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

Illinois picked up a huge game in one of the best current rivalries in the Big Ten, knocking off Iowa on Friday night to get the weekend started on an exciting note.

The Illini defended their home court en route to an 80-75 victory. And, they did so by limiting Luka Garza’s effectiveness. Yes, the likely Player of the Year still had 19 points, but he only had 4 rebounds and no blocks. Meanwhile, Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn didn’t light up the score sheet, but he had 9 points and 10 key rebounds.

It was a big-time battle between 2 of the best centers in today’s game, and I’ll give this round to Cockburn. He’s one of the only guys who can match Garza’s physicality. Look at this defense:

Those are 2 heavyweight champions going toe-to-toe. And, check out these 2 rebounds from Cockburn to help seal the victory:

Jacob Grandison had a double-double, scoring 11 points and grabbing 10 boards. Illinois had the perfect plan for Iowa’s zone, and Grandison was a big part of that. Here’s his open 3 that proved to be a dagger:

But, once again, Ayo Dosunmu was the star. He scored a game-high 25 points and had 4 assists and 2 rebounds. His ability to get to the rim and finish is what should have NBA scouts salivating:

He’s my favorite player to watch this year, as he can score from anywhere on the court. He also makes his teammates better. When he’s going strong, the Illini are one of the best teams in the country. We’ll see if they can keep playing well as the Big Ten gauntlet hits the stretch run.

Now, let’s move on to some SEC headlines.

2. Home-court advantage

We’ll talk about the Oklahoma Sooners’ side of their win over Alabama in the next section, but to start off this section, we need to talk about a few points related to the Crimson Tide. First of all, there were some absolutely brutal calls made against the Tide in the 66-61 loss, particularly against Herb Jones.

First, he was whistled for a foul on a play in which he was hit in the face and suffered a bloody nose:

Next, he was whistled for this ticky-tack moving screen (I guess that’s what you’d call it. Seems pretty weak either way):

It seemed like the Big 12 refs knew Jones was the SEC Player of the Year frontrunner and decided to say “not in our house, Herb!”:

Jones is also dealing with some injuries, and missed practice on Monday, according to coach Nate Oats. He’ll be ready for Wednesday’s game against LSU, but let’s hope he gets to actually play and doesn’t get called for bogus fouls.

Now, let’s take a look around the rest of the SEC:

  • The Missouri Tigers looked like they were going to suffer a bad loss in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge at home against unranked TCU. The Tigers trailed by 12 with fewer than 5 minutes remaining, and also trailed by 6 with 1:30 left. Then, Xavier Pinson took over. He finished with 36 points, absolutely draining the final 2 3-pointers to force overtime. Here were his 3 clutch 3-pointers within the last 2:35:

  • Jeremiah Tilmon also had a huge game, recording 33 points and 11 rebounds. With Pinson scoring 36 and Tilmon adding 33, they now have the 2 highest single-game scoring marks in the SEC this season:

  • As reporter Andrew Kauffman playfully noted on Twitter, the Tigers have yet to lose a game in which those 2 combine for 69 points!

  • Let’s also give Kobe Brown some credit. He only scored 7 points, but grabbed 13 rebounds, including the one that led to Pinson’s game-tying 3. Clutch. Now, the Tigers just need to get their usually stout defense back on track heading into the Kentucky game on Wednesday night.
  • Tennessee picked up the most-impressive win of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, trouncing Kansas 80-61. (Naturally, despite being 11-6 overall and 5-4 in Big 12 play, the Jayhawks remain in the top 25 for some reason, but that’s a story for another day.) The story today? The Vols seem unstoppable when 5-star freshman Jaden Springer is in the game. When he plays, the Vols are 12-0. When he doesn’t, they’re 0-3. Talk about an X-factor. It’s easy to see why the Vols miss him when you look at how tough he plays:

  • He seems healthy now, so we’ll see if he continues to help the Vols win. He doesn’t fill up the box score like some others, but he seems to always make the right plays. That’s a nice quality to have in a freshman.
  • Florida went on the road during the SEC/Big 12 challenge and beat No. 11 West Virginia in impressive fashion. Michigan transfer Colin Castleton continues to develop into a star. He was named the SEC Player of the Week and had a huge effort against the Mountaineers, posting 21 points, 7 rebounds and 5 blocks. Even when things don’t go right, he manages to make a great play:

  • He’s going to be a first-team All-SEC player when all is said and done this season. However, more importantly, his strong play has the Gators on a 4-game winning streak. Things are going really well in Gainesville right now.
  • Finally, we need to give some props to Vanderbilt. The Commodores won their first SEC game of the season on Saturday night against South Carolina, 93-81. Max Evans had a huge game, scoring 29 points. But, Scotty Pippen Jr. continues to be a leader for this team. He had 23 points, 7 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 steals and a block. He’s a tough player who can bounce back up after hard fouls like this:

  • He’ll be playing in the NBA someday, probably by next year. And, my guess is he’ll lead Vandy to a couple of additional wins before the season is over.

Now let’s move on to the top stories from around the rest of the college basketball landscape.

3. Road trip

Perhaps we shouldn’t be having teams play Saturday and Monday this season. That’s what both Oklahoma and Texas Tech had to do. After the Sooners beat Alabama on Saturday and Texas Tech took down LSU, they met on Monday night in Lubbock in an awful game for both teams.

Clearly, the players were tired, as it wasn’t a great defensive game — it was a rough night offensively. Yes, they’ll have to play multiple days in the conference tournaments, but that’s a problem for March.

Oklahoma only scored 18 points in the first half against Texas Tech, and the Red Raiders only had 25. Interestingly, they both shot 33.3% from the floor, but the Red Raiders made a few more plays down the stretch to win 57-52.

Still, Oklahoma’s recent run deserves praise and the Sooners still seem like a top-15 team to me. They beat No. 9 Kansas, No. 5 Texas and No. 9 Alabama before finally coming up short against No. 13 Texas Tech. It didn’t help the Sooners that leading scorer Austin Reaves has missed the last 2 games due to COVID-19 protocols, but it was still a historic month for the Sooners in terms of top-10 wins:

De’Vion Harmon has stepped up recently, but it was Elijah Harkless who stepped up against Alabama, knocking down this game-clinching shot:

That’s a clutch shot for a guy who is only averaging 5.6 points per game. He’s a versatile guy, though, and a big reason the Sooners have been playing so well. The road doesn’t get any easier. After a brief reprise against Iowa State on Saturday, the Sooners will host No. 2 Baylor, travel to No. 17 West Virginia and host No. 6 Texas. We’ll see if they have another impressive run of ranked wins left in the tank!

Now, for some other major headlines from around the country:

  • Drake is one of the 3 remaining unbeaten teams in college basketball, and 2 of them are Bulldogs (Drake and Gonzaga). Baylor is the other undefeated squad. Tremell Murphy did the damage against Illinois State on Monday, scoring 30 points and grabbing 8 rebounds. Here’s his highlight-worthy slam:

  • Drake is up to No. 25 in this week’s AP Poll, but the Bulldogs play in the Missouri Valley Conference, so they won’t get many tough matchups down the stretch. And, KenPom.com isn’t very high on Drake. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 51 on that site, which goes to show how weak the MVC is perceived nationally. We’ll see if the Bulldogs can silence the haters down the stretch of the season.
  • Baylor picked up a nice victory over Auburn in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, and did it in typical Baylor fashion. Everyone knows their roles. Five players scored at least 13 points — Adam Flagler (19), Jared Butler (16), MaCio Teague (15), Davion Mitchell (13) and Matthew Mayer (13). Meanwhile, defensive whiz Mark Vital only had 2 points and big man Flo Thamba had 11 rebounds and 0 points in 17 minutes. That’s just a team where everyone is working for the win, not for their own stats. Mayer provided the biggest highlight with this incredible put-back jam:

  • A tough test awaits the Bears at No. 6 Texas on Tuesday night, but we’ll discuss that game more in just a minute.
    Just when things were going well for Virginia, a road trip to rival Virginia Tech derailed things. The Cavaliers were taken down 65-51, and only got to the free-throw line 4 times, making 3. The Hokies are 7-2 in ACC play and Keve Aluma is a big reason why. He scored 29 points against the Cavaliers and earned ACC Player of the Week honors in the process:

  • Virginia is still in the driver’s seat in the ACC, with a 7-1 conference record. But, the Hokies are hot on their tail at 7-2, and Florida State is 6-2. It should be an interesting race down the stretch. But a notable team won’t be in that battle …
  • In a section that is becoming all too common this year, Duke lost. This time, it was solidly within the “bad losses” category, as the Blue Devils lost in Miami to a 7-10 Hurricanes team. Poor Jordan Goldwire had a brutal miss during the game, not even hitting the rim on this transition layup attempt:

  • The Blue Devils fall to 7-6 with the loss and are now 5-4 in ACC play. When they play the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday, it’ll be the first time since 1960 that both teams are unranked:

  • That’s a crazy stat. More than 60 years with 1 or both of them ranked every time they played. This year, neither team is in the NCAA Tournament picture right now.

As we approach the stretch run of the season, let’s take a look at the most important games on the schedule.

4. Outlet pass

Now, let’s take a look at the best games on the schedule between now and Friday. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch this week:

  1. No. 2 Baylor at No. 6 Texas (Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) — The Longhorns will be at full strength and will have coach Shaka Smart back for this game after he missed time due to COVID-19 protocols. If the Bears are going to ever lose this season, this would be a game to watch. They haven’t shown any signs of slowing down, but beating Texas in Austin will be no easy feat.
  2. LSU at No. 10 Alabama (Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU) — The last time these 2 teams played, Alabama knocked down an SEC-record 23 3-pointers in a 105-75 victory. What a letdown that game turned out to be from the Tigers. Can they keep things more competitive this time around? Alabama is in a bit of an offensive rut, so we’ll see what happens.
  3. No. 7 Ohio State at No. 8 Iowa (Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) — The Buckeyes are about as hot as you can be in the gauntlet that is the Big Ten this year. But, a trip to Iowa City to face Luka Garza and the Hawkeyes is a daunting task. The Hawkeyes are fresh off a loss at Illinois, too, so they’ll be extra motivated to stay in the hunt for a No. 1 seed.
  4. No. 12 Illinois at Indiana (Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN) — The Illini are fresh off a big home win over Iowa. However, they have a habit this year of taking their foot off the gas pedal against lesser opponents. The Hoosiers will be hungry to get this win. The Illini had better be ready.
  5. No. 14 Virginia at NC State (Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on ACCN) — The Cavaliers just lost at Virginia Tech over the weekend. It was an ugly loss, but Virginia can’t afford to let that loss turn into 2 road losses in a row. This is a really dangerous game for Tony Bennett’s squad.

Those are some big-time matchups this week. We’ve hit the home stretch of the season, so we’ll see which teams bolster their resumes and which teams slip up.

5. Buzzer beaters

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

Which current college basketball coach would you most want to play for?

Well, let’s first start off with the coach I’d least want to play for, and that would be Coach K at Duke. Just not interested in someone who would demand such discipline on the court from me while also being a big whiner every time he loses. In the running for who I’d most want to play for are Rick Barnes at Tennessee, Cuonzo Martin at Mizzou and Jay Wright at Villanova. But, the guy who would be No. 1 on my list is Nate Oats at Alabama. I love this new-school analytical approach to basketball and I think I’d most want to play in a run-and-gun, drive-and-kick offense like Oats runs. His stock is rising, and I’d want to get in on that early.

What’s the most anticlimactic way to win a basketball game at the last second?

That’s a tough one. Free throws aren’t exactly thrilling, since only 1 player is actually doing anything, but there’s a ton of pressure on that 1 player. A technical free throw, with a player alone at the line, would also be anticlimactic. If we’re going with a way a team can win at the last second without being at the free-throw line, though, I’m going with goaltending. Yes, the offensive team still deserves those points if the shot was going in, but it’s just not very exciting at all.

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.