Starting 5: The Sharife Cooper Show, Alabama’s injuries mount and Michigan embarrasses Wisconsin
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 Sharife Cooper show has finally arrived in Auburn, and oh man, has it ever been glorious. After the 5-star freshman was ruled eligible by the NCAA the night before Auburn’s game against Alabama, he made an electric debut, scoring 26 points to go with 9 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals. That prompted ESPN’s Dan Dakich, who called the game, to tweet this:
— Dan Dakich (@dandakich) January 9, 2021
Of course, we all know now that Cooper did not, as Dakich predicted, drop off in his second game. In fact, he was better, scoring 28 points to go with 12 assists, 5 rebounds and 2 steals. At least Dakich (sort of) owned up to his mistake in a joking way:
Nailed it https://t.co/TKnIK5yFAi
— Dan Dakich (@dandakich) January 14, 2021
Cooper was absolutely dominant in the Tigers’ 95-77 victory over Georgia. How do I know he’s not just a guy who is starting hot and will drop off as teams get tape on him? Look at this pass:
— Drew (@orangeanddrew) January 14, 2021
As good as his scoring has been, his passing has been even better. He just sees the court at a different level than those around him. These highlights are full of great passes, as well as plenty of excellent made shots:
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) January 14, 2021
I’ve been saying all year that Florida’s Tyree Appleby is the best alley-oop thrower in the SEC. Well, Cooper is making me rethink that.
The crazy part is that Cooper will be the first one to tell you he should be even better. He’s committed 10 turnovers in his 2 games and is only 1-for-11 from 3-point land. If he can get his deep shot going, it’s game over for Auburn’s opponents.
He also makes his teammates better. Fellow freshman JT Thor has had his 2 best games of the year alongside Cooper. Devan Cambridge seems to enjoy working with Cooper. And, he hasn’t even had a chance to play with another freshman — sharpshooter Justin Powell. Once Powell returns, Cooper is going to have another lethal option to dish the ball to.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Auburn is only 7-6 overall and is 1-4 in SEC play. Oh, and the Tigers self-imposed a 1-year postseason ban, so even if they go on a major run, they won’t be playing in the SEC or NCAA Tournaments. That’s going to be a bummer, as Cooper is looking like a guy who should be a top-5 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
With Cooper running the point, though, Auburn has definitely become must-see TV.
Now, let’s move on to some other SEC headlines.
2. Home-court advantage
Alabama handed Kentucky its worst home loss of the John Calipari era, winning 85-65. But, that win came at a price, as Herb Jones and Jordan Bruner suffered injuries. Bruner will be out a month or more with a knee issue. Jones left the game after suffering a hand injury. Alabama fans naturally worried that he had suffered another wrist injury like he did last season, but there’s some good news on that front. It seems it was only a finger issue, which, while serious, only makes him day-to-day in terms of returning to the court.
While Jones and Bruner were out, though, John Petty Jr. stepped up. He scored a game-high 23 points, and he did it in a variety of ways. Here’s a good look at how coach Nate Oats schemed up an easy dunk for him:
— Bama Basketball Film Room (@BamaFilmRoom) January 13, 2021
But, Petty was also able to create for himself. Here he is driving into the lane and drawing an and-one:
— Crimson Crossover (@CrimsonXover) January 13, 2021
And, here he is drilling a difficult step-back 3:
— Crimson Crossover (@CrimsonXover) January 13, 2021
Petty is a very streaky shooter, but when he’s hot, he can carry a team. The Tide will need him more than ever this week, as they host Arkansas on Saturday and travel to LSU on Tuesday night. If Jones is out for those games, Petty needs to be a star.
Now, let’s move on to some other SEC stories:
- The Florida Gators needed a late comeback, but they avoided a home loss against Ole Miss on Tuesday. Colin Castleton continues to emerge as a star, scoring 21 points to go with 10 rebounds and an incredible 7 blocks. His seventh block was the key, though, leading to this go-ahead bucket from Noah Locke:
— Florida Gators Men’s Basketball (@GatorsMBK) January 13, 2021
- Credit to Tyree Appleby for that assist, too. Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis cost his team dearly after the Gators next bucket. After Florida took a 66-63 lead, Davis picked up a technical foul. He’s got to keep his cool there. That’s unacceptable for a coach in a close game.
- Texas A&M somehow pulled off an upset win at Mississippi State on Wednesday night. The Bulldogs have been one of the hottest teams in the SEC, and took a 33-23 lead into halftime. But, the Aggies kept chipping away, and Andre Gordon hit a 3 with just under 2 minutes remaining in the game to give A&M a 56-52 lead. They held on to win 56-55. The Aggies did not have a good offensive night, as Jay Jay Chandler led the way with only 12 points. Iverson Molinar had a game-high 16 points, but the Aggies made him work for everything. This crazy shot was a good indicator at how creative Molinar had to be:
— Mississippi State MBK (@HailStateMBK) January 14, 2021
- That’s a typical win for the Aggies under Buzz Williams. A&M does not shoot the ball well, but they’re stifling defensively. Williams is happy to win games like this, and this won’t be the last time A&M squeezes the life out of an opponent.
- Finally, let’s talk about that LSU-Arkansas game. Fresh off a 30-point win over Georgia, Arkansas fell flat on its face in Baton Rouge, losing to the Tigers 92-76. Big man Trendon Watford went for 23 points and 10 rebounds. He’s all over this highlight reel:
Trust me… You're going to want to watch the highlights and read the recap from Wednesday's 92-76 victory over Arkansas 🔥
— LSU Basketball (@LSUBasketball) January 14, 2021
- Freshman sensation Cam Thomas was playing with an ankle that wasn’t 100%, but he still finished with 17 points with 4 rebounds and 3 assists, including this great alley-oop pass to Mwani Wilkinson:
We <3 @MwaniWilkinson alley oop's
📺 SEC Network pic.twitter.com/HZ50lAuAn3
— LSU Basketball (@LSUBasketball) January 14, 2021
- LSU is going to be tough to beat with Watford, Thomas and Darius Days (18 points, 13 boards on Wednesday) playing like this.
Now, let’s move on to some non-SEC stories.
3. Road trip
It’s time we start considering the Michigan Wolverines for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They’re 11-0 overall and 6-0 in Big Ten play. And, on Tuesday night, they absolutely embarrassed No. 9 Wisconsin.
At one point in the game, Michigan held a 69-29 lead. That’s not a typo. From the 6:19 mark in the first half to the 10:00 mark in the second half, the Wolverines put together an almost-unbelievable 43-6 run.
Here’s every basket from that run, excluding the free throws:
The 4⃣3⃣-6⃣ run, minus the FTs, for your enjoyment. 〽️
— Michigan On BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) January 13, 2021
The final score was 77-54. The Wolverines have played 3-straight games against ranked opponents and have won each of them by 19 points or more. Here’s a little historic context for that incredible feat:
Last 3 games for @umichbball:
Beat #19 NW by 19
Beat #16 Minn by 25
Beat #9 Wisc by 23
They're the 1st team to play 3 straight AP Top 25 teams and beat all 3 by 15+ pts since Memphis did so in the 2008 NCAA tourney.
Last to do it in the regular season was Kentucky in Jan 2003.
— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) January 13, 2021
(Thanks to my colleague Paul Harvey (not that Paul Harvey) for sharing that stat with me.)
It was a balanced attack from the Wolverines, who only had 3 players score in double figures. Franz Wagner led the way with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Michigan might not lose any time soon, either. After a tough trip to No. 23 Minnesota this weekend, the Wolverines host Maryland, travel to Purdue, host Indiana and travel to Northwestern. Those are all winnable games.
Now, let’s discuss some other big stories in the college basketball world:
- Stillwater has been a house of horrors for Bill Self during his tenure at Kansas. In Tuesday’s column, I predicted that this would be a tough game for the Jayhawks and, indeed, they lost to Oklahoma State this week. They’ve lost in Stillwater 3 times since 2015. This time, they fell 75-70. Down 73-70 late, the Jayhawks were inbounding the ball under their basket. But, Bryce Williams stole the ball and ended up throwing down this incredible, game-sealing slam:
Oklahoma State upsets No. 6 Kansas in style 🤯
Cade Cunningham finished with 18 Pts, 7 Reb, and 7 Ast. pic.twitter.com/tTVa3cw3YS
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 13, 2021
- Freshman sensation Cade Cunningham finished 18 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. But, if the Jayhawks want to win the Big 12, they can’t go losing road games like this. The Big 12 is loaded this year, so we’ll see if the Jayhawks can stay within striking distance of first place.
- Speaking of the Big 12 being loaded, Texas finally suffered its first conference loss. Texas Tech picked up its first-ever road win over a top-5 team. First ever. Like, in program history. It was a big moment for coach Chris Beard. Georgetown transfer Mac McClung had a game-high 22 points, including the game-winning 3:
Game 4:1 pic.twitter.com/9MdZ6fYGbA
— Doug Gottlieb (@GottliebShow) January 14, 2021
- The Red Raiders are every bit as good as Texas and Kansas. Now, we’ll have to see if they (or anyone) can match up with No. 2 Baylor. They’ll get their chance on Saturday, but we’ll discuss that game in a bit.
- Duke is currently the No. 19 team in the country. But, at 5-3 after a loss at Virginia Tech this week, it’s worth wondering whether the Blue Devils belong in the top 25. They don’t play before the next AP Poll on Monday, but based on name alone, they’ll probably remain in the top 25. And that’s not OK to me. Yes, Duke’s losses have all been to teams that were ranked at the time (at home against MIchigan State and Illinois, on the road at Virginia Tech). But, what’s their best win? A 1-point home win against Boston College? An 11-point home win over Wake Forest? A 10-point road win at Notre Dame? Those are all ACC bottom-feeders. And those are literally the only options for Duke’s “best win,” as the Blue Devils’ nonconference victories came against Coppin State and Bellarmine (which I’m only half-sure is a real school). Get Duke out of the top 25. The Blue Devils don’t belong in that conversation.
Now, let’s take a look ahead to the weekend’s top games.
4. Outlet pass
There are some big-time games this weekend. The 5 games I can’t wait to see include 5 matchups of ranked squads, along with 1 really exciting SEC matchup. So, without further ado, here are the games you need to circle on your calendars over the next few days:
- No. 6 Kansas at No. 2 Baylor (Monday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN) — This is going to be a really tough game for Baylor, especially since it comes 2 days after a road trip to Texas Tech (more on that game in a second). Will the Jayhawks’ struggles on the road continue after their loss at Oklahoma State? Baylor won’t make things easy for Bill Self’s crew.
- Kentucky at Auburn (Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN) — No, neither of these teams are ranked, and Kentucky just got blown out by Alabama, but any time Sharife Cooper plays, I’m going to be watching. Will Kentucky right the ship and improve to 4-1 in SEC play? Or, will the Tigers continue their ascension under Cooper?
- No. 21 Ohio State at No. 14 Illinois (Saturday at noon ET on FOX) — After losing at home against Maryland last weekend, Illinois had its chance to go on the road and bounce back at Nebraska postponed due to COVID-19 issues. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes are hot after an 11-point win at Rutgers and a 10-point home win against Northwestern.
- No. 2 Baylor at No. 15 Texas Tech (Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN) — See? I told you we’d talk about this game in a second. The Red Raiders are riding high after stunning Texas in Austin. Baylor can’t afford to get caught looking ahead to Monday night’s big home showdown against Kansas.
- No. 18 Virginia at No. 12 Clemson (Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN) — At 9-1, Clemson remains the highest-ranked team in the ACC. But, Virginia has been playing really well as of late. Can the Cavaliers go into Clemson and pull off an impressive victory? If they do, we might have to reassess Tony Bennett’s squad this year.
We haven’t made it to February yet, but these games are all still so important to the conference standings across the country. And, without a full nonconference slate this season, conference records are going to be of the utmost importance when it comes to choosing the field of 68 teams for the NCAA Tournament. Which teams will pick up signature wins this weekend? I can’t wait to find out!
5. Buzzer beaters
Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here and enjoy our weekends:
Which big sports event would you rather have as a national holiday — the Monday after the Super Bowl or the first weekend of March Madness?
I know most people would say the Monday after the Super Bowl, and I do wish that was a national holiday, but since you’re here reading this column, you’ll probably agree with me that the first weekend of March Madness is the best sports weekend of the year. Plus, it usually falls on the same weekend (or the weekend after) my birthday. Thus, I’m partial to making that the national holiday. Sorry, Super Bowl fans!
Michigan is the hottest team in the Big Ten at 11-0. When do you think the Wolverines will lose their first game? Or, will they go undefeated in the regular season?
Well, with the way the Big Ten is loaded from top to (almost) bottom this year, I think it’ll be close to impossible for them to go unbeaten. That said, they do have a very favorable schedule as far as the B1G goes. If they make it through a home game against Illinois on Feb. 11 followed by a road trip to Wisconsin on Valentine’s Day, I do think they’ll lose against No. 5 Iowa on March 4. Luka Garza is a bad matchup for anyone, even a team with a surprisingly dominant big man like Michigan has in Hunter Dickinson.
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.