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.

1. Opening tipoff

The Tennessee Volunteers are playing incredible basketball on the defensive end of the floor right now. Anyone with a pulse can see that.

Currently, the Vols have a sizable lead in the KenPom rankings when it comes to the best defense. Tennessee’s adjusted defensive efficiency number per 100 possessions, according to KenPom, is 82.7. For context, the No. 2 defense in the country belongs to Rutgers, which currently stands at 86.4 in the KenPom metric. That’s a difference of nearly 4 points.

For further context, no team in the history of the KenPom system (dating back to the 2001-02 season) has ever even finished with an adjusted defensive efficiency rating of less than 84.1.

The Vols don’t give up many second-chance points, grabbing the second-most rebounds per game in the SEC. The Vols grab 39.8 boards per game, behind only Alabama. When they’re not cleaning the glass, they’re preventing opponents from taking shots at all. They rank tied for second in the SEC, behind only Mizzou, in steals per game at 9.7.

That’s a lot of numbers to have thrown at you, so here’s where we’ll watch a couple of videos. Star guard Santiago Vescovi doesn’t get the credit he deserves on the defensive end. He has quick hands and knows when to be aggressive:

He averages 2.4 steals per game, which is second in the SEC. Zakai Zeigler is third in the league with 2.3 swipes per contest:

It looks absolutely miserable to play against Tennessee’s aggressive, handsy defense. The Vols have held 6 of their 8 SEC opponents under 60 points. No, they haven’t faced Mizzou or Alabama yet – the 2 highest-scoring offenses in the SEC – but there’s no reason to think the Vols won’t give those teams good games.

If the offense can continue to improve as the season goes along, the Vols will be in the mix for the SEC regular-season title, the SEC Tournament title and a Final Four berth.

2. Home-court advantage

Alabama improved to 8-0 in SEC play on Wednesday night at home against Mississippi State, but it wasn’t easy. When Jahvon Quinerly made a free throw to put the Tide ahead 66-59 with 1:50 left, it looked like they were well on their way to another easy win.

But the Tide didn’t score again. Mississippi State closed the gap to 66-63 and even had a 3-point attempt with 2 seconds left to try to tie the game that missed.

Let’s be blunt here. Last year, Alabama loses this game. This year, Alabama fought and managed to hold on for a win. Nate Oats acknowledged as much in his postgame press conference:

Oats is absolutely right. It’s a long season. You aren’t always going to have your “A” game. But you need to figure out how to win when you’re playing your “B” and “C” games.

Jahvon Quinerly had 14 points off the bench, playing a key role once again.

Wait. … What’s that?

I’m being told it’s time for Brandon Miller highlights!

The star freshman had 13 points and 6 boards. It wasn’t his best game of the year, but he was still making incredible plays:

OK, that seems to have fulfilled our Brandon Miller highlight quota.

Seriously, Alabama fans – enjoy this guy while you have him. I’d take him No. 2 overall in the 2023 NBA Draft if I were an NBA GM (and I hope to be one by June).

This is a strong Crimson Tide team that looks primed for big things as the season goes on.

Now let’s look at some other SEC top stories:

  • I’m not going to act like beating Ole Miss is a tough task this year. The Rebels are 1 of the 2 worst teams in the SEC, but winning on the road still isn’t super easy, even at Ole Miss. The Tigers went to Oxford on Tuesday night and set the nets ablaze from deep, going 16-for-30 (53.3%) from 3-point range. It was great to see Isiaih Mosley doing his thing for the Tigers. He had his best game in a Mizzou uniform, scoring 20 points and making 4 of his 7 3-pointers:


  • If he can consistently contribute moving forward, the Tigers add even more offensive firepower to a team that already leads the SEC in points per game at 83.4. Keep an eye on the Tigers moving forward. This feels like a potential NCAA Tournament team.
  • Don’t look now, but Eric Musselman and the Arkansas Razorbacks are starting to figure some things out. Arkansas allowed only 14 first-half points to LSU on Tuesday night, cruising to a 60-40 win. The Hogs have the No. 13 defense in the country according to KenPom. If they can just hold on until Nick Smith Jr. returns from a knee injury (if he returns, which I hope he does), the offense should kick things up a notch, too. It always seems like Arkansas plays its best basketball in March, and that looks like it could be the case this year, too.
  • Kentucky continues to look like the team many expected to make a run to the Final Four. It took some time but, as they say, better late than never. Antonio Reeves is really benefiting from more time in the lineup including him, Cason Wallace, CJ Fredrick, Jacob Toppin and Oscar Tshiebwe. His shots are starting to fall no matter who’s with him on the court, including the tough runners in the lane:


  • He’s been Kentucky’s leading scorer the past 2 games. If he can continue to get more comfortable in the Wildcats’ offense, it’ll be tough to take down Kentucky moving forward.

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

3. Road trip

UConn rose to No. 2 in the AP Poll at one point during nonconference play, with many arguing that Adama Sanogo and company deserved the top spot.

Since then, though, the sky has fallen in Connecticut. The Huskies have lost 6 of their last 8 games and have now lost twice to Big East-leading Xavier this year.

So what’s changed? Simply put, the defense has collapsed. The Huskies didn’t allow any nonconference foe to score 70 points. In Big East play, 6 of their 10 opponents have eclipsed the 70-point threshold.

The Huskies will likely fall out of the top 25 next week, and the road to recovery looks daunting, with home games against Marquette, Seton Hall and Providence remaining on the schedule, as well as road trips to Creighton, St. John’s and Villanova.

We’ll see if the Huskies can stay on the right side of the bubble as March Madness approaches. It has been a dramatic fall for a team that handed Alabama 1 of its 2 losses earlier this year.

Now let’s talk about the craziness that is the Big Ten:

  • The Big Ten is an absolute mess right now. Purdue is the No. 1 team in the country, so the Boilermakers are excluded from this conversation. But the other 13 teams in the league all have at least 5 losses. How crazy is that? Northwestern – yes, Northwestern – is the only other team with fewer than 6 losses. Rutgers is currently in second place in the conference standings with a B1G record of 6-3 and a win at Purdue on its résumé.

Next, let’s take a look at this weekend’s schedule.

4. Outlet pass

The Big 12/SEC Challenge takes place on Saturday and provides us some of the best matchups of the weekend, so I’ll focus on that set of 10 games in this section. Here are the top 5 Big 12/SEC Challenge games I can’t wait to watch on Saturday:

  1. No. 10 Texas at No. 4 Texas (Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN) – The Rick Barnes Bowl is easily the highlight of the weekend. A showdown of top 10 teams will likely come down to whether or not the Longhorns can manage to score at all against the Vols’ elite defense. That won’t be easy on Rocky Top, where the Vols are going to be spurred on by a raucous home crowd.
  2. No. 9 Kansas at Kentucky (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Am I crazy for thinking Kentucky can win this? We’ll find out on Saturday night! The Jayhawks have struggled in Big 12 play lately, while the Wildcats have figured some things out and are now putting their best 5 players on the court more often (good job, John Calipari). This should be a close battle.
  3. Arkansas at No. 17 Baylor (Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN) – Arkansas is starting to figure some things out after a rough start to SEC play. But a trip to Waco is never easy, even with Baylor’s recent struggles in Big 12 action. This is a major swing game in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. If the Hogs can score an upset win over the Bears, the SEC will be in prime position to win the event outright.
  4. Florida at No. 5 Kansas State (Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN2) – This is the Keyontae Johnson game. Yes, the Wildcats should win comfortably, but Johnson will likely be excited to see the members of the Gators who were around when he was in Gainesville. We’ll see if he can keep Kansas State rolling.
  5. No. 12 Iowa State at Mizzou (Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN2) – This will be an intriguing matchup of strength vs. strength when the Tigers have the ball. Mizzou has the No. 7 offense in the country, per KenPom. The Cyclones have the No. 9 defense in the nation, also per KenPom. Something’s gotta give in Columbia on Saturday afternoon!

The SEC has won the last 2 challenges and tied the year before that. Will the Big 12 snap its winless streak or will the SEC prevail once again? Or will we have another deeply unsatisfying tie? We’ll find out on Saturday with wall-to-wall Big 12 vs. SEC action!

5. Buzzer beaters

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

Should college hoops conferences have all-star games like the NBA?

I doubt it would ever happen, but it could be a lot of fun. Imagine an SEC East roster with Oscar Tshiebwe, Terry Roberts, Kobe Brown, Colin Castleton and Santiago Vescovi going up an SEC West roster with Brandon Miller, Wendell Green Jr., KJ Williams, Wade Taylor IV and Ricky Council IV. That would be some must-see TV, even if they didn’t play any defense like in the NBA All-Star Game. I’d be pumped to watch (and bet on) that.

Who is the second-best team in the Big Ten these days?

That’s a really tough question as there is a lot of mediocrity behind Purdue these days. Rutgers has a head-to-head win over Purdue – the Boilermakers’ only loss in B1G play thus far – so it has to be in the mix. I also still cling to hope that Illinois can figure things out with all the talent on that roster. Indiana deserves a mention here, too. The Hoosiers have Trayce Jackson-Davis, who is an incredible player, and have also dealt with some injuries lately. I’d be surprised if one of the Rutgers/Illinois/Indiana trio didn’t finish second in the Big Ten standings when all is said and done.

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.