Starting 5: Kentucky needs a new late-game strategy, Michigan State is a mess and the Mizzou-Kansas rivalry is alive
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 Kentucky Wildcats’ woes continued on Saturday, as they went to Louisville and lost to the rival Cardinals in heartbreaking fashion. The score was closer than some of Kentucky’s games at 62-59, but there are no moral victories in Lexington.
A cause for concern was the play of big man Olivier Sarr, who only scored 1 point and only had 1 rebound and 1 block in 22 minutes of action. He was 0-for-4 from the floor and 1-for-2 from the free-throw line, but that’s not why I’m concerned. Everyone has bad shooting nights. Heck, everyone other than Davion Mintz on the Kentucky roster is having a bad shooting season.
But, elite players find ways to impact the game in other areas, and Sarr didn’t do that. He wasn’t hitting the boards and he committed 3 fouls and 2 turnovers. That’s just not good enough.
Then, there was the shot with time winding down. You might remember this shot that came up short against Notre Dame in the final seconds:
On the game’s final play Cal is going to go to his hot hand, Olivier Sarr. They run the pin down & pop with Sarr screening for B.J Boston. The look is there. Great effort by Nikola Djogo to sprint into the closeout and contest. @KentuckyRivals pic.twitter.com/gpk2hfJmSk
— David Sisk (@CoachDavidSisk) December 12, 2020
Well, Sarr again had the ball with the chance to put the Wildcats ahead in the closing seconds. And, the same thing happened:
Almost the same type look that UK ran on the last play vs Notre Dame. Clear out handoff & pop for Sarr. Cruel break not to go in. Can’t fault the look or the shot. That one defied the law of gravity. Tough break for a struggling team. @KentuckyRivals pic.twitter.com/2CF58xgfhc
— David Sisk (@CoachDavidSisk) December 27, 2020
Yes, that shot almost went down, but it didn’t. And, it’s just not a high-percentage shot (clearly) for Sarr. He’d been cold all night and he’s simply too far away from the basket. If he were a step or 2 closer on those tries, I’d be more comfortable with it.
But, that play needed to be designed for Davion Mintz. He was the only Kentucky player shooting well. He had 19 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals in the game. He went 4-for-6 from 3-point range.
Louisville was paying extra attention to him late, but the ball needed to be in his hands. It wasn’t, and now Kentucky is 1-6. The Wildcats need to get Sarr back on track this week before SEC play really heats up. But, if Mintz continues to step up, the Wildcats have a budding star in the Creighton transfer.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the other top stories in the SEC.
2. Home-court advantage
The Missouri-Kansas rivalry is still alive and well, even if the 2 teams won’t meet on the court this season. No, this latest edition of the rivalry comes to us through the AP Poll. The Tigers are No. 12 in the latest poll, while the Jayhawks are No. 3.
But, don’t tell that to Kansas City Star reporter Jesse Newell. Newell, who covers the Jayhawks, had the team ranked No. 8 in his poll. But, even more interesting was the fact that he didn’t rank the Tigers at all.
That’s right. Nowhere in the top 25 did he have room for a team that is 6-0 with wins over ranked Illinois and Oregon squads. Very interesting, indeed. He was the only reporter with a vote to not rank Cuonzo Martin’s crew.
If the Tigers beat No. 7 Tennessee on Wednesday night and undefeated Arkansas on Saturday, perhaps Newell will take note. We shall see!
And now, let’s take a look around the rest of the SEC:
- Casual hoops fans are about to get a big-time introduction to LSU freshman Cam Thomas. He already has 3 games with 25 points or more, leading all Division I freshmen. And just look at these shots he was making in a 29-point effort against Nicholls:
Make that THREE 25-point games for @LSUBasketball's Cameron Thomas!
The most of any freshman in D-I 🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/IJl6KTIbey
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) December 26, 2020
- LSU hosts Texas A&M on Tuesday night and travels to Florida on Saturday. Those will be a couple of tough games for the freshman. Can he continue to torch the nets? Or, will the SEC athleticism slow him down?
- Arkansas is 8-0 and looking strong. Like Thomas at LSU, a freshman is leading the Hogs in scoring — Moses Moody. The do-it-all player is averaging 16.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists per contest. Here’s just a sampling of what he can do:
6'6 205lb Swingman Moses Moody has had an impressive start to his Freshman SZN w/ @RazorbackMBB.
⭐️ 16.9 PPG / 5.6 RPG / 1.9 APG
⭐️ 41.7% 3PT on 4.5 3PA
The 18-year old possesses a smooth stroke w/ a 7'1 wingspan & a genuine feel for the game.
— LEAGUE HIM. (@League_Him) December 27, 2020
- Moody has flown under the radar a bit since the Razorbacks haven’t played any high-profile opponents. But, starting Wednesday night at Auburn, he’ll be on the main stage alongside Auburn freshman standout Justin Powell.
- Finally, since we’re on the theme of freshmen, here’s how I rank the top 5 freshmen in the SEC heading into league play:
My current SEC Freshman of the Year rankings:
1. Moses Moody, Arkansas
2. Cam Thomas, LSU
3. Justin Powell, Auburn
4. Terrence Clarke, Kentucky
5. Jaden Springer, Tennessee
— Adam Spencer (@AdamSpencer4) December 27, 2020
- Who will stand out over the next few months? There are plenty of talented first-year players in the league this year! (If you have a few minutes, go check out how many people were upset in the replies to my tweet about there not being any football players on the list. It is great comedy.)
Next up, let’s take a look at some of the biggest stories elsewhere around the country, including plenty of drama in the Big Ten.
3. Road trip
We’ve all seen some crazy, unexpected things in the sports world in 2020, but this tweet is up there among the strangest:
Kentucky Wildcats: 1-6
Northwestern Wildcats: 6-1
— John Riker (@john__riker) December 26, 2020
We’ll focus on the second part of that tweet — Northwestern is 6-1 this year, with the only loss coming to Pitt by 1 point. The Wildcats are 3-0 in Big Ten play, with wins vs. then-No. 4 Michigan State, at Indiana and vs. No. 23 Ohio State.
At the heart of Northwestern’s success is sophomore Boo Buie, who has one of the best names in college basketball. He hit a clutch 3 with just over a minute left against Ohio State (a game which the Wildcats won 71-70). Watch him create space for himself on this shot without dribbling or passing:
— Northwestern On BTN (@NUOnBTN) December 26, 2020
That’s an instinctive play, and it was a great look in a clutch situation. He’s going to do special things, which could bode well for the Wildcats. Still, there are some major hurdles facing Northwestern. These are the Wildcats’ next 5 games:
- at No. 10 Iowa
- at No. 16 Michigan
- vs. No. 15 Illinois
- at No. 25 Ohio State
- vs. No. 10 Iowa
Uh, yeah. That’s brutal. That’s the Big Ten for you! Speaking of the Big Ten …
- Something is seriously wrong with Michigan State. After climbing as high as No. 4 in the AP Poll, the Spartans have collapsed. After going 6-0 in nonconference play, with wins over Duke, Notre Dame and others, Tom Izzo’s squad is 0-3 in Big Ten play, with losses to Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The biggest issue was the loss at Minnesota on Monday night. The Spartans lost 81-56 and couldn’t get any offense going at all. Joshua Langford went 2-for-10 for 5 points and Rocket Watts was 1-for-9 for 2 points. This is the first time in nearly 20 years the Spartans have started Big Ten play 0-3:
Michigan State is a team with no compass. Can't initiate offense. Can't defend the point of attack. Sparty is 0-3 in Big Ten play for the first time since the 01-02 season.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 29, 2020
- Meanwhile, Marcus Carr continues to do Marcus Carr things for the Gophers. He scored 19 points in the win, making impossible shots like these:
No. 21 Minnesota boat races No. 17 Michigan State behind Marcus Carr’s 19 points 🟡🦫
The Gophers are for real 👀
— The One & Dones (@theoneanddones) December 29, 2020
- Carr is a contender for B1G Player of the Year, as are Iowa’s Luka Garza and Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu, among others. Here’s your weekly Ayo update. He scored 30 points, including 18 in the last 10 minutes of the game against Indiana over the weekend. Look at how clutch he came up for the Illini:
Ayo Dosunmu exploded in the final 9:20 of last night's contest against Indiana. 18 points in that stretch. He's up to 44% from three on the season. pic.twitter.com/KxFBZFILuy
— Brandon Simberg (@BrandonSimberg) December 27, 2020
- He is a closer, and he scored nearly half of his team’s points in the 69-60 victory. The Illini will be tough to beat if Dosunmu is able to continue his star play.
- I was going to write about how Wisconsin’s seniority makes the Badgers tough to beat. But, on Monday night, the Badgers … well, they lost. D’Mitrik Trice was solid, scoring a game-high 25 points for Wisconsin, but he didn’t get much help. Meanwhile, Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins, a pair of juniors, led the way for the Terrapins in the 70-64 win. Ayala had 17 points and Wiggins added 15 points, 9 rebounds and a pair of steals, like this one:
— Maryland On BTN (@MarylandOnBTN) December 29, 2020
- Are the Terps dangerous? I don’t know yet, but this is not a great loss for Wisconsin on its home court. We’ll see what happens moving forward.
- Gonzaga is the No. 1 team in the country, and it might not even be close. The Bulldogs trounced then-No. 16 Virginia on Saturday, 98-75. Yes, 98 points. Against Tony Bennett’s elite Virginia defense. It helps that Corey Kispert was absolutely on fire. He scored 32 points, going 9-for-13 from beyond the 3-point arc. These aren’t cheap 3s either. Check this one out:
Heat check 🔥
— CBS Sports CBB (@CBSSportsCBB) December 26, 2020
- That’s Damian Lillard/Steph Curry range. Drew Timme did his part, too, scoring 29 points and grabbing 8 rebounds. This team is unstoppable. There’s a real chance the Bulldogs enter the WCC tournament with a 25-0 record.
Now, let’s take a look ahead to the final few days of the 2020 calendar year.
4. Outlet pass
SEC play starts this week, so there are a few big games I want to see. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch between now and Friday:
- No. 7 Tennessee at No. 12 Mizzou (Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on SECN) — This is a battle between the only 2 ranked teams in the SEC. That’s crazy to say, but it’s the truth. The Vols have all the makings of an elite squad, but the experienced Tigers won’t be easy to beat in Columbia.
- No. 19 Northwestern at No. 10 Iowa (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on FS1) — Yes, Iowa lost at Minnesota on Christmas Day, but the Hawkeyes still have the National Player of the Year frontrunner in Luka Garza. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are one of the best stories of the young B1G season. Something’s gotta give on Tuesday night!
- Arkansas at Auburn (Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — Arkansas will almost certainly crack the top 25 if it wins at Auburn. But, don’t sleep on the Tigers and sharpshooting freshman Justin Powell!
- Mississippi State at Georgia (Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on SECN) — This battle of the SEC Bulldogs will be an interesting one. Is Georgia for real? We’ll find out on Wednesday night!
- No. 21 Minnesota and No. 6 Wisconsin (Thursday at 4:30 p.m. ET on BTN) — The Golden Gophers are riding high after upsetting Iowa. Now, Marcus Carr and company face the senior-laden Badgers. This will be a solid Big Ten battle on New Year’s Eve!
It’s a fun slate of games to close out the 2020 calendar year. Big things are ahead in 2021!
5. Buzzer beaters
Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here for the day:
How many games do you think Kentucky can win in SEC play?
I know y’all are going to call me crazy, and I know I’m holding onto hope for Kentucky since I picked the Wildcats to make the Final Four, but I think they can win 10-11 SEC games. They play 18, and I think 10-11 victories is somewhat reasonable. Now, of course, the team we’ve seen this season thus far won’t win any SEC games, so this all depends on improvement soon. But, with games against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt to start the league season, they have time to get some stuff figured out.
What’s the best time zone to live in for New Year’s Eve?
Well, fortunately, midnight happens in every time zone, so we can all celebrate the calendars flipping over from awful 2020 to new, hope-filled 2021. But, if watching the Times Square ball drop and enjoying all the TV events going on every hour are things you care about, probably the Pacific time zone. That way, you can watch all the different midnights in the continental United States, celebrate yours at midnight and then head to bed so you can get up early for all the New Year’s Day bowl games.
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.