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

Wow. It has been a crazy few days in the SEC and in college basketball, in general. But, for today’s column, I want to start with 1 particular play that shows exactly why Nate Oats is the SEC’s Coach of the Year.

I’ve discussed at length the way Oats has used analytics to make Alabama’s offense one of the best in the league by basically eliminating mid-range jump shots from the Crimson Tide arsenal. But, what Oats doesn’t get enough credit for is how good Alabama’s defense has been in 2020-21.

KenPom.com has the Crimson Tide at No. 1 in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency. They didn’t necessarily live up to that billing on Tuesday night against South Carolina, winning 81-78, but they came through when it counted.

Leading 79-76 with 3.9 seconds left, Oats called for a 5-out zone against a South Carolina inbounds play. The Gamecocks were under their own basket, so with the Tide only defending the 3-point arc, South Carolina inbounded the ball for an easy layup.

Wait, so how can giving up an easy basket be a good defensive play? Well, when the Gamecocks had made the layup, there were only 2.4 seconds left and Alabama had the ball. The Tide inbounded, James Rojas made 2 free throws with 1.8 seconds remaining and the Tide held on to win.

Here’s the play. You can see how upset South Carolina coach Frank Martin is when his guys are baited into the easy layup:

Oats explains in the video that they had practiced this exact situation and he wanted to run it. He deserves a lot of praise for taking the chance, but this needs to be a normalized thing in college basketball.

In recent years, we’ve seen teams start to commit more fouls when they’re up 3 in the closing seconds, forcing the opponent to take 2 free throws instead of getting an attempt at a game-tying 3. This is basically the same thing.

It’s also similar to coaches in football going for it on 4th-and-short. They’re often praised for their boldness and bravery in those situations, even though the analytics show that it’s the right move.

Well, no one in today’s college basketball is better than Oats at using analytics. And, it has the Crimson Tide sporting a 16-5 overall record and an 11-1 mark in the SEC. The Crimson Tide are 13-0 when they score 80+ points, too. That’s a major credit to Alabama’s defense:

For reference, other top teams like Iowa (11-3) and Illinois (7-2) aren’t automatic winners when they hit 80 points. That’s because their defenses aren’t as good as Alabama’s.

If Herb Jones’ back heals a bit before March and the Tide’s offense keeps clicking, the defense will carry them through the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. We’ll see if they can keep the momentum going as the season wears on.

Now, let’s look around the rest of the SEC.

2. Home-court advantage

Alabama might be the best team in the league, but there’s a case to be made that Ole Miss is the hottest team in the SEC right now. The Rebels have won 3 games in a row and have done it in a variety of ways.

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First, there was the 52-50 defensive showdown against Tennessee — one of the ugliest games of the SEC season. Then, there was an exciting 86-84 overtime at Auburn. Finally, on Wednesday night, the Rebels absolutely humiliated No. 10 Mizzou in Oxford, 80-59.

Jarkel Joiner came through for the Rebels, scoring a game-high 21 points. He was feeling it all night long:

This highlight reel shows just how lopsided the game actually was. Mizzou didn’t have a chance:

Mizzou’s collapse was inexplicable, but not unexpected. Ask any Mizzou alum (like me) if they were confident going into Wednesday night’s game and they’ll tell you know. We’ve all been here before.

In fact, it has happened 3 times this season (and counting) already. First, after a dominant road win over Arkansas, the Tigers lost at Mississippi State. Then, after a big road win over ranked Tennessee, the Tigers fell at Auburn. Now, this loss at Ole Miss comes on the heels of a home win over Alabama, making Mizzou the only team to beat the Crimson Tide in SEC play.

What’s next for the Tigers? Don’t be surprised to see them take care of business at home against Arkansas on Saturday only to lose at Georgia on Tuesday. That seems to be the Mizzou way lately.

Now, let’s move on to some other headlines around the league:

  • I mentioned earlier that Alabama is No. 1 in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Well, Tennessee is No. 2. The Vols didn’t have their best defensive effort against Georgia on Wednesday night, but they got the job done in an 89-81 victory. 5-star freshman Jaden Springer was electric. He scored a game-high 30 points on an incredible 9-for-11 shooting. He also made 9 of his 12 free-throw attempts. However, fellow 5-star freshman Keon Johnson stole the show with this insane dunk:

  • The Vols won without Yves Pons, and with big man John Fulkerson only scoring 4 points. The freshmen are balling out, and Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James combined for 37 points against the Bulldogs. Yes, the Vols only got 7 points from their bench (all from Victor Bailey Jr.), but this is a team that only runs 7 deep normally when Pons is playing. We’ll see if the Vols can keep the outstanding play coming moving forward, as they’ve had trouble with consistency during league play.
  • Now, we have to discuss another collapse from Kentucky. The Wildcats continue to fall apart late in close games, and Tuesday’s 81-80 home loss against Arkansas was another inexplicable defeat. After a big comeback to take an 80-79 lead, the Wildcats fouled Jalen Tate, who drained 2 free throws with 4.3 seconds left. Then, Kentucky drew up this awful inbounds play:

  • I mean, I don’t think there was any way that was going to be successful even if it went as planned. Getting the ball to a big man at mid-court is not exactly a great idea with only a few seconds left. It was apparently supposed to go to BJ Boston, but it didn’t. That sort of critical lapse is the story of Kentucky’s season.
  • LSU is not a great defensive team. But, when the offense is clicking, that doesn’t matter. Well, the offense was clicking on Wednesday night against Mississippi State, as the Tigers cruised to a 94-80 victory. The box score showed exactly what needs to happen for LSU to win — freshman Cam Thomas had 25 points on 9-for-16 shooting. Javonte Smart had 22 points on 8-for-10 shooting and 11 assists. Big man Trendon Watford added 14 points. But, the key for LSU is that Darius Days was back and healthy. He finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds. As LSU’s Cody Worsham notes, LSU is pretty much unstoppable when Days scores at least 10 points:

  • The Tigers are safely in the NCAA Tournament field for now, but they need to keep their feet on the gas pedal. If they struggle down the stretch, they could be in for a tense Selection Sunday.
  • As of right now, it’s probable that the SEC gets 6 teams into the NCAA Tournament. Alabama, Tennessee and Mizzou are safe bets to make the field of 68. Arkansas, Florida and LSU are also on the right side of the bubble now. So, what are each of those teams’ biggest weaknesses? I broke it down in the latest Starting 5 video:

  • Can Georgia and Ole Miss push their way into the tourney picture? Can the 6 teams mentioned above overcome their weaknesses? We’ll find out down the stretch!

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

3. Road trip

I might be the only person who finds this interesting, but there are currently 5 coaches in the 6 major conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) who are 70 years old or older. They all coach in the ACC.

Those coaches are Jim Boeheim (76) at Syracuse, Mike Krzyzewski (73) at Duke, Leonard Hamilton (72) at Florida State, Jim Larranaga (71) at Miami and Roy Williams (70) at North Carolina. Of those 5, only Hamilton can be said to be having a good season.

Duke and Syracuse, the 2 programs with the oldest coaches, are a combined 10-11 in ACC play. Not terrible, but not up to those teams’ lofty standards. Neither are included in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology projections. Duke has a losing record for the first time since it started 0-2 in the 1999-2000 season.

So, is this just a bad year for Duke and Syracuse? Or, is this indicative of a bigger issue?

First, we’ll start with Duke. The Blue Devils have made the NCAA Tournament every year since 1995, so this looks like a fluke season. Plus, Duke already has the No. 3 player in the 2021 recruiting class (Paolo Banchero) and the No. 7 player (AJ Griffin) committed to next year’s class.

But, the Blue Devils haven’t won a share of the ACC regular-season title since 2009-10. They’ve won 2 national titles and 3 conference tournament championships since then, so they’re still an elite program. It might be time for Coach K to start seriously thinking about who is going to take over for him at Duke, though.

At Syracuse, Jim Boeheim hasn’t put together a top-5 regular-season finish in the SEC since the 2013-14 campaign. His teams are still capable of Final Four runs, most recently in 2016, but most recently, the Orange lost in Round 1 in 2019. Based on this clip from a recent game, it doesn’t look like Boeheim is really bringing much energy to his team:

Coach K might still have a couple of years left leading the Blue Devils, but Boeheim’s time at Syracuse could be coming to an end sooner rather than later. The ACC belongs to Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers at the moment, and it’ll be interesting to see what the 5 programs mentioned above do to keep up.

The average age of coaches in the current AP Poll top 10 is 53.3. The average age of the top 5 is 52.8. Is college basketball coaching becoming a younger person’s game? Or, do those 5 legendary ACC coaches have some tricks left up their sleeves. The 2021-22 season will tell us a lot about the future of those programs.

Now, let’s move on to some other top stories around the country:

  • The Indiana Hoosiers are fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives. Entering Wednesday afternoon’s game at Northwestern, the Hoosiers were 1 of the “Last 4 Byes” in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology. Then, they were forced to go to double-overtime with the ’Cats. Eventually, they pulled off a 79-76 win, but it wasn’t easy. Big man Trayce Jackson-Davis was held to 10 points, but he still managed a double-double with 14 rebounds. The backcourt of Al Durham and Armaan Franklin provided the real fireworks, though. Durham finished with 24 points, including this jumper that nearly won the game in the first overtime:

  • His foot was clearly on the line, but it was still a clutch shot. Franklin finished with 23 points. The Hoosires are 2-0 against Iowa this season and have won their last 2 games after beating Northwestern. They’re currently 11-8 overall and 6-6 in Big Ten play. With how loaded the B1G is this year, a .500 or better conference record probably gets you into the NCAA Tournament. The Hoosiers play at No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday. That should be a heck of a game.
  • Texas Tech lost at home to No. 14 West Virginia, 82-71, on Tuesday night. But, the story of the game came late, when Red Raiders coach Chris Beard threw an all-time tantrum:

  • He was upset because he thought a West Virginia player was calling a timeout, but the refs instead called a foul on Texas Tech. That pretty much sealed the game for the Mountaineers. Obviously, Beard wasn’t happy, but the way you can tell he was just trying to fire up his players and not disrespect his opponent is that he went and fist-bumped WVU coach Bob Huggins before jogging off the court. Still, this is going to be a clip (and a GIF) that follows Beard for the rest of his coaching career.
  • Finally, I’ll leave you with this stunning stat. We already knew this was a tough year for blueblood programs like Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and others, but this is just wild:

  • It’s almost unbelievable that all of those storied programs are struggling so badly. Now, to be fair, Kansas and UCLA are still solidly in the NCAA Tournament picture. They’re just not ranked this week due to recent struggles. And North Carolina is also included in most projections at this point. But, it’s still crazy to see all those elite teams out of the rankings at once.

Now, let’s take a look at the best games of the upcoming weekend.

4. Outlet pass

The next few days are absolutely loaded with big-time matchups between ranked teams. Here are the 5 games I can’t wait to watch over the weekend:

  1. No. 12 Oklahoma at No. 14 West Virginia (Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN+/Big 12) — I’m a bit surprised that this game is only on ESPN+ or the Big 12 Network, but we’ll see if that changes before Saturday. The Mountaineers have won 3 games in a row and just beat No. 7 Texas Tech in Lubbock. This won’t be an easy matchup for the Sooners, but they’re used to playing tough games.
  2. No. 9 Virginia at No. 17 Florida State (Monday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN) — Virginia hosts a hungry North Carolina team on Saturday and then has to turn around and head to Florida State on Monday night. The Seminoles are the biggest threat to the Cavaliers atop the ACC standings, too.
  3. No. 3 Michigan at No. 21 Wisconsin (Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on CBS) — Michigan’s last 5 games have been postponed due to COVID-19. Returning to action with a Valentine’s Day road trip to Wisconsin won’t be easy. Will the Wolverines look rusty in their first game since Jan. 22? We’ll find out on Sunday afternoon!
  4. No. 5 Villanova at No. 19 Creighton (Saturday at 5 p.m. ET on FOX) — These are the 2 teams atop the Big East standings, with Villanova at 7-1 in league play and Creighton at 11-4. Yes, the Blue Jays have played more conference games than the Wildcats, but this is probably their last chance to keep things tight with Villanova and stay in the hunt for the regular-season championship.
  5. No. 22 Loyola-Chicago at Drake (Saturday at noon ET on ESPN2) — These 2 teams will also play on Sunday as part of the Missouri Valley Conference’s scheduling plan. Those games will likely decide the MVC title, too, as Loyola-Chicago is 17-3 overall and 12-1 in league play, while Drake is 19-1 overall with a 10-1 conference record. Expect a couple of intense battles!

There are no SEC games on this list, but keep your eyes on Arkansas-Mizzou and Tennessee-LSU on Saturday, too. Arkansas and LSU will be eager to pick up signature wins for their NCAA Tournament resumes.

5. Buzzer beaters

Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here and enjoy our weekends:

If you had to pick today, who do you think will win the 6 major conference tournaments?

The crazy part is that there are no easy picks in this. Even Baylor — 1 of the undisputed 2 best teams in college basketball alongside Gonzaga — is no shoo-in in the loaded Big 12. The 6 “major” conferences are the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. Here’s who I have winning each one right now:

  • ACC: Florida State
  • Big East: Villanova
  • Big Ten: Illinois
  • Big 12: Baylor
  • Pac-12: USC
  • SEC: Alabama

Honestly, I’d be happy if 3 of those end up being correct. But, we’ll find out soon enough. Tournament time is almost here!

Which SEC football coach do you think would be the best as a basketball coach?

It’s tough to argue against Nick Saban. The Alabama coach has won 7 national titles, including 6 at Alabama. Yes, it would take him a while to get up to speed in basketball, but his system would work in any sport. You saw what happened this past season when he was out against Auburn due to a positive COVID-19 test. The Steve Sarkisian-led Tide mopped the floor with the Tigers 42-13 in the Iron Bowl. Saban’s success comes from finding the best people in the business and letting them do their thing under his guidance. He sets the tone for the program and everyone else gets in line. That, I think, would work in basketball as well as it does in football. However, the Tide currently have a pretty great hoops coach in Nate Oats, so they don’t need Saban to make the switch any time soon.

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.