Starting 5: Tennessee sends a message, Arkansas lights up Auburn and Iowa bounces back
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
I knew Tennessee was good. In fact, I had a sneaking suspicion that the Vols would move up to No. 1 in my SEC men’s hoops power rankings by beating Mizzou in Columbia on Wednesday night.
But, I had no idea it would be such a bloodbath. The Tigers didn’t have a chance. The Vols proved they’re in a different class. They belong in the conversation with Gonzaga and Baylor as the best teams in college basketball. They shouldn’t be compared to anyone out of the SEC at this point.
Tennessee was never challenged in the 73-53 victory. And, in a great sign for the Vols, Yves Pons really got going. I’ve been calling him out for his early season struggles, so of course he has his best game of the year against my alma mater. He was dunking:
AIR 🛫 PONS
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) December 31, 2020
Really good look from Keon Johnson to find Yves Pons for the finish. pic.twitter.com/hAQzPXytFB
— Trey Wallace (@TreyWallace_) December 31, 2020
And he was playing his usual elite help defense. This play is ridiculous:
Yves Pons just blocked his way into my heart pic.twitter.com/Vx4dID7pKT
— Tyler Monahan (@TMon_19) December 31, 2020
Pons finished with 13 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals and 4 blocks, including that thunderous one above.
The 20-point margin of victory was the largest ever for the Vols over a ranked team:
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) December 31, 2020
And all of this came against a veteran-laden Mizzou squad. The Tigers are a good team! But the Vols weren’t fazed. They completely stifled any momentum for Mizzou on the offensive end. And the offense did enough to make sure the Tigers never got back in the game.
Basically, my point is this — as bad as this loss was for Mizzou, Tennessee is good enough to do this to every other SEC squad on a nightly basis. Watch out for the Vols moving forward. I’d move them up to No. 4 (at least) in the next AP Poll.
Now, let’s move on to some other SEC headlines from the first 2 days of conference play.
2. Home-court advantage
I expected Arkansas-Auburn to be a good game to start SEC play, but I wasn’t expecting it to be as fun as it turned out to be. Arkansas went to The Plains and won 97-85, proving that it is for real. The Hogs didn’t have any meat on their nonconference schedule, but this opening win in SEC play puts the rest of the league on alert.
Desi Sills — the 1 main holdover from last year’s team — showed out, scoring 23 points and grabbing 6 rebounds. Like everyone else on the Arkansas roster, he’s not shy when it comes to launching 3s. Here’s one from way downtown:
Arkansas est toujours invaincu à 9-0 et tape Auburn sur le chemin. Eric Musselman mérite tellement plus de reconnaissance pour son travail incroyable.
Desi Sills écrit un nouveau record en carrière.
23pts à 8/15, 4/7 à 3-pts, 6reb, 2ast et 2stl. pic.twitter.com/yONeKoKTTK
— #MidMajors (@MidnightCampus) December 31, 2020
Fellow guard JD Notae also had a big game, scoring 21 points and grabbing 4 steals. And, in a true exclamation point for the game, he stole the ball and threw down this dunk for the final points:
— “Coach Ras” – Rick Rasmussen (@CoachRasBball) December 31, 2020
Honestly, I love guys like Notae. He’s never met a shot he doesn’t like. This is such a bad shot, but the way he was shooting on Wednesday night, I was honestly surprised it didn’t go in:
JD Notae of Arkansas from way downtown. Pretty sure he digs Steph Curry, Trae Young and Damian Lillard. ESPN announcers called it “ill advised” and “crazy.” pic.twitter.com/Fu4EG36fnP
— Steve Finamore (@CoachFinamore) December 31, 2020
Coach Eric Musselman probably had something to say about that shot, but when you’re scoring more than 20 points in a game and only taking 12 shots, you’re entitled to the occasional heat check, in my opinion. Arkansas only made 9 of its 28 3-point shots, but I love the confidence this team has.
The Hogs play Mizzou on Saturday in Fayetteville, and I’m terrified for that game as a Mizzou alum. But, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Auburn this season, either.
Now, let’s move on to some other SEC stories, starting with that entertaining Auburn squad:
- When you see that Auburn made 15 of its 29 3-pointers, you expect the Tigers to have won. But, committing 19 turnovers and going 14-for-24 from the free-throw line doomed Bruce Pearl’s squad. There were some positives, though. Jamal Johnson led the way with 21 points. But, Allen Flanigan had perhaps his best game of the year, scoring 19 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Remember what I just said about Notae not being afraid of shooting from anywhere? Well, check out this shot from Flanigan:
Allen Flanigan does not operate like a man with a murky shooting outlook. Whew. pic.twitter.com/rIeT0kUrIo
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) December 31, 2020
- I know they’re so risky and coaches hate them, but I absolutely love deep transition 3s. When you make one, there’s nothing more disheartening to opposing teams. I would watch Auburn and Arkansas play 30 times a year.
- I really, really wanted Georgia to be for real this year. I really did. I’ve been singing the Bulldogs’ praises during their 7-0 start, but now I’m selling all my Georgia stock. I’m sorry, but good teams don’t lose by 10 at home to Mississippi State. Yes, it was only 1 game, but considering the Dawgs’ next 3 games are at LSU, at Arkansas and vs. Auburn, I’m not confident in this team at all. This could end up being an 0-4 start to SEC play or worse.
- Now, let’s flip that coin and praise Mississippi State. I’ve been singing the praises of DJ Stewart Jr. and Iverson Molinar as a talented backcourt tandem, and they delivered. Molinar had 24 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists. Stewart had 18 points, 7 boards and 2 assists. This team will go as far as that duo can take them. Fortunately for coach Ben Howland, winning on the road in SEC play is a great sign.
- Finally, I want to dedicate some more space to LSU freshman Cam Thomas, who scored a career-high 32 points in his SEC debut against Texas A&M. He’s on the floor for 1 reason and 1 reason only — to shoot the ball. Fortunately for Will Wade, Thomas does that at an elite level. And, like all great shooters, he’s a confident guy:
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) December 30, 2020
- I wondered if he’d be able to keep up his hot shooting against SEC competition. Well, it seems that answer is a resounding yes.
Next up, let’s take a look around the rest of the college basketball landscape.
3. Road trip
Northwestern started out Big Ten play 3-0, but the Wildcats hit the inevitable road block this week in Iowa. I say “inevitable” because I honestly don’t think anyone will make it through B1G play unscathed. In fact, entering Thursday’s games, Michigan was the only team without a loss in the Big Ten.
The Hawkeyes didn’t even get a great game from star big man Luka Garza, as he “only” scored 18 points with 6 rebounds. But, sharpshooter Jordan Bohannon picked up the slack, scoring 24 points for the second time this year (the other was in a win over North Carolina). Look at some of these NBA-range shots:
Jordan Bohannon had that burner tonight. 🔥
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) December 30, 2020
I think Northwestern is for real, but I also think Iowa is a team that can win the Big Ten. We’ll see what happens with both squads moving forward. The B1G is going to be brutal this season.
Now, let’s look elsewhere around the country:
- For the rest of this section, we’re going to visit the world of tough losses. First, we’ll start with No. 5 Houston, which was undefeated before playing Tulsa. Then, a questionable foul call with less than a second left led to this situation:
— Tulsa Basketball (@TUMBasketball) December 30, 2020
- Houston is still a force to be reckoned with, but this was not a great loss for Kelvin Sampson’s crew.
- And, next, we’re going to discuss Florida State going down at Clemson. The 77-67 score was not a great look for the Seminoles. Nick Honor came up with 13 points off the bench, including these 2 clutch points:
#18 Florida State a implosé en 2ème période et s’incline à Clemson. Victoire des Tigers, 77-67, grâce à un +15 lors des 20 dernières minutes.
7-1 sur la saison.
Clyde Trapp (15pts, 6reb, 3stl) et Nick Honor (13pts) en leaders. pic.twitter.com/mOhmGT4kRu
— #MidMajors (@MidnightCampus) December 30, 2020
- Now, they have to take on Duke in Tallahassee on Saturday. If this is a team with ACC title hopes, this is a game it must win.
Next, let’s take a look at the next few days of college basketball action.
4. Outlet pass
There aren’t many games on New Year’s Day, but there is a busy weekend of college hoops ahead of us. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch between now and Tuesday:
- No. 8 Texas at No. 3 Kansas (Saturday at noon ET on ESPN2) — The Longhorns have proven they belong in the conversation with Kansas and Baylor atop the Big 12. But a trip to Allen Fieldhouse won’t be easy. Win in Lawrence and Texas can establish itself as a legitimate Big 12 title contender.
- No. 19 Northwestern at No. 16 Michigan (Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET on BTN) — The Wildcats suffered their first Big Ten setback this week, as we discussed earlier, losing at Iowa. But, no one is going to make it through B1G play unscathed this year. Can Northwestern get it together and regroup against a ranked Michigan team?
- No. 12 Mizzou at Arkansas (Saturday at noon ET on CBS) — This has been a rivalry since Mike Anderson took the job at Arkansas, leaving Mizzou behind. But, even with Anderson gone, there’s still plenty of disdain between these programs. And, this year, both are near the top of the SEC standings. We’ll see who wins this big-time game.
- No. 10 Iowa at No. 14 Rutgers (Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN2) — Rutgers is 1-1 on the road in B1G play, but 2-0 at home. However, Iowa big man Luka Garza will be a challenge for the Scarlet Knights. Can Ron Harper Jr. play like a superstar again and keep Rutgers’ unbeaten B1G home record intact.
- No. 24 Virginia Tech at No. 23 Virginia (Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on ACCN) — Virginia recently got demolished by Gonzaga. Can the Cavaliers get their stout pack-line defense back on track against a Virginia Tech team that’s playing well? This game could dictate how ACC play will go for Tony Bennett’s squad.
Those are some great games to kick off the new year! Let’s see who gets 2021 started with a bang and who stumbles out of the gates.
5. Buzzer beater
Now, let’s answer a random question before we get out of here and enjoy the rest of our New Year’s Day:
Which major conference do you think has the most teams that can contend for a league championship?
Well, it has to be the Big Ten, right? The B1G has 9 ranked teams — No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 10 Iowa, No. 14 Rutgers, No. 15 Illinois, No. 16 Michigan, No. 17 Michigan State, No. 19 Northwestern, No. 21 Minnesota and No. 25 Ohio State. I wouldn’t be shocked to see any of those teams win the regular-season or tournament titles. I do think Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa are the best of the bunch, but don’t sleep on any of those ranked teams! It’s going to be a fun race in that conference.
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.