Starting 5: Is Luke Garza pulling a Trae Young? What’s wrong with Alabama? How far can Georgia go?
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 Alabama Crimson Tide have been struggling lately. Entering Saturday’s game at Mizzou, they had yet to lose an SEC game, but the cracks were starting to show. They hadn’t scored 80 or more points in 3 games entering the showdown against the Tigers, which is surprising for a team as dynamic as Nate Oats’ squad.
There was also the 66-61 loss at Oklahoma in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge last weekend. So, like I said, the cracks were showing. Mizzou exploited that, jumping out to a huge lead. Then, the Tigers had to hold on as the Tide came roaring back. But, when the final buzzer sounded, the Tigers had won 68-65.
It wasn’t without some controversy at the end. Herb Jones, the SEC Player of the Year frontrunner, appeared to be fouled on a last-second layup attempt:
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 6, 2021
Yes, that was probably a foul. But, you can’t fault the refs for letting teams play. Stuff like that happens all the time in college basketball and the NBA without whistles, particularly in late-game situations.
So, what else went wrong for the Tide? Well, you can look at a few stat lines to get a good idea:
- Josh Primo: 28 minutes, 0 points, 0-for-0 shooting
- James Rojas: 13 minutes, 2 points, 1-for-5 shooting, 0-for-3 from 3
- Alex Reese: 17 minutes, 3 points, 1-for-7 shooting, 1-for-5 from 3
- Herb Jones: 22 minutes, 7 points, 3-for-7 shooting, 1-for-1 from 3
- John Petty Jr.: 32 minutes, 11 points, 4-for-12 shooting, 3-for-6 from 3
The most shocking line is Primo’s. The freshman has been hot lately, so to not even have him attempt a shot is crazy to me. Meanwhile, Jones clearly isn’t fully healthy as he deals with a back injury. Expect him to keep playing, but until he gets some rest, he might struggle.
Now, Mizzou is No. 10 in the AP Poll and Alabama is No. 11. But, there’s still a gap between the 2 schools in the SEC standings. Alabama is 10-1 in league play, with the Tigers sporting a 6-3 mark. The Tide are still the frontrunners, but they could have basically put the race away with a win on Saturday.
Joe Lunardi also had the Tide as a No. 1 seed in his NCAA Tournament bracketology entering Saturday’s game. But, they obviously blew that. If the Tide can consistently hit the 80-point mark, their defense is good enough to turn things around quickly.
Can they do it? Can they earn their way back on to the 1-seed line? How high can Mizzou rise? We’ll find out over the next month!
Now, let’s move on to some other SEC stories:
2. Home-court advantage
The Ole Miss Rebels have picked up a couple of great wins. Last week, they knocked off Tennessee in Oxford. On Saturday, they won in thrilling fashion against Auburn in overtime.
Here was Devontae Shuler’s game-winning shot. The degree of difficulty on this is high, but Shuler absolutely drained it:
— Ole Miss Men’s Basketball (@OleMissMBB) February 6, 2021
Shuler had 26 points. When he’s hot, the Rebels can beat anyone in the SEC. But, to help matters on Saturday, big man Romello White was also on fire. He finished with a 30-point, 10-rebound double-double and also blocked 4 shots. He’s so tough to handle in the post:
— TJOxley1 (@TJOxley1) February 6, 2021
The Rebels host No. 10 Mizzou on Wednesday night, so we’ll see if they can keep the hot streak going!
Before we move on, though, we need to discuss some more insane passes from Sharife Cooper. He finished with 15 points and 14 assists in Auburn’s loss on Saturday. Here were 2 of his craziest passes, neither of which ended up in an assist:
this find from Sharife is ridiculous pic.twitter.com/ZiPWoJZ1QU
— Drew (@orangeanddrew) February 6, 2021
This is a legit through ball from Sharife Cooper pic.twitter.com/VtNaOB8cUH
— Eric Fawcett (@Efawcett7) February 6, 2021
That’s a guy who just sees the court at a different level than everyone else. Even if the Tigers never win again this season, he’s worth watching.
Now, let’s move on to some other SEC headlines:
- The Tennessee fan base has to be breathing a deep sigh of relief this week. Finally, both 5-star freshmen — Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer — had huge games for the Vols in a come-from-behind win at Kentucky on Saturday night. Johnson had 27 points and Springer added 23. Those 50 points were important, obviously, and they came in a variety of ways:
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 7, 2021
- Those guys look like NBA Draft lottery picks. They haven’t always looked like that in the past few weeks. If they can more consistently play like that, the Vols will look like a Final Four team again soon enough.
- The Georgia Bulldogs are tied with the Missouri Tigers for the longest current winning streak in the SEC, with both schools having won their last 3 contests. Georgia picked up a narrow escape over Vanderbilt on Saturday, winning 73-70 in Athens. No, that’s nothing to write home about, but winning is better than losing (that’s the sort of analysis you come here for, right?) and closing out games is something the Dawgs have struggled with at times this year. Toumani Camara didn’t have his best game, but he made the important free throw in the game’s final seconds and also blocked this shot:
🇧🇪 Toumani Camara with the go-ahead free throw and then a clutch block against Vanderbiltpic.twitter.com/5Fo5bKYDAw
— CBB Europe (@CBB_Europe) February 7, 2021
- The Bulldogs aren’t on the NCAA Tournament bubble at the moment, but they’re getting close. Well, now is the time to show what they’ve got. Their next 4 games are at Tennessee, at Alabama, vs. Mizzou and at Florida. Brutal!
Now, let’s take a look around the rest of the college basketball world.
3. Road trip
Luka Garza — the big man out of Iowa — is the National Player of the Year in college basketball, right? That’s the narrative we’ve been hearing all year, and he has some impressive numbers. So far, he’s averaging 25.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.6 blocks per game.
But, the problem is that Iowa is floundering right now. The Hawkeyes have lost 4 of their last 5 games and find themselves sitting at 13-6 overall. Garza is obviously very important to the Hawkeyes, but as my colleague Dustin Schutte recently pointed out to me, the Hawkeyes are 0-3 in games that CJ Fredrick doesn’t play in. He also missed the second half of a recent Indiana game. The Hawkeyes led by 6 at halftime and blew it. Fredrick seems like a very important piece of the Iowa puzzle, too.
So, it’s worth asking the question — will Garza lose his big lead when it comes to the Naismith and Wooden Player of the Year awards? It has happened before. We only need to go back to 2017-18, when Oklahoma freshman Trae Young was the toast of college basketball through the first few months of the season.
Then, though Young continued to put up impressive numbers, his team struggled, losing 10 of its last 13 games. The Sooners also lost in the first rounds of both the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments.
Instead of Young, Villanova’s Jalen Brunson took home the Player of the Year awards. So, who would be candidates to win if Garza’s team continues to struggle?
How about Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert? He’s having a heck of a year, averaging 19.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game for the undefeated Bulldogs. Even more impressive are his shooting percentages. He’s making 67% of his 2-point shots and 48.2% from 3-point range. Oh, and he’s an 89.5% free-throw shooter.
He can even make 4-point plays look easy:
— Gonzaga Basketball (@ZagMBB) February 5, 2021
All I’m saying is, don’t give this award to Garza just yet. If he doesn’t finish the season strong and the Hawkeyes continue to struggle, he could, like Trae Young a few years ago, lose the award after having a big lead.
Now, let’s discuss some other stories from around the country:
- The ranks of the unbeaten in Division I hoops are down to 2 — Gonzaga and Baylor. That’s because the Drake Bulldogs suffered their first loss of the year, falling 74-57 against Valparaiso. The Missouri Valley Conference has teams playing 2 games in a couple of days this year, so the Bulldogs had to play at Valpo twice over the weekend. The first game was an 80-77 Drake win, but the magical undefeated season ended in the second game. A 2-game home series against No. 22 Loyola-Chicago awaits the Bulldogs moving forward.
- Another guy who is putting himself in the National Player of the Year conversation is Ayo Dosunmu at Illinois. He had the third triple-double in Illinois history in Saturday’s 75-60 win over Wisconsin, putting up 21 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists. It was an incredible game by the elite guard:
Ayo Dosunmu triple double vs Wisconsin! 21 PTS, 12 REB, 12 AST pic.twitter.com/E8wCD0MQLS
— Courtside Films (@CourtsideFilms) February 7, 2021
- No one is better at creating a shot for himself than Dosunmu. If he keeps dominating, and Illinois keeps winning, there’s no reason he can’t win the Player of the Year award. Unless, that is, his own teammate steals some votes. Kofi Cockburn has been dominant lately, too. He torched Wisconsin for 23 points and 14 rebounds. When they’re going right, Cockburn and Dosunmu are the best duo in the country.
- Finally, let’s talk about another budding superstar in Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham. The Cowboys lost against Kansas on Monday night, but they upset then-No. 6 Texas on Saturday in double-OT. Cunningham almost ended it with this steal:
This was almost an insane game winner by Cade Cunningham pic.twitter.com/PSddMR3N3r
— Eric Fawcett (@Efawcett7) February 6, 2021
- He didn’t make the shot, but it did keep Texas from having a chance to win. Cunningham only made 5 of his 22 shot attempts, but he finished with 19 points and 8 rebounds. His 6 turnovers are too many. He needs to shoot at a better clip and take care of the ball more to truly live up to his massive potential. But, on Saturday, Kalib Boone was there to pick up the slack. He scored 22 points, had 15 rebounds and added 5 blocks:
Came out on top of the 2OT thriller, but not without some highlights down the stretch 🔥
— OSU Cowboy Basketball (@OSUMBB) February 7, 2021
- He was a beast, and the Cowboys will need more of that from him if they’re going to keep a potential NCAA Tournament bid alive!
Now, let’s take a look at the week ahead.
4. Outlet pass
There are some important conference games taking place this week. Some squads need to avoid bad losses, while others need a big win to boost their NCAA Tournament resumes. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch between now and Friday:
- No. 14 West Virginia at No. 7 Texas Tech (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN) — The Red Raiders have wins over LSU, Oklahoma and Kansas State in their last 3 games. The Mountaineers are fresh off a big win over Kansas. Who will flinch first in this Big 12 showdown?
- No. 25 Rutgers at No. 15 Iowa (Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on BTN) — The Hawkeyes have been struggling. They’ve lost 4 of their last 5 games — twice to Indiana, once each to Illinois and Ohio State. Meanwhile, Rutgers is playing well. Can the Hawkeyes get back on track?
- No. 10 Mizzou at Ole Miss (Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on SECN) — If you’re a Mizzou fan, you know this is exactly the kind of game the Tigers lose. They’ve already lost at Mississippi State and at Auburn during league play this year. Can they avoid another road setback on Wednesday night against the streaking Rebels?
- Georgia at No. 16 Tennessee (Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — This game was slapped together on Sunday due to ongoing COVID-19 problems at Florida and Texas A&M. The Vols catch the Bulldogs at a bad time, as Georgia is riding a 3-game winning streak. Can the Dawgs make it 4 in a row?
- Winthrop at Radford (Thursday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN+) — Winthrop is 16-1 overall and 13-1 in Big South Play. Radford is 12-2 in Big South action. So, yeah, this is a huge game when it comes to NCAA Tournament spots.
These games will have major impacts on bubble teams and conference title races. Who will win? Who will suffer bad losses? We’ll find out over the next few days!
5. Buzzer beaters
Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here for the day:
It seems like no one wants to be a No. 1 seed these days. Who would you put on the 1 line alongside Gonzaga and Baylor as things stand right now?
Well, yeah, Gonzaga and Baylor are shoo-ins at this point. Alabama recently lost. Houston recently lost. Iowa is in a slump. Villanova recently lost. Michigan hasn’t played in a while. At this point, I’d probably put Ohio State as the third No. 1 seed. The fourth 1 seed is a toss-up. Right now, though, I’m leaning toward giving it to Villanova still. But Michigan can certainly reclaim it quickly if it comes back hot after its long COVID-19 break.
Would you rather be an elite 3-point shooter or a dominant big man?
Oh, this is easy. I’d much rather be a guard who lights it up from 3-point range. The game is changing to favor elite shooters, so I’d want to do that. Plus, that way, I wouldn’t have to be so physical, either. Being a big man is hard on the body, particularly the knees. I’d rather be a smaller shooter and make a bunch of money playing basketball that way!
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.