? I don’t like this at all.
- There are 4 original Division I men’s basketball teams that have never made it to the NCAA Tournament. Those teams are Army, The Citadel, St. Francis (Brooklyn) and William & Mary. Those streaks will continue for another year, at least, as all 4 of them either didn’t qualify for their conference tournaments or have already lost. Which team will be the next newcomer to March Madness? That remains to be seen.
- Lastly, here is Bill Walton making some buffalo noises during the Cal-Colorado game. Enjoy!
— Viral CBB (@FSClips) March 12, 2021
- Long live Bill Walton. (He made some bear noises a few minutes later, in the interest of fairness to Cal.)
Next up, let’s take a look at a few of the best games on the schedule for Friday.
4. Outlet pass
Here are the games I can’t wait to see (mostly on Friday). I’m only choosing matchups that are currently set, which means this list is Friday-heavy. But, you know, obviously keep an eye on the title games on Saturday and Sunday before the NCAA Tournament Selection Show:
- Mizzou vs. No. 8 Arkansas (Friday at 7 p.m. ET on SECN) — Mizzou beat Arkansas when Justin Smith was out. Arkansas beat Mizzou when Jeremiah Tilmon was out. Both big guys are healthy entering this matchup. Game on!
- No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 12 Oklahoma State (Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) — The Bears didn’t look like the No. 2 team in the country against Kansas State on Thursday. The Cowboys looked like a Final Four team against West Virginia. Can the Bears bounce back? This should be a fun game to watch!
- No. 9 Ohio State vs. No. 20 Purdue (Friday at 2 p.m. ET on BTN) — Purdue has flown under the radar this year. But, the Boilermakers have beaten the Buckeyes twice already this year. Can they make it 3? We’ll find out on Friday afternoon!
- Rutgers vs. No. 3 Illinois (Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET on BTN) — The Scarlet Knights are on the bubble. Illinois is fighting to hang on to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This will be a matchup of 2 teams hungry to cement their place in the March Madness hierarchy.
- North Carolina vs. No. 15 Florida State (Friday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN) — The Tar Heels have been playing well in the ACC Tournament so far. They’re seeing their seeding in the NCAA Tournament skyrocket. But, the Seminoles are fresh, as they’ve advanced to the semifinals without playing a game, thanks to Duke’s positive COVID test. Can the Tar Heels stay hot, or will the Seminoles take a step toward the ACC tourney title?
Which teams will survive and advance? Which will be sweating it out on Selection Sunday? We’ll find out over the loaded weekend of college hoops action!
5. Buzzer beaters
Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here for the day and enjoy the weekend full of conference tournament championships:
If you had to pick a non-major conference team (and not Gonzaga, either) to root for to win the title this year, who would it be?
Well, that really eliminates a lot of teams, doesn’t it? My initial thought is how about Loyola-Chicago? The Ramblers already have a Final Four appearance under their belts. I think it would be kind of funny if they went on to win it all this year, winning a championship before Gonzaga. Plus, they have the Sister Jean magic. I obviously don’t think Loyola-Chicago can win it all, but we’ll see if the Ramblers have another Cinderella run in them!
Do you even like watching Mizzou basketball?
No. This year’s team has probably taken 5 years off my life. I just sit there the whole time waiting for something bad to happen. Oh, the Tigers have a 10-point lead with 4 minutes left? Don’t worry, they’ll blow it. Trailing by 10 with 4 minutes left? They’ll do just enough to give you hope before choking it away. Even if they end up winning, it leaves me frustrated and exhausted, not happy. Maybe I should have gone to Gonzaga for college instead. Missed opportunity.
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.