Starting 5: It’s time for John Calipari to change his coaching style, Alabama continues its hot streak and Michigan continues to shine
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
Kentucky is 2-0 in SEC play, but a double-overtime win at Mississippi State and a narrow home victory over Vanderbilt are hardly anything to write home about. Still, wins are wins, and the Wildcats desperately need them right now.
My issue is that it seems like coach John Calipari’s in-game coaching is actively hurting the Wildcats. There’s no one in college basketball who recruits like Coach Cal, but this season particularly, it’s worth wondering whether he needs to revamp his coaching style to get with the times in college basketball.
Whether he wants to admit it or not, 3-pointers are a part of the game today, and he hasn’t embraced that. Even when he had Tyler Herro on his roster in 2018-19, Kentucky only attempted 16.4 3s per game (345th in Division I). And, the Wildcats only made 5.8 per game (325th in Division I). Last season, Kentucky shot 14.8 3s per game (349th), making 5.1 per contest (339th). This year, they’re actually faring slightly better, believe it or not. The Wildcats are currently launching 17.1 deep shots per game (309th), making 5.1 per game (321st).
For comparison’s sake, here’s how the current top-5 teams in the AP Poll rank when it comes to 3-point shooting (prior to Thursday night’s games):
- No. 1 Gonzaga: 20.6 per game (220th), 7.1 makes (189th)
- No. 2 Baylor: 25.0 per game (72nd), 10.9 makes (12th)
- No. 3 Villanova: 27.6 per game (27th), 10.3 makes (21st)
- No. 4 Texas: 24.6 per game (81st), 8.4 makes (88th)
- No. 5 Iowa: 27.8 per game (24th), 10.4 makes (19th)
Gonzaga is the anomaly there, obviously. But, Mark Few’s Bulldogs have one of the most efficient offenses in recent memory. Kentucky … uh, well … Kentucky does not.
That’s a lot of numbers, yes, but the point is this — even when Calipari has talented 3-point shooters like Herro, he hasn’t been using them to their full potential. Heck, this year, he kept Dontaie Allen on the bench for most of nonconference play. Then, he gives Allen more playing time against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt and viola! Allen scored a team-high 23 points in the win against the Bulldogs and added 14 against Vanderbilt. Kentucky won both games.
Allen made a whopping 7 3-pointers at Mississippi State. Kentucky made 11 as a team. But, Cal wasn’t around to see 6 of them. After watching their coach get ejected with 9:05 remaining in the second half, the Wildcats made 6 long-range shots during the rest of the second half and in the overtime periods. Allen made 5 of them.
It seems he finally felt comfortable firing away from beyond the arc once Cal wasn’t there to pull him and sit him on the bench after a miss.
Here are the kinds of shots he was taking (and making) once Calipari was ejected at Mississippi State:
In the final two clips Kentucky doesn’t stop moving when the shot clock gets under ten & MSU stops the ball. Lance Ware comes & gets the ball when Mintz is cut off. Then Dontaie Allen sprints for the pitch. His 7th three was the game clincher. @KentuckyRivals pic.twitter.com/ni8lj6PUPM
— David Sisk (@CoachDavidSisk) January 3, 2021
The bank is always open when you’re hot. Once again, Dontaie Allen and Kentucky made some big shots when MSU guarded well. Even though the set got blown up there was still ball and player movement. @KentuckyRivals pic.twitter.com/FV6bUxSKTM
— David Sisk (@CoachDavidSisk) January 3, 2021
That second shot, in particular, is one that might have drawn Cal’s ire if he were still on the bench. Instead, with Cal far away in the locker room, Allen’s confidence soared and he had the best performance of his career.
Meanwhile, when Sarr takes long 2-point shots — the most inefficient shot in basketball — he doesn’t get pulled from the game. Look at this! Either back up to make it a 3-point attempt or try to get to the rim!
Why, why, WHY??? Either back up and make it a 3 or don’t shoot that shot with 19 seconds on the shot clock!
Sarr is so good in the paint, but he needs to be benched when he shoots shots like this. pic.twitter.com/JKgS9YY3GV
— Adam Spencer (@AdamSpencer4) January 6, 2021
It’s not like Kentucky can’t design plays to get guys open for 3s. This was the biggest play of the game against Vanderbilt. Look at how Mintz gets a wide-open look in the corner thanks to a dribble penetration from Devin Askew and a screen from Jacob Toppin:
Play of the game. Decoy slip by Jackson to get Devin Askew in space. This occupies the help side eye balls. Vandy’s helps in paint which leaves 2 on 1 on back side. Toppin screens in Davion Mintz who cuts from wing to corner for the game winning three. @KentuckyRivals pic.twitter.com/TNxXIZJQJV
— David Sisk (@CoachDavidSisk) January 6, 2021
That’s beautiful. Mintz has proven he can knock those shots down more often than not. He’s been a bright spot, shooting 35.3% from 3-point range. Get him more touches. The Wildcats don’t have to become the Houston Rockets, but they should empower their best shooters to actually shoot more often.
Look — I’m not John Calipari. He’s a great basketball coach and the best recruiter in the nation. But, it just seems to me that, if the goal is to win games and not just get Brandon Boston Jr., Terrence Clarke, Olivier Sarr and Isaiah Jackson drafted as high as possible in the 2021 NBA Draft (spoiler alert: their draft stock is currently tanking in a big way), the Wildcats need to be a team led by Allen, Mintz and, to a lesser extent, Askew.
The Wildcats travel to Gainesville tomorrow evening. The Gators know how to score and play a fast-paced game. If Kentucky wants to keep up, it’ll need to make some 3s. Will Calipari allow his shooters to shoot? We’ll find out soon enough.
Now, let’s move on to some other SEC storylines.
2. Home-court advantage
Alabama is 3-0 in SEC play. I can honestly say I didn’t see that coming, especially since the Crimson Tide’s second conference game was at Tennessee. But, Nate Oats’ squad has passed all 3 tests during SEC action with flying colors.
On Tuesday night, the Tide took down the Florida Gators, who were 2-0 in SEC action entering the game in Tuscaloosa. Alabama had 5 players with more than 10 points. Herb Jones (16 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals), Jaden Shackelford (16 points, 3 rebounds), Keon Ellis (16 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals), James Rojas (15 points, 7 rebounds) and John Petty Jr. (12 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists) all had spectacular games.
But, I want to highlight Jones’s efforts. I honestly think he’s playing like an SEC Player of the Year candidate. His offensive game has improved so much. Look at him putting the ball on the court and getting to the rim:
— Crimson Crossover (@CrimsonXover) January 6, 2021
He also does that at the :50 mark of this video. Plus, we all already know how good he is on defense. He’s the second-best defender in the SEC (behind Tennessee’s Yves Pons). If he keeps playing at this level, the Tide can beat anyone in the SEC.
Meanwhile, getting guys like Rojas and Ellis going is an added bonus as the team deals with the absence of PG Jahvon Quinerly due to medical reasons. Can the Tide keep things rolling against Auburn on Saturday? We’ll find out tomorrow!
Now, let’s move on to some other SEC stories:
- Mizzou took a 39-27 lead into halftime at Mississippi State on Tuesday night. Then, the wheels didn’t just fall off for Cuonzo Martin’s team — they also caught on fire and disintegrated before our eyes. Mississippi State exploded for 51 second-half points to earn an easy 78-63 victory. Yes, that’s embarrassing for the Tigers, but it’s time we started paying attention to the Bulldogs. I thought Mississippi State would be one of the worst teams in the SEC this year after all they lost. Instead, DJ Stewart Jr. and Iverson Molinar have been one of the top backcourt tandems in the conference. They combined for 44 points (24 for Stewart, 20 for Molinar). At one point in the second half, Stewart scored 13-straight points for the Bulldogs:
🔥 @djstewart187 𝘾𝙚𝙧𝙩𝙞𝙛𝙞𝙚𝙙 𝘽𝙪𝙘𝙠𝙚𝙩
— Mississippi State MBK (@HailStateMBK) January 7, 2021
- We know guards are crucial in March, so if the Bulldogs can continue to pull off upsets, Stewart and Molinar could lead this team on a deep run in the SEC Tournament. Mississippi State is a double-overtime loss against Kentucky away from being 3-0 in SEC action. This is a dangerous team.
- So, uh, apparently LSU doesn’t like to get out and run in transition very much. During regulation of the Tigers’ 94-92 overtime win over Georgia, the Bulldogs held a 24-0 advantage in fast-break points. However, Cam Thomas came to the rescue once again. The star freshman had a game-high 26 points. He had a terrible night shooting, making just 1 of his 8 3-pointers, but he went an incredible 15-for-16 from the free-throw line. Meanwhile, big man Trendon Watford did not. He went 3-for-10 from the charity stripe. But, considering he missed his first 7 free throws, he actually finished the game on a high note. Still, he’s going to have to improve from the stripe or LSU’s opponents might employ a hack-a-Watford strategy late in games moving forward.
- That game didn’t end without some controversy, either. In typical SEC officiating fashion, there was a questionable call late in the game that didn’t get reviewed. Georgia’s Justin Kier, who scored a team-high 25 points, seemed to retain possession for the Dawgs here:
— Barstool UGA (@ugabarstool) January 7, 2021
- Instead, LSU was awarded possession and the play wasn’t even reviewed. How do you not review that? That’s unacceptable. Everything is reviewed in college basketball these days, it seems. The officials should face discipline for missing that one. Now, the Dawgs have to regroup and move forward as they prepare for a game at Arkansas tomorrow.
- Finally, let’s talk about Ole Miss’s demolition of Auburn on Wednesday. The Tigers are now 0-3 in SEC play, which I didn’t anticipate after they had a couple of nice wins in nonconference play. Khadim Sy had a great game, scoring 13 points for the Rebels and going 3-for-3 from 3-point range. But, I was most impressed with Devontae Shuler. The Rebels’ leading scorer only had 7 points and was a meager 3-for-10 shooting (1-for-6 from long range), but he found other ways to impact the game. He had 10 assists and also had 2 steals and a block. He proved he’s more than just a scorer. If he can facilitate as well as score, the Rebels will be a tough team.
Next, let’s take a look around the rest of the college basketball world.
3. Road trip
I’ve talked a lot in this space about how tough the Big Ten will be (and has been) this year. Only 1 undefeated team remains — No. 10 Michigan. The Wolverines are 9-0 overall and 5-0 in Big Ten action.
However, after starting the league season against Penn State, Nebraska and Maryland, there were questions about whether Juwan Howard’s squad was legit or not. Let’s just say they’ve answered those questions this week.
First, Michigan crushed No. 19 Northwestern 85-66 in Ann Arbor. Then, in another home game against a ranked team this week, the Wolverines beat No. 16 Minnesota 82-57. Those are what we in the business call convincing wins.
If you don’t know Michigan freshman big man Hunter Dickinson yet, get him on your radar ASAP. He finished with a game-high 28 points and 8 rebounds against the Gophers. That was a career-high, and he did it with his size and strength:
What a night at Crisler! If you weren't able to see the game, we got your highlights.
Oh yea … Hunter Dickinson is pretty good (career-best 28 points)
— Michigan Men's Basketball (@umichbball) January 7, 2021
Things will get tougher for the Wolverines, as 8 of their 14 remaining games will be against teams that are currently ranked. But, for now, the Wolverines are riding high, and it’ll be fun to see how long they can keep their undefeated streak going.
Now, let’s move on to some other stories from around the country:
- Illinois trailed Northwestern 43-28 at halftime of Thursday night’s game in Evanston. Big man Kofi Cockburn was getting pushed around by the Wildcats’ post players. But, in the second half, that all changed. Clearly, whatever coach Brad Underwood said at halftime worked. Cockburn finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds and 2 blocks. He was even slapping the floor in the second half:
— Hoop Informatics (@HoopInformatics) January 8, 2021
- This is what Illinois needs him to do on a regular basis:
— Hoop Informatics (@HoopInformatics) January 8, 2021
- I personally think this Illinois team gets bored sometimes. How else do you explain 43 points allowed in the first half and only 13 given up in the second? They’ll need to get that out of their systems by March.
- Michigan State has been struggling during B1G play, but the Spartans got a big boost this week against a ranked Rutgers squad. They improved to 2-3 in Big Ten action and did it with their defense, holding the Scarlet Knights to a frankly embarrassing 45 points. The crazy part is that Michigan State only forced 9 turnovers. The Spartans coughed it up 18 times on their end. The Spartans only scored 68 points in the 68-45 win, but that will make coach Tom Izzo much happier than any 90-80 win ever will. Defense requires effort, and the Spartans showed they have plenty of fight left moving forward.
- After trouncing Kansas in Lawrence last weekend, Texas almost suffered a letdown loss at home against unranked Iowa State this week. The Longhorns avoided the upset, winning 78-72, but it wasn’t pretty. This tough jumper from Matt Coleman III iced the win for the Longhorns:
Chef Coleman is cookin perfection pic.twitter.com/LmWPEHQ9fC
— Longhorn Network (@LonghornNetwork) January 6, 2021
- All 5 of Texas’s starters had 10 or more points, which is a great sign. The bad news? The Texas bench scored 7 points total. That’ll have to change if the Longhorns are going to win at West Virginia on Saturday. More on that game later.
- North Carolina is only 7-4 this season. The Tar Heels have had a rough start to ACC play, though, losing at NC State and Georgia Tech before beating Notre Dame. Then, this week, they took down Miami in dramatic fashion. With time winding down, Andrew Platek hit this difficult baseline floater to win 67-65:
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) January 6, 2021
- Next up? A home game against ranked Clemson and a road trip to ranked Florida State. We’ll find out if the Tar Heels can keep their positive momentum going in those 2 games.
- Finally, I have to leave you with yet another unbelievable pass from Gonzaga PG Jalen Suggs. The No. 1 Bulldogs trounced BYU on Thursday night, thanks in large part to unbelievable plays like this from the star freshman:
Are you kidding me, Jalen Suggs?? pic.twitter.com/xYRBlZKSDa
— Adam Spencer (@AdamSpencer4) January 8, 2021
- You can’t teach that. In fact, most coaches would yell at players for even attempting something so crazy. Suggs made it look routine.
Now, let’s take a look at the next few days of college hoops action.
4. Outlet Pass
It’s going to be a busy weekend around the country as we enter the heart of the college hoops season. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch over the weekend:
- No. 4 Texas at No. 14 West Virginia (Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN) — As we talked about earlier, the Longhorns got all they could handle against Iowa State this week. And that game was in Austin. Shaka Smart’s squad will need to be a lot better if it wants to escape with a win in Morgantown.
- Kentucky at Florida (Saturday at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN) — Just like we all predicted, Alabama (3-0), Kentucky (2-0) and South Carolina (1-0) are the only undefeated teams in SEC play. Just kidding — literally no one predicted that. Anyway, Florida will have to bounce back after losing to the Crimson Tide. But, the Wildcats will be eager to keep their perfect record in 2021 going.
- No. 16 Minnesota at No. 5 Iowa (Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET on BTN) — If Minnesota loses this game, the Gophers are in danger of falling out of the top 25 after falling to Michigan earlier in the week. Unfortunately, Luka Garza and the Hawkeyes aren’t going to feel sorry for their opponents. Expect this to be a battle.
- UCLA at Arizona (Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN) — What’s this? A big Pac-12 game that’s not on the Pac-12 Network? Well, this should be a lot of fun to watch. The winner of this game should be ranked on Monday.
- LSU at No. 13 Mizzou (Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET on SECN) — Mizzou got trounced in the second half at Mississippi State earlier this week. It’ll need to rebound in a big way against a tough LSU team. Can Cuonzo Martin’s crew find answers for sharpshooting Cam Thomas and versatile big man Trendon Watford?
This has been an unpredictable season so far. What sort of craziness will we see over the weekend? I can’t wait to see which of these games turn into nail-biters.
5. Buzzer beaters
Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here for the day:
Which star freshman would you rather have on your team — Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs or LSU’s Cam Thomas?
Oh man, that’s a really tough question. They’re both incredible players and both are perfect fits for their current teams. Suggs is “only” averaging 13.5 points per game, but he’s the better all-around player than Thomas. Suggs also averages 5.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.4 steals per contest. Meanwhile, Thomas is simply a pure scorer, averaging an impressive 24.8 points to go with 2.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.2 steals per night. Give me Suggs because elite all-around point guards are really hard to find, but you can’t go wrong with Thomas, either.
Your team is up 3 with only a few seconds remaining and the other team has the ball. You’re the coach. Do you foul to force 2 free throws or let things play out?
Well, that depends on a number of factors. First, how good of a 3-point shooting team is my opponent? Second, how consistent has my team been at the charity stripe during the game?
I know the analytics will disagree with me, but I let it play out and trust my team to defend a 3-pointer. At worst, the other team makes a 3 and we go to overtime. But if you foul and put the other team on the line and they make both free throws, the pressure suddenly shifts to you. Your team then needs to inbound the ball successfully, get it across half-court and then make a pair of free throws of your own. If you miss even 1 free throw, the other team can then win with a 3. I’m not a fan of that. Trust your defense, I say.
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.