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 @BlueChipGrit.

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1. Opening tipoff

Getting the best players to play basketball at your school seems like a great idea, right? You’d never turn down a group of 5-star freshmen joining your squad.

But, is that strategy successful when it comes to the NCAA Tournament?

March Madness is a grind. Winning 6 games in a row without losing, especially when your opponents are among the best teams in the entire country, is no easy task. And, increasingly, it is becoming clear that 1-and-done superstars don’t translate to success in March.

From 2010 to 2015, no one played the 1-and-done game like John Calipari at Kentucky. As John Clay of Kentucky.com notes, Calipari produced 9 top-10 NBA Draft picks from 2010 to 2015:

That incredible run led to 1 national title (2012) and 3 Final Four appearances (2010, 2012 and 2015). But, since 2015, there has been a noticeable dropoff in both Final Four appearances and top-10 draft picks at Kentucky.

Enter Duke. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has undoubtedly outplayed Calipari at the 1-and-done game since 2015. Starting with the 2016 NBA Draft, Duke has produced 7 top-10 NBA Draft picks, compared to only 3 for Kentucky.

But, also, Duke hasn’t been to a Final Four since 2015, either. Instead, teams that don’t rely on freshmen for scoring have dominated the NCAA Tournament since 2016.

Here’s a breakdown of the last 5 national champions and what year their top-3 scorers were:

  • 2020-21 Baylor: Jared Butler (junior), MaCio Teague (senior), Davion Mitchell (junior)
  • 2018-19 Virginia: Kyle Guy (junior), De’Andre Hunter (sophomore), Ty Jerome (junior)
  • 2017-18 Villanova: Jalen Brunson (junior), Mikal Bridges (junior), Donte DiVincenzo (sophomore)
  • 2016-17 North Carolina: Justin Jackson (junior), Joel Berry (junior), Kennedy Meeks (senior)
  • 2015-16 Villanova: Josh Hart (junior), Kris Jenkins (junior), Ryan Arcidiacano (senior)

Not a freshman in the bunch.

Coach K’s 2014-15 Duke team was led in scoring by Jahlil Okafor, a freshman. Justise Winslow finished third and Tyus Jones finished fourth. But, that Blue Devil squad had a senior doing the ball handling, Quinn Cook, who also finished second on the team in points per game.

Every year since that year, though, the Blue Devils have had at least 1 freshman finish in the top 3 in scoring and haven’t so much as made it to the Final Four, let alone win a title.

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At Kentucky, since 2015, the Wildcats have had a freshman (and often multiple freshmen) finish in the top 3 in scoring. And, same as Duke, there have been 0 Final Four appearances.

So, what happened? Both Duke and Kentucky were doing so well playing the 1-and-done game. But, then, teams caught up. They realized the way to combat superstar freshmen was with a cohesive team that had experience playing together. Also, the transfer portal allowed

Over at Kentucky, we’ve seen Calipari doing great work with the portal. Oscar Tshiebwe was National Player of the Year worthy this season. Kellan Grady and Sahvir Wheeler were huge pieces. Coach Cal has shown he’s willing to embrace the new era of college hoops. No, it didn’t work out this year, but there’s reason for optimism in the future.

Meanwhile, Coach K has hitched his final year to another star freshman – Paolo Banchero. AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels are also freshmen who play big roles. But, second-leading scorer Wendell Moore is a junior.

Can Moore play the Quinn Cook role and lead a young team to a title? Or, will the recent trend of veteran-laden teams winning it all hold true?

It’s going to be an exciting finish to what has already been an incredible NCAA Tournament!

2. SEC notes

Arkansas is the last SEC team left standing in the NCAA Tournament, just like last year when the Hogs made it to the Elite Eight before losing to eventual-champion Baylor. This year feels like a similar vibe to 2021, at least as far as the Razorbacks are concerned.

Last year, the Hogs struggled for a while against 14-seed Colgate in Round 1 before pulling away late. This year, the Hogs struggled throughout the game against 13-seed Vermont, holding on for a 4-point win. Last year, Arkansas barely survived against Texas Tech in Round 2. This year, Arkansas earned a 5-point win over a tough New Mexico State team.

JD Notae and Jaylin Williams refused to let the Hogs lose to the Aggies on Saturday. Notae had 18 points and a whopping 8 steals. Williams had 10 points, 15 rebounds and an absolutely insane assist to Notae:

That’s a Kevin Love-esque outlet pass. Notae and Williams are special players who are going to have to continue to be special if Arkansas is going to advance.

Last year, Arkansas faced 15-seed Oral Roberts in the Sweet 16, holding on to win by 2 points. This year, the Hogs have to face No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga. That’s a much tougher task.

We’ll see which team prevails on Thursday night in San Francisco. Arkansas has a habit of playing close games, though, so it should be a lot of fun.

  • No. 2 seed Auburn entered the NCAA Tournament playing some mediocre basketball. After starting the year 22-1, the Tigers struggled down the stretch, finishing the last 11 games with a so-so 6-5 record:

  • Starting with the loss at Arkansas, it just seems teams figured out the Tigers. They learned that you can’t let Wendell Green Jr. and KD Johnson beat you. Yes, Johnson and Green combined to score 23 points against Miami, but they only went 8-for-24 from the floor and 2-for-12 from 3-point range. That’s not going to cut it. Also, teams have started taking away the 2-man game between Green and Kessler. Kessler scored only 2 points and grabbed only 2 rebounds against the Hurricanes. Auburn just wasn’t going to win on Sunday with all of that working against it. Still, the Tigers won the SEC regular-season title, so that is something to celebrate as Jabari Smith Jr. and perhaps others head off to the NBA Draft.
  • Like the Tigers, the Tennessee Volunteers picked a bad time to go cold from the 3-point arc. Tennessee shot only 2-for-18 from long range (11.1%). Kennedy Chandler was the only one who had anything going offensively, finishing 9-for-19 for 19 points. He added 9 assists. But, it wasn’t enough to overcome the Vols’ shooting struggles. That has been the problem with this team all year. Every now and then, Tennessee has been prone to cold nights from the floor (see a 51-point effort at Texas and a 48-point game at Arkansas). Now, it’s back to the drawing board for the Vols. But, don’t let this disappointment distract you from a wonderful season on Rocky Top. The Vols won their first SEC Tournament title since 1979. Like Auburn’s regular-season title, any time you can add a trophy to your school’s case, it’s a good year!
  • Finally, I have an issue with this quote from Bruce Pearl:

  • I’m a big SEC defender, so I’d love to explain away the league’s struggles like that. But, it just simply doesn’t hold water. The Big Ten is a brutal conference and got 2 of 9 teams to the Sweet 16. The Big 12 is perhaps the toughest top-to-bottom conference in the country. Kansas, Texas Tech and Iowa State are still dancing. Everyone has tough conference schedules. The SEC is no different in that regard, though the league has gotten much better in recent years.

Next, let’s discuss the Big Ten’s performance in the first weekend of the tournament.

3. B1G notes

Michigan entered March Madness as an 11-seed, barely scraping their way into the field of 68. Now, the Wolverines are heading to Sweet 16 for the second year in a row. Big man Hunter Dickinson is certainly making his coach proud, too.

With 48 points in the Wolverines’ first 2 games, he’s done something that hasn’t been done for Michigan since Juwan Howard did it in 1994:

Tennessee simply had no answer for Dickinson. He was able to do almost anything he wanted, and even knocked down 3 of his 5 3-pointers:

The Wolverines face a veteran Villanova team on Thursday evening, but the Wildcats don’t have a rotation player taller than 6-8. They might be susceptible to a big game from Dickinson, too. We’ll see if he can keep his magnificent play going.

  • Purdue managed to advance to the Sweet 16 after a win over Texas on Sunday night. Jaden Ivey scored 18 points and was his usual electric self, but big man Trevion Williams was the star of the show. He came off the bench and had 22 points on 10-of-13 shooting, 7 rebounds and 2 assists, including this incredible dish:

  • That, along with Jaylin Williams’ pass above, are the passes of the tournament thus far. The Boilermakers’ defense has (fairly) taken plenty of heat this season, but so far, it has held up. Now, Purdue faces a Cinderella squad in Saint Peter’s with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line. Can the Boilermakers send the Peacocks back to New Jersey? More on that game later.
  • After losing B1G Tournament champ Iowa to 12-seed Richmond in Round 1, the Big Ten dropped several more teams on Sunday. Of 9 teams that made the field of 68 from the Big Ten, only Michigan and Purdue are advancing. On Sunday, Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State all bowed out without reaching the Sweet 16. Of course, Michigan State and Ohio State were lower seeds. Meanwhile, Houston was the betting favorite over Illinois. Wisconsin was the only B1G higher seed expected to win that fell. So, how should the conference feel about sending only 2 of 9 teams to the Sweet 16? My Saturday Tradition colleague Alex Hickey provided some great insight in this column.

Next, let’s dive into some of the ACC storylines from the weekend.

4. ACC notes

North Carolina led No. 1 seed Baylor by 25 points on Saturday in the second round matchup. The game went into overtime before the Tar Heels eventually pulled off a 93-86 win to send the reigning champs home.

What happened? Simply put, the Tar Heels took their foot off the gas pedal, and also were dealt a couple of bad hands by officials. Star forward Brady Manek was ejected for a questionable elbow after scoring 26 points in only 28 minutes of action:

Caleb Love also fouled out of the game, helping the Bears’ frantic comeback attempt. But, at the end of the day, R.J. Davis wouldn’t let the Tar Heels lose. He scored a career-high 30 points to lead the way for UNC.

Also, some unexpected players stepped up, including Dontrez Styles, who hit this clutch 3 to start overtime on a strong note for the Heels:

March Madness, as we know, is all about survival. Well, the Heels survived a potential embarrassment of epic proportions on Saturday. Now, they’ll take on a tough UCLA team in the Sweet 16. More on that game later.

  • The Miami Hurricanes, as mentioned earlier, took down Auburn in the second round on Sunday night. Jim Larranaga remains one of the most underrated coaches in the nation, and he’s also one of the funniest. He had this quip after the game, saying he was trying to save America from a shirtless Charles Barkley:

  • Now, the Hurricanes have a real chance to beat Iowa State in the Sweet 16 to advance to the Elite Eight. That would be the furthest the Hurricanes have been under Larranaga. It would be Larranaga’s second-farthest NCAA Tournament run, behind only his Final Four run at George Mason.

Next, let’s take a look ahead to the round of 16.

5. Outlet pass

Whew, we made it through the first weekend of the tournament! What a weekend it was, full of upsets and dramatic games. Next weekend is setting up to be yet another great slate of college hoops action. Here are the 5 games in the Sweet 16 round I can’t wait to watch on Thursday and Friday of this week:

  1. No. 2 Duke vs. No. 3 Texas Tech (Thursday at 9:39 p.m. ET on CBS) – From here on out, every Duke game has so much at stake. One more loss and Coach K’s legendary career is over. But, of course, with 4 more wins, Coach K won’t have to suffer another loss before retirement. The Blue Devils will be put to the test against a super-athletic Texas Tech squad that plays an exciting brand of positionless basketball.
  2. No. 4 UCLA vs. No. 8 North Carolina (Friday at 9:39 p.m. ET on CBS) – A battle of 2 legendary blue-blood programs with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line? Sign me up. North Carolina narrowly avoided disaster after blowing a 25-point lead against Baylor in Round 2. Meanwhile, UCLA took down a feisty Saint Mary’s team. UCLA made a Final Four run last March. We’ll see if the Bruins can take a step toward repeating that feat on Friday.
  3. No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 15 Saint Peter’s (Friday at 7:09 p.m. ET on CBS) – When the Peacocks are playing, I’ll be watching. No one has done more for their personal brand this March than Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway. This is probably where their Cinderella run will come to an end, but hey, that’s been said before. Saint Peter’s was supposed to lose to Kentucky and Murray State. Yet, the Peacocks are still strutting their stuff. Watch out, Purdue.
  4. No. 10 Miami vs. No. 11 Iowa State (Friday at 9:59 p.m. ET on TBS) – We know at least 1 double-digit seed will advance to the Elite Eight, as 2 of them square off in this matchup. Jim Larranaga has done an incredible job with the Hurricanes. But, TJ Otzelberger might be doing an even better job with the Cyclones. Iowa State was abysmal last year. The turnaround in Otzelberger’s first year has been impressive to watch. Whoever wins this game will be able to continue a magical season no one saw coming.
  5. No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 Arkansas (Thursday at 7:09 p.m. ET on CBS) – Neither of these teams have looked particularly dominant thus far through 2 games. But, one of them will advance to within a game of the Final Four. If Arkansas can hang close, the Hogs will be in a better position to pull off the upset than either Georgia State or Memphis were. Gonzaga needs to play much better to win this contest.

Will any of the double-digit seeds advance to the Elite Eight? We know at least 1 will. Who else will make it within a game of the Final Four? We’ll find out between now and the next Starting 5 on Friday! Enjoy the games, folks!

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.