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 2020-21 season has been tough on everyone, but the Florida Gators have been hit harder than most. Yes, everyone is dealing with COVID-related postponements, cancellations and disruptions, but Florida players and coaches had to watch SEC Preseason Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson collapse on the court against Florida State.

Thankfully, he’s doing OK now and has been on the Gators’ bench serving as basically an extra coach, but that’s the kind of moment that can scar (and scare) everyone in the program. Without a player of Johnson’s caliber on the court, the Gators have struggled.

This past week saw them barely escape a home loss to Ole Miss. Then, on Saturday, the Gators went into Starkville and lost 72-69 to a tough Mississippi State team. They’re now 6-4 overall and 3-3 in SEC play. Even without Johnson, the Gators have too much talent to have that record.

So, is coach Mike White on the hot seat? Checking Twitter after the Mississippi State loss indicated that many Florida fans are ready to move on. How did we get here?

Well, Scottie Lewis missed the Ole Miss and Mississippi State games (and will miss Tuesday’s game against Tennessee) due to COVID protocols. But, it’s not like he was lighting things up before that. The former 5-star recruit scored 2 points in a loss at Alabama and followed that up with 2 points against Kentucky in his last 2 games played. That’s … well, that’s not good.

Tyree Appleby has been solid and big man Colin Castleton has been a revelation. Even in the loss against the Bulldogs, Castleton was great, scoring 16 points with 7 rebounds and 6 blocks. He’s blocked 14 shots in his last 2 games. He also has no problem scoring with 3 or more defenders on him. His blocks have also helped Florida create offense in transition:

Can Castleton help White save his job? If the Gators can’t get back in the NCAA Tournament picture, they could be looking for a new coach before the 2021-22 season.

And, this week’s schedule does the Gators no favors. After hosting No. 6 Tennessee tonight, the Gators head to Georgia for what could be a sneaky-tough game on Saturday. It could end up being pretty simple for White — make March Madness or find a new job. We’ll see what happens moving forward.

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

2. Home-court advantage

The Kentucky Wildcats were a feel-good story at the start of 2021, going 3-0 to begin SEC play. However, the wheels have since fallen off the Kentucky bandwagon. After a 20-point home loss to Alabama last week, the Wildcats followed it up by losing to Auburn 66-59.

After the game, coach John Calipari made some headlines with this statement:

Not trying to take anyone’s heart away? What is this, middle school basketball? No. If Brandon Boston Jr., Devin Askew, Isaiah Jackson and Olivier Sarr aren’t getting the job done, play guys who are. Guys like Dontaie Allen, who was +11 in +/- rating when he was on the floor. (Boston was -13.)

But, instead, Cal only made things worse during a Monday radio appearance:

As Matt Jones mentions, it’s weird Cal seems to be favoring his potential NBA Draft lottery picks over guys like Allen and Jacob Toppin. At least he did say there could be some changes to the starting lineup against Georgia on Wednesday night:

A major problem is that Cal gets mad at the wrong guy and takes the wrong players out of the game. Cal was furious when Allen didn’t shoot this 3, but look at the pass from Askew. It was way too low for Allen to be comfortable launching the shot:

But, Askew can make a sloppy pass like this in a key moment with no consequences from his coach:

Now, I’m not trying to hammer Askew specifically. He did some nice things late in the second half, but he’s, at best, the third-best guard on Kentucky’s roster right now (behind Allen and Davion Mintz). His minutes need to reflect that.

Until Cal stops worrying about upsetting Boston, Askew, Jackson and Sarr (at the risk of losing out on future 5-star recruits and big-name transfers), Kentucky is going to continue to struggle to win games. Wednesday’s game at Georgia is now a must-win matchup for this team. But, it won’t be easy.

Now, let’s move on to some other SEC storylines:

  • Alabama continues to roll. The Tide are 6-0 in SEC play and John Petty Jr. is playing some of the best (and most consistent) basketball of his career. He scored a team-high 17 points and also set the school’s all-time record for 3-pointers:

  • The Tide absolutely embarrassed Arkansas on Saturday, winning 90-59. Arkansas freshman Moses Moody still played well, scoring a game-high 28 points to go with 9 rebounds, but the rest of the Razorbacks struggled. Meanwhile, Petty, Jaden Shackelford (16 points) and Herb Jones (13 points) all were on their games. I feel pretty comfortable in saying the Tide aren’t going to lose many games when those 3 all score in double figures. We’ll see if they can keep it going at LSU tonight (more on that game later).
  • I’ve talked a lot this year about how good Mississippi State’s backcourt duo of DJ Stewart Jr. and Iverson Molinar is. However, that dynamic duo may need to shift into a trio. Tolu Smith had an incredible game in the win over Florida. He scored 27 points to go with 14 points and 3 blocks in the best game of his college career. He didn’t care if he had the entire Florida defense on him, he was going to score:

  • If he can keep putting together solid performances, the Bulldogs will continue to be one of the biggest surprises of the SEC season.
  • Mizzou got back on the court after a COVID-19 hiatus on Saturday at Texas A&M, and managed to get back on track with a big 68-52 win. If you want to know whether the Tigers won or lost a game, all you need to do is look at Jeremiah Tilmon’s line in the box score. Against the Aggies, he had 14 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks and only 1 foul. Yeah, that’s a win for Mizzou. Good luck to any guard tasked with boxing him out:

  • The Tigers need him to continue playing some of the best basketball of his career moving forward to continue climbing the SEC standings.

Next, let’s take a look around the rest of the college basketball world.

3. Road trip

It’s safe to say the Virginia Cavaliers are back in a big way. On Saturday, they absolutely smothered then-No. 12 Clemson in a lopsided 85-50 victory. Talk about making a statement.

The Cavaliers held the Tigers to only 17 points in the first half. But, any time Virginia scores 85 points, it’s the offense we need to talk about. Five players scored in double figures, led by Sam Hauser with 14 points and 8 rebounds.

Virginia has been experimenting with a “5 out” look on offense recently, and it worked on Saturday. Look at this breakdown by Jordan Sperber, as he diagrams how Virginia took advantage of Clemson trying to deny passing lanes by cutting to the hoop:

You’ll see all sorts of offensive and defensive highlights in this full breakdown of the game:

Virginia jumped to No. 13 in this week’s AP Poll and is now the highest-ranked ACC squad. Virginia Tech checked in at No. 16 and Clemson fell to No. 20.

Not every game will be a 35-point blowout for the Cavaliers, but it does appear coach Tony Bennett’s squad is back among the ranks of the elite teams in the country.

Now, let’s dive into some other top stories:

  • If you had any doubt about Baylor as the No. 2 team in the country, the Bears answered them over the past 3 days. On Saturday, they went to Lubbock to face then-No. 15 Texas Tech and earned an impressive 68-60 win. On Monday night, they took down No. 9 Kansas 77-69. Jared Butler led the way, scoring 30 points (with 7 3-pointers) and dishing out 8 assists. Look at this move:

  • But, a guy who doesn’t get enough credit, in my opinion, is Mark Vital. He’s … well, he’s vital to Baylor’s success. Check out this LeBron-esque chase-down block:

  • Oh, and look at this brutal backdoor cover Chris Teahan banked in. Anyone who bet Baylor -8.5 was probably screaming at the TV when this happened at the buzzer:

  • Talk about your all-time bad beats!
  • Speaking of bad beats, Michigan lost for the first time this season, and it was a doozy of a loss. The Wolverines went to Minnesota and left with a lopsided 75-57 loss. Freshman big man Hunter Dickinson was simply out-dueled by Minnesota junior big Liam Robbins. Robbins finished with 22 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 blocks and an assist. He went an impressive 3-for-3 from 3-point range, including this nice shot:

  • That wasn’t the only time the Gopher guards rewarded him for being in a great spot in transition. He also got this thunderous dunk:

  • Minnesota star Marcus Carr had 17 points, but he only went 6-for-18 from the floor and was 0-for-5 from beyond the arc. The fact the Gophers won so emphatically with Carr struggling is a great sign for Richard Pitino’s team moving forward.
  • Finally, after I made my argument for Duke to lose its top 25 standing on Friday, the AP Poll voters apparently agreed with me this week, as the Blue Devils are out. North Carolina and Kentucky also aren’t ranked. That hasn’t happened since 1961:

  • Duke still has time to make it back in the rankings, of course. I wouldn’t count on the Tar Heels or Wildcats being in the top 25 any time soon, though.

Now, let’s take a look at the schedule over the next few days.

4. Outlet pass

It’s a pretty sparse middle of the week when it comes to big-time college basketball games. Whether it’s COVID-19 postponements or a lull in certain conferences’ schedules, there aren’t that many good games this week. Thank goodness for some intriguing SEC matchups, though! Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch between now and Friday:

  1. No. 18 Alabama at LSU (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — The Crimson Tide are 6-0 in SEC play and have a win at Tennessee on their resume. But, the Tigers are playing well and have an elite scorer in freshman Cam Thomas. Can the Tide stay perfect in SEC action? It won’t be easy!
  2. Indiana at No. 4 Iowa (Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on FS1) — Iowa’s Luka Garza is probably the frontrunner for the Naismith Player of the Year award. But, if there’s another big man in the B1G that can go toe-to-toe with Garza on both offense and defense, it’s Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis. This should be a heavyweight battle.
  3. No. 6 Tennessee at Florida (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) — I discussed how badly Florida coach Mike White needs a big win in the opening section of this Starting 5. But, with the way Tennessee’s defense has been stifling opponents all year, this could be a long night for a struggling Gator offense.
  4. Auburn at Arkansas (Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on SECN) — Both of these teams are talented, but both will enter this game with disappointing 2-4 records in SEC play. The winner of this one will get back on track with a 3-4 record. The loser will dig itself a deeper hole with a 2-5 league record. It should be intense!
  5. Maryland at No. 7 Michigan (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on FS1) — Michigan doesn’t have any experience bouncing back from losses this year. Maryland isn’t a great team, but the Terrapins do have a road win at Illinois on their resume. This won’t be easy for the Wolverines.

Not a lot of meat on the bone this week, but there are still some intriguing matchups. We’ll see if any of the ranked teams mentioned above end up losing in upset fashion.

5. Buzzer beaters

Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here for the day:

If the NCAA Tournament wasn’t being held in Indianapolis, which cities do you think would do a good job of hosting?

First, I think Indy is the perfect choice to host the tournament. It’s a basketball-hungry state and has plenty of great facilities to use. But, if it had to be held somewhere else, I think Atlanta, Charlotte and Philadelphia would also be great choices. Charlotte has an NBA franchise and easy access to a number of schools (including North Carolina, Duke, NC State and Wake Forest out of the ACC) with top-notch facilities. Atlanta is a big city with the Hawks, Georgia Tech, Georgia State and Georgia all nearby. Philadelphia has the 76ers’ arena and a number of college facilities. All would be interesting choices to host if Indianapolis couldn’t.

How many SEC teams do you think will make the NCAA Tournament at this point?

Well, it’s looking like Tennessee, Alabama, LSU and Mizzou are all in good shape at the moment. Mississippi State, Arkansas, South Carolina and Florida are all on the outside looking in, but any of those 4 could make a run at March Madness. I’ll remain optimistic and say 6 teams from the SEC make the field. My guess? The 4 teams mentioned as being in good shape, as well as Mississippi State and Arkansas. We’ll see!

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.