Starting 5: Iowa vs. Illinois, Kentucky vs. Tennessee and early national championship pick
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
Well, folks, we made it. The 2020-21 men’s college basketball season starts tomorrow for many teams and over the weekend for many others. Meanwhile, other squads will have to wait a couple of additional weeks as they pause for COVID-related reasons.
In my last Starting 5 column back in March, I was dealing with the loss of my grandpa, with whom I got to watch one last college basketball game — the Miami-Clemson ACC Tournament game. Then, conference tourneys and the NCAA Tournament were canceled and quarantine started on my 30th birthday.
Since then … well, not much has changed. COVID-19 is still impacting the world of sports on a weekly (and daily) basis. College football games are being postponed and canceled every week. It’s a tough time to be a sports fan.
But, let’s try to make this season a positive one. Yes, there will be disruptions. Yes, there will be games canceled, rescheduled and postponed. But, there will be games. I’m choosing to be optimistic. Every game we get to watch our favorite teams play will be a blessing.
No, Feast Week isn’t the same as it usually is, but nothing is the same these days. Let’s just enjoy what we get and hope the NCAA Tournament is actually able to take place this season.
Now, let’s move on to some SEC news:
2. Home-court advantage
The SEC’s top-ranked teams in the preseason AP Poll are No. 10 Kentucky and No. 12 Tennessee. No other SEC squads even made the cut for the top 25.
That’s not to say there are no other worthy SEC squads. LSU returns a ton of talent. Florida could take a step forward this year. And, Alabama seems poised to be better than last year.
For now, though, many consider the race for the SEC title to be a 2-team battle between the Vols and Wildcats for SEC supremacy. The Wildcats are relying on the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, featuring 5-star wings BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke. The Vols bring in a pair of 5-stars of their own, though — Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson.
So, who will win the SEC? My preseason projection is that the Wildcats will win. This year, coach John Calipari not only has the nation’s top recruiting class — he also went deeper into the transfer market. Big man Olivier Sarr is talented enough to compete for the SEC Player of the Year award. Meanwhile, Davion Mintz and Jacob Toppin should play big minutes off the bench.
Then, there’s the freshman foursome of BJ Boston, Terrence Clarke, Isaiah Jackson and Devin Askew. There’s a chance all 4 of them could be in the starting lineup on Wednesday (more on that game later). Tennessee has a deep roster with Yves Pons and John Fulkerson leading the way, but I like Kentucky’s potential a bit more.
I broke down why I like the Wildcats in this episode of the Starting 5 video series, which we’ll be bringing to you on occasion this season. Check it out here:
Either way, this should be a fun neck-and-neck battle between the Vols and Wildcats in the standings this year.
Now, let’s look at some other storylines from around the SEC as we prepare for the season:
- I mentioned COVID-related interruptions earlier. Well, 3 SEC teams are currently dealing with COVID issues. Ole Miss and Florida have both paused activities after positive tests. Meanwhile, Tennessee has done the same. Coach Rick Barnes, 66, is among those positive test results. Florida had to pull out of an event at Mohegan Sun, meaning the Gators won’t play Virginia this week. Hopefully all involved make full recoveries and are able to return to the court this season.
- Auburn isn’t dealing with COVID, but there are plenty of issues in the Tiger program. This week, the Tigers self-imposed a 1-year postseason ban for this season due to violations committed by former assistant Chuck Person. Those violations were revealed back in 2017. Oh, and in other important Auburn news, 5-star freshman Sharife Cooper reportedly hasn’t practiced in a while and is exploring overseas options as he awaits the results of his NCAA eligibility case. That GIF of the “This is fine” dog seems appropriate to describe things at Auburn right about now.
- The Florida Gators were one of the biggest disappointments in the SEC last year. Having Virginia Tech grad transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. and a loaded freshman class didn’t help Mike White’s squad compete for the league title. The Gators are trying to play a faster-paced game this year. I have White on the hottest seat in the SEC entering the season, so if Florida fails to live up to expectations again, he could be out of a job.
- Finally, I want to talk about a transfer I’m super-excited to see in action. No, not Olivier Sarr — Ole Miss big man Romello White. I loved him at Arizona State, and he should be a ton of fun to watch in Oxford. He gives the Rebels a post presence they haven’t had in years. Keep an eye on the Georgia native this season.
Now, let’s take a road trip and leave the SEC for a bit.
3. Road trip
In this section, we’ll take a look at some major national storylines. Today, let’s discuss a few teams I’m excited to watch this season.
We’ll start with No. 8 Illinois. Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are 2 of the most-exciting players in the Big Ten. Both could have probably gone to the NBA Draft, but they came back to school. Dosunmu is a legitimate Player of the Year candidate, and Cockburn will compete for first-team All-B1G honors, too.
The Illini have an exciting nonconference schedule (as of right now), with games against No. 2 Baylor, No. 9 Duke and rival Mizzou. We’ll find out early if this team is for real. Then, they’ll have to battle their way through the brutal gauntlet that is B1G play.
As long as Dosunmu continues to take (and make) impossible, clutch shots, the Illini have a chance to make a Final Four run:
Ayo Dosunmu had a big time year last season for @IlliniMBB. His game will be on full display this year!
-Elite scorer in transition
-Really fast in the open floor & has a quick change of direction
-Good off the dribble
-Thrives in ball screen situations
-Takes & hits big shots! pic.twitter.com/mEiUobpin2
— Andy Fitzgerald (@_AndyFitzgerald) November 20, 2020
Yes, I grew up in Illinois rooting for the Illini, but this year’s team is worthy of every ounce of hype it gets, from me or anyone else. Check out Saturday Tradition writer Ryan O’Gara’s preview of the Illinois season while you’re here. Next, here are a few other teams I have my eye on this year:
- Staying in the Big Ten, how about the Iowa Hawkeyes? Illinois isn’t even the highest-ranked team in the B1G, as Iowa checks in at No. 5. That’s thanks in large part to big man Luka Garza — the only player to be a unanimous AP All-American entering the year. He was the runner-up to Obi Toppin for the national Player of the Year award last season, averaging 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. And, he’s gone plant-based with his diet this offseason. He should be leaner and meaner this year, which is scary for the rest of the Big Ten. Can he lead Iowa on a deep NCAA Tournament run? That’s the big question. The Hawkeyes do look poised to make a run for a B1G title, though.
- The No. 1 team in the country, according to the preseason AP Poll, is Gonzaga. Yes, the Bulldogs lost Killian Tillie to the NBA and Filip Petrusev to international hoops, but coach Mark Few’s squad is still absolutely loaded. Petrusev was the leading scorer, but Corey Kispert averaged 13.9 points per game last year. He, Drew Timme, Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard, Joel Ayayi and others are going to have to step up even more this season. We’ll get an early look at if the Bulldogs are for real on Thursday. More on that game later.
- When I was living in Philadelphia back in 2018, Villanova won the national championship, beating Michigan. I was rooting for the Wildcats, and when they won, it was the second big celebration in the city in a matter of 2 months, as the Philadelphia Eagles had just won the Super Bowl. Philly knows how to celebrate, so those 2 nights were a lot of fun. Now, I no longer live in Philly, but I still have a soft spot for Villanova. Losing Saddiq Bey will hurt the No. 3 Wildcats this year, but they still return 4 guys (Collin Gillespie, Justin Moore, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Jermaine Samuels) who averaged at least 10 points per game last season. Watch out for them. They’re legitimate title contenders once again.
Now, let’s take a look at the next few days of games.
4. Outlet pass
In this section, we’ll discuss the games I’m most excited about between now and the next edition of the column (Friday). So, here are the games I can’t wait to see on Wednesday and Thursday:
- No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 6 Kansas (Thursday at 1:30 p.m. ET on FOX) — Wow, what a matchup to start things off! Gonzaga looks like a legitimate national title contender. Kansas, meanwhile, lost Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson to the NBA. Perhaps the Jayhawks are a bit overrated?
- No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 18 Arizona State (Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN) — The No. 2 team in the country, Baylor, also starts out with a ranked matchup! The Sun Devils have been great in nonconference play the past couple of years, so we’ll see if Baylor can avoid an early upset loss against Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State team. (UPDATE: This game was postponed due to Arizona State’s concerns about Baylor coach Scott Drew testing positive for COVID-19.)
- Memphis vs. Saint Mary’s (Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) — The games drop off a bit after those first 2, but this is a fun game between a couple teams that should be in the mix for NCAA Tournament berths. Memphis loses 2 first-round NBA Draft picks, but the Tigers are still a strong team under Penny Hardaway.
- No. 3 Villanova vs. Boston College (Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) — Villanova has a chance to make a statement in its first game. Many think the Wildcats deserved to be the No. 1 team in the country. We’ll see if they can prove it on Wednesday night.
- No. 10 Kentucky vs. Morehead State (Wednesday at 6 p.m. ET, TV TBD) — This is more about me being excited to see the Wildcats and less about who they’re playing. They could win by 50 and I’d still have the game on my list. I can’t wait to see BJ Boston, Terrence Clarke, Isaiah Jackson, Devin Askew and Olivier Sarr in action!
Some great games right off the bat! And, since some of these matchups take place in preseason tournaments, the weekend should be a busy one, too.
5. Buzzer beaters
In this section, I’ll answer a couple of random questions. They can be about basketball or anything else, really. Here are today’s questions:
Who is your preseason pick to win the national title?
I’m going to be a bit of a homer and pick my home-state team, the Illinois Fighting Illini. I absolutely love the combo of guard Ayo Dosunmu and big man Kofi Cockburn. The Illini would have been a tough out in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments last year if they weren’t canceled. Now, they have their 2 leaders back, a solid point guard in Trent Frazier and plenty of momentum. I think they’ll get their first title in program history this year.
What’s on your TV on Thanksgiving day (in normal years)? The parade, football, basketball or something else?
I don’t watch any TV on Thanksgiving, as it’s a sacred day to spend with … no, I’m just kidding! Of course I watch TV all day like a regular person. Normally, I give the parade a quick look in the morning, then switch back and forth between football and college hoops. I’m pumped for the Gonzaga-Kansas game I mentioned above, so I’ll prioritize that over the Texans-Lions game, for sure. Then, it’s all football.
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.