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.

1. The Opening Tip

The race to win the Pac-12 regular-season title has turned into absolute chaos. Entering Thursday, there were 5 teams within a game of the lead in the standings, and Thursday’s slate of games provided some more craziness.

First off, Cal upset No. 21 Colorado. Then, Arizona lost to USC, allowing the Trojans to stay in the race for the title. Next, Arizona State — the team that entered the night atop the Pac-12 standings — lost to UCLA on a last-second shot:

The only team that took care of business was Oregon, which improved to 11-5 in Pac-12 play to tie UCLA atop the standings. Entering Friday, that has the top of the Pac-12 standings looking like this:

  • Oregon: 11-5
  • UCLA: 11-5
  • Arizona State: 10-5
  • Colorado: 10-6
  • Arizona: 9-6
  • USC: 9-7
  • Stanford: 8-7

Buckle up, because this is going to be a heck of a finish to the regular season! Arizona and UCLA square off on Saturday.

Now, let’s move on to some SEC stories.

2. Home-Court Advantage

Is Kentucky a Final Four-worthy team? That question would have been crazy to ask earlier this season, with the Wildcats losing to Evansville, Utah and other lesser foes. But, in SEC play, the Wildcats have been awesome.

Entering Saturday’s game against No. 15 Auburn (more on that later), the Wildcats have an impressive 13-2 record in SEC play. The Tigers are 2 games behind at 11-4, making Saturday’s game even bigger. A win there would put them at least 3 games ahead of both Auburn and LSU, clinching the regular-season title. A loss would mean that Auburn is still alive.

Kentucky has 2 SEC Player of the Year contenders in Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley, a dynamic scorer in Tyrese Maxey, the SEC’s assist leader in Ashton Hagans (who will also probably win the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award) and other talented players like Nate Sestina, EJ Montgomery, Johnny Juzang and Keion Brooks Jr. That’s an 8-man rotation — not too deep and not too shallow. As long as the Wildcats can stay healthy, that rotation will help them greatly in March.

And, they’ve figured out how to play together. Just look at this possession late in the Texas A&M game from Tuesday night. Announcer Jimmy Dykes called it a “Final Four” type of possession:

The Wildcats are peaking at the right time, and they’ll be tough to beat in the SEC Tournament and into March Madness. This has been a great coaching job from John Calipari.

Now, for some other SEC-related stories:

  • Speaking of Immanuel Quickley, it’s worth giving him some extra time. He has really come on lately, scoring at least 17 points in each of Kentucky’s last 8 games, and had 30 on Tuesday at Texas A&M (making 8 threes). His three-point shooting has been huge for the Wildcats and is the biggest reason they’ve gone from nonconference disappointment to potential Final Four squad. Look at how quickly (sorry) he gets his shots off against A&M:

  • He’s become a lethal catch-and-shoot threat, and if he can stay hot through March, the sky is the limit for Kentucky.
  • When you see that Auburn went 4-for-14 from three-point range in a game, you immediately think the Tigers lost. They’re a squad that has never met a three-point shot they wouldn’t launch, so why did they only take 14 long-range shots against Ole Miss? The Tigers ended up winning 67-58, but it was an odd game for Bruce Pearl’s team. They won on the strength of their defense and by letting Austin Wiley do work on the inside. He finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Meanwhile, the Auburn defense held Ole Miss star Breein Tyree to 16 points on 3-for-19 shooting. If the Tigers can win with their defense, they’ll be a tough out moving forward.
  • LSU needed a win at Florida on Wednesday to stay in the hunt for the regular-season title, but the Tigers came up short, losing 81-66 to the suddenly hot Gators. What happened? Well, when Skylar Mays finishes with 3 points in 31 minutes of action, that’s a problem. Also, the LSU defense had no answer for Keyontae Johnson, who finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks. That was a career-high point total for the Florida big man, and 2 of those points came on this fun alley-oop:

  • Johnson is a matchup problem for nearly every team in the SEC, so if he can stay hot, the Gators can continue to win. This was a huge victory for Mike White’s crew, and the Gators are now tied with LSU for third place in the conference standings. Getting the No. 3 seed in the SEC Tournament to avoid Kentucky until the final will be very important.
  • Arkansas picked up a huge win for its NCAA Tournament resume, dominating Tennessee 86-69 on Wednesday. Mason Jones scored 37 points, continuing his outstanding season, while Isaiah Joe scored 22. When those 2 are firing on all cylinders, Arkansas is absolutely a tournament team. And, as we’ve seen before, teams with great guard play can make deep tourney runs. Keep an eye on the Razorbacks!

Now, let’s move on to some non-SEC stories.

3. Road Game

With 1:21 remaining in regulation of Tuesday’s game between Wake Forest and Duke, the Blue Devils held a 78-69 lead over the Demon Deacons. Seems like a game Duke usually puts to bed, right?

Well, not this time. Wake Forest came storming back to tie the game at 79 to send it to overtime. One overtime period wasn’t enough, so a second overtime was needed. That period was dominated by the Demon Deacons, who ended up winning 113-101, marking the most points ever scored against Duke during the Coach K era.

Olivier Sarr led the way for the Demon Deacons, scoring 25 points, including this nice dunk:

The leader of the team is Brandon Childress, and he hit this shot to send the game to overtime:

The better moment for Childress, though, was this incredibly emotional postgame interview he gave:

That’s how much this game meant to Wake Forest. Yes, Duke always gets every opponent’s best shot, but they’re usually up to the task. On Tuesday, the Blue Devils fell short, and that could end up costing them a No. 1 seed.

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

  • Duke’s next opponent is Virginia, and the reigning champions are hitting their stride. The Cavaliers just beat Virginia Tech this week, allowing only 11 points to the Hokies in the first half. That’s incredible defense, and Duke will need to be on its “A” game to win in Charlottesville. If Kihei Clark can hit clutch threes like this, the Cavs will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament, even if they won’t be a very high seed:

  • Cassius Winston is hitting his stride just in time for March. In a 78-70 win over a tough Iowa team this week, Winston scored 20 points and dished out 9 assists, including this incredible pass:

  • The Spartans have a big game coming against Maryland this weekend (more on that later). Winston will continue to be the X-factor and the Spartans will go as far as he can take them.
  • For the last bullet point here, let’s take a look at a few teams at the bottom of the college basketball world. First, there’s Kennesaw State. The Owls are 1-27 overall and 0-15 in ASUN play. They’ve only been within 10 points of their opponent 3 times this season. Their 1 victory? A 24-point blowout of Gardner-Webb. Craziness. Then, there’s another interesting game this weekend. It’s not going to make my 5 games to watch section, but it will be entertaining. That game, of course, is between Saint Joseph’s and Fordham. Both teams are an abysmal 1-14 in Atlantic 10 play. The winner of this one might avoid last place!

Now, let’s take a look at the games that do make my 5 games to watch this weekend.

4. Outlet Pass

This is the second-to-last weekend of the regular season. The next few days of games reflect that, as there are some huge matchups on the schedule. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch:

  1. No. 15 Auburn at No. 8 Kentucky (Saturday at 3:45 p.m. ET on CBS) — If Kentucky wins this game, the SEC regular-season race is basically over. If Auburn wins, we’ll be in for an intense final week of the regular season. Immanuel Quickley is on fire right now. If Auburn can slow him down, this game will be really interesting.
  2. No. 24 Michigan State at No. 9 Maryland (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN) — Maryland just barely beat Minnesota earlier this week. The Terrapins will need to play a lot better against Michigan State if they want to win this one. College GameDay will be in town, too, adding to what’s sure to be a crazy atmosphere.
  3. No. 7 Duke at Virginia (Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN) — Duke is fresh off a double-overtime loss to Wake Forest, so the Blue Devils will be eager to bounce back. However, Virginia is heating up at the right time, bringing an ACC-best 5-game winning streak into this game.
  4. No. 19 Michigan at No. 23 Ohio State (Sunday at 4 p.m. ET on CBS) — It’s crazy that both of these teams have worked their way back into the top 25 after their rough starts to Big Ten play. This will be an intense game between heated rivals.
  5. Indiana at Illinois (Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on BTN) — Illinois is 18-9 overall and Indiana is 18-10, and the winner of this game will likely crack the top 25 next week. Plus, both have been very entertaining to watch all year, so this should be an intense matchup.

We’re getting down to crunch time in the college basketball season. Time to make a move for teams on the bubble! The next few days should be fun.

5. Buzzer Beaters

Now, before we leave for the day, let’s dive into a couple of random questions. The first involves the best coach in the SEC:

Who should win the SEC Coach of the Year award this year?

I consider this a 3-man race at the moment, between Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Texas A&M’s Buzz Williams. All 3 have been fantastic this season, but if I had to vote today, I’d go with Williams.

The fact that the Aggies are currently 8-7 in SEC play and in the top half of the standings is insane. A&M lost to Harvard and Fairfield in nonconference play! Still, Williams kept coaching and his players have now bought into his system. I love the toughness the Aggies play with, and if they can pick up another win or 2 before the season ends, I’d give the award to Williams.

If you could attend 1 conference tournament this year, which would you pick?

Well, I will be going to the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas in a couple of weeks and, honestly, I think that’s the tourney I would have picked anyway. The Big Ten Tournament will be fun, too, but the Pac-12 is so wide-open that anything can happen. Entering Thursday night’s games, 5 teams were within a game of first place. That’s the sort of madness I want to see as we approach March.

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.