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.

Quick note before we start today’s column. Do you love college hoops? Of course you do if you’re reading this! We’ve officially launched “Blue Chip Grit,” a twice-weekly newsletter about all things college basketball.

Click here to subscribe. Thank you!

1. Opening tipoff

Kentucky held steady at No. 5 in this week’s AP Poll after a 66-55 win at Alabama on Saturday night. KenPom has the Wildcats at No. 3 in his metrics, sporting the No. 5 overall offense and the No. 11 defense in the country.

Well, let’s just say that defense was on full display on Saturday night in Coleman Coliseum, as Alabama’s shot chart had more “X”s than a drunk pirate’s treasure map:

For those keeping track at home, that’s Alabama going 3-for-30 from beyond the 3-point arc. For the mathematicians among us, that’s a 10% success rate from long range.

Yes, some of that was just Alabama missing good looks. But, an even bigger part of it was Kentucky’s aggressive defense. This is the kind of aggressive team defense that made it hard for Alabama sharpshooters like Jaden Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly (who combined for 13 total points on 0-for-10 3-point shooting) to score:

TyTy Washington led Kentucky with 15 points, but he was just as active on defense. Here he is keeping Shackelford from getting to his preferred left hand, tipping a pass and forcing a turnover:

The Wildcats are so good at using their defense to get easy transition buckets, too. Here’s how Kellan Grady’s elite effort leads to an easy fast-break dunk by Davion Mintz:

When Kentucky is playing swarming defense like that, the Wildcats are a true national title contender. Now, we’ll see if they can keep the good times going at South Carolina on Tuesday night.

2. SEC notes

When shots aren’t falling and the offense isn’t working, you need guys who aren’t afraid to force the issue and make things happen. Auburn has 2 of those guys in KD Johnson and Wendell Green Jr.

Johnson, who led the Tigers with 20 points in Saturday’s narrow 74-72 win at Georgia, was making plays like this all game:

Green finished with 19 points, scoring the game-winning bucket in the final minute:

Yes, there was a lot of contact on that play for there to be no whistle at all, but the Tigers continue to find ways to win. They also continue to deliver insane highlight-reel plays, including this alley-oop off the backboard from Green to Devan Cambridge:

The 2-point win over Georgia means that, in the Tigers’ last 2 road games, they’ve only managed to beat Mizzou and Georgia – 2 of the worst teams in the SEC – by a combined 3 points. They’ll need to play a whole lot better on Tuesday night at Arkansas if they’re going to remain unbeaten in SEC play. We’ll discuss that game more later, but let’s switch to some Hog talk for now:

  • Arkansas extended its winning streak to 8 games on Saturday night with a 63-55 win over Mississippi State. JD Notae led the Hogs with 14 points, but he had an off night, making only 4 of his 16 shots (and going 0-for-6 from 3-point range). He did make this acrobatic basket:

  • But, he still found ways to help his team win. He finished with 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and a block. Speaking of blocks, Notae will need to find a way to hit some jump shots on Tuesday night, because Walker Kessler and Dylan Cardwell will be waiting to swat away his layup attempts.
  • Tennessee has started to play better offense this past week, putting up 90 points and 81 points in the 2 games since a 51-point dud against Texas. Josiah-Jordan James has stepped into a bigger scoring role, but Zakai Zeigler has also been providing plenty of spark. He hit 2 3-pointers in a row at a key juncture on Saturday against South Carolina and also made a ridiculous floater shot:

  • When the Vols shoot above 35% from 3-point range, they’re nearly unbeatable. That’s because they play great defense and have some depth. It’s just all about getting those 3s to fall.
  • Colin Castleton made his long-awaited return from injury on Saturday in Florida’s overtime win over Ole Miss. He picked up right where he left off, too, scoring a team-high 17 points and grabbing 7 rebounds. He made 2 big-time buckets in overtime, showing that he’s not afraid of the pressure:

  • It’ll take some time to work him back to full strength, but Florida is a much more dangerous team with Castleton on the floor. Don’t look now, but the Gators have won 3 games in a row. We’ll see if they can actually keep some positive momentum going this year.

Next, let’s take a look around the Big Ten.

3. B1G notes

Since an embarrassing loss at Maryland, the Illinois Fighting Illini have been on an impressive run. The Illini have rattled off 4-straight wins – vs. No. 10 Michigan State, at Northwestern, vs. No. 11 Wisconsin and at Indiana.

Saturday’s 74-57 victory in Bloomington marked the Illini’s biggest win ever on Indiana’s home court:

Illinois found itself trailing 36-34 at halftime, but a 10-0 run midway through the second half, punctuated by this big basket from Trent Frazier, proved to be the turning point in the game:

Frazier was electric, scoring a game-high 23 points. Here’s him leaving an Indiana defender in his dust with a lethal crossover:

Alfonso Plummer had 14 points and continues to be the Big Ten’s best 3-point shooter:

Kofi Cockburn had a pedestrian (by his standards) 17 points and 8 rebounds, but he managed to limit Indiana big man Trayce Jackson-Davis to 6 points and 6 boards. That all-around effort from Cockburn helped earn him the B1G’s Player of the Week award.

Now, we’ll see if the Illini can snag another big road win when they play at No. 3 Purdue on Tuesday night. More on that game in a bit. Speaking of the Boilermakers, though…

  • Purdue couldn’t stop Michigan big man Hunter Dickinson on Saturday, giving up 28 points to him. But, the Boilermakers did enough to limit the damage from the rest of the Wolverines, scoring a big 82-76 home victory. It was the first time Trevion Williams (who scored 19 points and grabbed 8 rebounds) and the other Purdue seniors had ever beaten Michigan. Jaden Ivey led the Boilermakers with 23 points, showing off his incredible athleticism once again:

  • He also dished out 7 assists and grabbed 6 rebounds against the Wolverines. Illinois is going to have its work cut out for it to stop Ivey on Tuesday night in West Lafayette.
  • It has been a major up-and-down season for the Michigan State Spartans. At their best, they look like a Final Four team. At their worst, they lose by 21 points at Rutgers, which they did over the weekend. Only 6 Scarlet Knight players scored, but they all scored in double figures, led by Ron Harper Jr. and Clifford Omoruyi with 17 apiece. Paul Mulcahy also had a big game, scoring 15 points and dishing out 12 assists, including this behind-the-back beauty:

  • He showed off his ability to finish in the lane, as well:

  • Rutgers is probably on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble right now at 13-9 overall and 7-5 in Big Ten play. But, if the Scarlet Knights can keep their record above .500 in B1G action, they could be looking good come Selection Sunday.
  • Keegan Murray is incredible. If you’ve watched Iowa this year, you probably already know that, but the senior forward is doing all he can to keep the Hawkeyes in the NCAA Tournament picture. He had 24 points and 15 rebounds in Iowa’s big win over Minnesota this past weekend:

  • Iowa has a golden opportunity to solidify its NCAA Tournament resume over its next 3 games. The Hawkeyes head to Maryland next, then host Nebraska and Michigan. Beating the Wolverines would be great for their resume.

Next, let’s take a trip to the ACC and around the rest of the country.

4. ACC notes/random tidbits

I’ve said it about Auburn, and I’ll say it again – great teams find ways to win games they have no business winning.

Auburn did it at Mizzou and at Georgia recently. Duke absolutely deserved to win at North Carolina on Saturday, mopping the floor with the Tar Heels in Coach K’s last trip to the Dean Dome.

But, on Monday night, the Blue Devils were back at it at home against Virginia. This was another game Duke should have won comfortably. But, after the emotional game against a big-time rival on Saturday, the Blue Devils couldn’t quite get up enough for Monday night’s home game.

Yes, Duke battled back after Virginia controlled most of the game, taking a 68-66 lead with less than 10 seconds left. That’s when Reece Beekman decided to hit Virginia’s second 3-pointer of the night, though:

It appeared Beekman was fouled on his followthrough, too, so he should have gone to the line with a chance for a 4-point play. It wasn’t necessary, though, as the Cavaliers held on for the 69-68 road win.

This game illustrates exactly what makes Duke frustrating. Even with all that talent, the Blue Devils sometimes have trouble finishing off opponents. That’s what separates Duke from the top-tier teams like Auburn, Gonzaga and Arizona this year.

Even more baffling? Paolo Banchero didn’t attempt a single shot in the second half until a desperation heave at the end. Yes, the Hoos were doubling him every time he touched the ball, but Duke’s coaches needed to scheme ways to get him open looks and simply didn’t. Awful strategy when you have a top-3 NBA Draft pick on your roster in a tight game.

  • Kansas had the same thing happen. The Jayhawks absolutely dominated Baylor 83-59 on Saturday. But the old Saturday-Monday game combo struck again. The Jayhawks lost at No. 20 Texas on Monday night, 79-76. Check out this defense Courtney Ramey played on Kansas star Ochai Agbaji on the deciding possession:

  • That’s great effort from the St. Louis native, who only had 7 points but arguably made the play of the game. Kansas showed it doesn’t have the consistency to be an elite team at this point. Arizona, though, passed the Saturday-Monday test. After a tight win over USC on Saturday, the Wildcats hit the road and trounced rival Arizona State on Monday night. Arizona is trending toward a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
  • If you don’t know who Alondes Williams and Jake LaRavia are yet, get to know the Wake Forest stars before the Demon Deacons surprise a couple of teams in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments. The Demon Deacons took care of business at Florida State on Saturday, leaving Tallahassee with a 68-60 victory to improve to 19-5 overall. Williams had 23 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists, furthering his case as the ACC’s Player of the Year:

  • Meanwhile, LaRavia nearly had a triple-double, scoring 18 points to go with 13 boards and 9 dimes:

  • This is a really fun Demon Deacons squad to watch. With those 2 star players leading the way, they’re going to be a tough out in the postseason.
  • I’ve been saying for weeks now that I think the race to be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft is down Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. and Duke’s Paolo Banchero, with Smith holding the slight edge. Starting with Thursday’s win over San Diego, the Gonzaga big man has put together back-to-back outstanding games. Against the Toreros, Holmgren had 23 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 block. Of those 23 points, 11 of them came in a 2-minute outburst:

  • Then, he was arguably even better in the Zags’ 90-57 embarrassment of BYU on Saturday. He went for 20 points, 17 boards, 6 assists, 5 blocks and a steal:

  • Yeah, this race for the No. 1 pick is now a 3-man battle once again.

Now, let’s take a look ahead to the next few days of college basketball action.

5. Outlet pass

I’m calling it – we’ve officially hit the stretch run in college basketball! Teams are a little more than halfway through their conference schedules, and that means there are a ton of big games on tap for the next few days. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch between now and Friday:

  1. No. 13 Illinois at No. 3 Purdue (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Another Tuesday, another huge Big Ten game! Illinois sits atop the B1G standings at 10-2. Purdue is in a tie with Wisconsin for second place at 9-3. The Boilermakers won an overtime game in Champaign earlier this year. Can the Illini get payback on Purdue’s home court?
  2. No. 1 Auburn at Arkansas (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2) – Auburn enters this game with a 19-game winning streak. Arkansas brings its own 8-game winning streak to the table. The entire city of Fayetteville might show up at Bud Walton Arena for this one. It’s going to be a whiteout, and it’s going to be a great game!
  3. No. 14 Wisconsin at No. 17 Michigan State (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on BTN) – Wisconsin is 9-3 in Big Ten play. Michigan State is 8-3. The Spartans just got blown out by Rutgers and can’t afford another bad loss. Can they defend their home court against the Badgers? The winner will stay within striking distance of the B1G lead. The loser will have some work to do.
  4. No. 18 Marquette at No. 24 UConn (Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. ET on FS1) – UConn is trending down, having lost 2 games in a row. However, those 2 games were against tough Creighton and Villanova teams. Marquette, at 8-4 in Big East play, and the Huskies, at 6-4, are both still on the fringes of the hunt for the Big East title. This game will be very important.
  5. No. 4 Arizona at Washington State (Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on FS1) – The Cougars have won 5 games in a row, playing their way into the NCAA Tournament picture. Arizona, on the other hand, is in the mix for a No. 1 seed in March Madness. Playing in Pullman won’t be as easy as it usually is, so we’ll see if the Wildcats can keep rolling.

We have some games that will decide who is leading conferences, some major road tests and big-time rivalry games. Who will win and who will take steps back? These next few days are so important for a number of teams around the country.

Enjoy the Starting 5? Have a question? Want to yell at me about something? Follow me on Twitter @AdamSpencer4 or email me at [email protected]