Starting Five: Michigan State and UNC rising, Kansas' visitor and more
Led by a heck of a performance from their leader Cassius Winston, Michigan State came up with the weekend's biggest win to match North Carolina's earlier week excellence. Kansas is hosting an important visitor, there's a new No. 1 in the team rankings and much more in this week's Starting Five.
1. MICHIGAN STATE, NORTH CAROLINA ARE TEAMS OF THE WEEK
Short handed due to injury and scrambling for answers, the Spartans dug down deep, harnessed their toughness and fought their way to a come-from-behind win at Michigan to win their fifth game in a row as they bounce back from a three game losing streak to end January and begin February.
Everybody in the Spartans lineup stepped up, but I was beyond impressed with the leadership, poise and skill of Winston as he put his team on his back and refused to let them lose. He spearheaded a great defensive effort, pushed all the right buttons and made a convincing argument for why he could win the Big Ten's Player of the Year award. Winston and Tom Izzo's bunch have never made excuses this year and if they can get Nick Ward back for the postseason, they look like a real Final Four contender. With the way Winston is playing, they probably are regardless and they finished out a good weekend of hoops in style.
Roy Williams' UNC squad still deserves mention, though. Lost in the mania over Zion Williamson's injury in the Duke game was that the Heels -- led by Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson -- were outstanding in Durham. They backed up their midweek play with a convincing win at home over a game Florida State squad on Saturday. Johnson is looking like a legitimate NBA player and the Heels still have the weapons and a hall of fame coach that are helping them overcome their own injury issues.
2. KANSAS HOSTING IMPORTANT VISITOR
Kansas' hopes to win a 15th Big XII title in a row took a huge hit on Saturday when they were blown out at Texas Tech. But, they still have a lot ahead of them as they get ready to host conference leading Kansas State on Monday night.
They have to win in order to have any hope at a title and they will be playing in front of a very important visitor. Five-star big man Precious Achiuwa will be on hand for his first official visit and he's emerging as a very important target for Bill Self and his staff. Whether or not Silvio De Sousa comes back next year, Kansas could really use Achiuwa's athleticism and rebounding to fill the hole that will be left by De Sousa.
Achiuwa has seen UConn, Memphis and Western Kentucky unofficially and has North Carolina, St. John's, Georgia and others trying to make an impression. The chance to leap to the front of the race with a strong visit is a huge one for Kansas and Achiuwa is as important a visitor as they have hosted from the class of 2019.
3. JEREMIAH MARTIN IS STEPPING UP IN MEMPHIS
Penny Hardaway and Memphis have had some ups and downs during his inaugural season, but the Tigers are on the uptick after winning four of their last five games. A driving force behind their winning ways of late has been the play of senior guard Jeremiah Martin.
Martin has been lighting up scoreboards during the month of February and backed up a 43-point outing in a win over South Florida with a 37-point outburst on the road at Wichita State on Saturday. With little room for error the rest of the way out if they want to make the NCAA Tournament, Martin's late-season excellence has come at the right time for the Tigers.
The road to the NCAA Tournament won't be easy, but if they can finish out the regular season with wins over Temple, Cincinnati and Tulsa then we could be arguing that the American is worthy of five teams in the Big Dance and that Hardaway, Martin and the Tigers could be that team.
Regardless, he was a pretty easy call for my player of the week.
4. ADDITION OF OUMAR BALLO GIVES GONZAGA TOP RANKED CLASS
There's a new No. 1 in the 2019 team recruiting rankings and it's not a usual suspect. By landing five-star big man Oumar Ballo during an official visit over the weekend, Mark Few and Gonzaga now have the best class in the country.
Obviously, the Zags have proven themselves as one of the nation's top programs and this class is a pretty big statement with Ballo in the fold.
Ballo is a hulking and powerful center from Mali who won't turn 17 until July, is a true back to the basket big man who cleans the glass and plays with power around the rim. He built his reputation thanks to strong play in FIBA competition and most recently he was in the States for Basketball Without Borders.
The Zags have always feasted on International recruiting and the increased ability to scout those prospects prior to their arrival on college campuses has helped to give the Zags credit for finding players earlier than in years past.
In addition to Ballo, the Zags have landed four-star wing Martynas Arlauskas from Lithuania to go with three Rivals150 members Drew Timme (five-star), Pavel Zakharov (four-star) and Anton Watson (four-star). Their class is rounded out by three-star point guard Brock Ravet.
5. SPENCER JONES EMERGES IN KANSAS CITY
Living here in Kansas City, I've been able to watch a nice string of late-blooming prospects over the last four or five years. Last year it was Ochai Agbaji who emerged as a Rivals150 prospect and has now turned into a potential NBA player during his freshman season at Kansas.
It's not fair to expect that Roeland Park (Kans.) Bishop Miege senior wing Spencer Jones will reach that level. But, the skilled 6-foot-6 wing with athleticism has been emerging as a potential spring signing period steal on at least the mid- to upper-mid-major level.
Columbia, Campbell and Milwaukee have gotten onboard with offers and more should be coming. Northwestern and Drake were in to see him over the weekend. Colorado State and Akron should be coming in soon and others like Creighton, Loyola, UMKC, Northern Colorado, East Tennessee State and Wofford also have interest.
I won't be surprised if he ends up with double digit offers by the time signing day rolls around in April and he's definitely generated a lot of attention.