A new Rauf Report details Brian Rauf’s biggest college basketball takeaways from the week, including a look at Caleb Love’s emergence, Memphis’ struggles and more.
Now that the college basketball season has crossed over into December, we’re getting a better sense of every team and which players will play large roles in determining the outcome of the 2021-22 season.
For instance, Duke is not always the juggernaut it looked to be against Gonzaga — a loss to Ohio State showed us that the Blue Devils are far from perfect. That leaves Purdue as the team to beat after the first month of the season, though the Boilermakers will be tested with Big Ten play starting this weekend.
Speaking of the Big Ten, we projected Purdue would challenge Michigan for the conference title. The first month has shown us, instead, the Wolverines might have to fight to make the NCAA Tournament. Heat Check CBB was in attendance for their 72-51 loss to North Carolina on Wednesday, marking Michigan’s third loss in five games. This team that we thought was a national championship favorite has proven to be anything but that due to tremendous struggles on the offensive end, including poor shooting and a lot of turnovers.
While that loss confirmed Michigan is headed in the wrong direction, the game could also prove to be a turning point in UNC’s season. The Tar Heels were downright bad defensively in losses to Purdue and Tennessee but looked vastly improved in just a week’s time.
The play of sophomore point guard Caleb Love has been a major boost, and that is where we start this week’s Rauf Report.
Caleb Love’s emergence
North Carolina was hoping Love could serve as a stabilizing force to its backcourt in Hubert Davis’ first season in charge. He had an up-and-down freshman season but was a five-star prospect who is UNC’s best player at the sport’s most important position.
Through the season’s first seven games, Love is delivering on that promise. The sophomore leads the Heels in points, assists and steals, but it’s the efficient manner in which Love is producing that is validating.
Even though his usage rate has dropped, he is shooting significantly better than last year and is greatly improved at getting to the foul line. That’s a byproduct of how much more aggressive and comfortable he is in his second season of college basketball. Love’s assist rate is also relatively similar, so he’s not sacrificing in the playmaking department, either.
The St. Louis native has had several quality performances this season including a 22-point, seven-rebound, six-assist outing to save UNC against Charleston, but none have been as impressive or as impactful as what he did against Michigan. It also displayed his newfound efficiency.
Love finished the game with 22 points, four rebounds and four assists, but it’s what he did in the second half that ultimately decided the game and turned it into a blowout. He was plus-23 with 12 of his points and all four of his assists after the break.
Davis praised Love and said he should be an All-American this season during the postgame.
“He can be dominant on both ends of the floor,” Davis told reporters. “From an offensive standpoint, he’s gifted enough to be able to create his own shot and create a shot for his teammates at any given time. He’s done such a good job this year understanding when to shoot and when to create shots for his teammates.
“And then the job that he did on Eli Brooks. … Caleb had the challenge and the assignment to defend him pretty much most of the game, and so it wasn’t just his scoring. It was his defense, it was his ability to get teammates open, his passing. Caleb played an all-around game and I’m very, very happy. I’m very, very proud of him.”
Most impressively, Love had this performance without domineering the ball. He led UNC with 16 shot attempts, but four other players also took at least nine. It was still a diverse offensive output that should serve as the blueprint for the Heels moving forward.
Love is the leader and main decision-maker, so he’ll have the ball in his hands a lot. Armando Bacot dominated inside (game-high 14 rebounds), which he does every time out. RJ Davis, Dawson Garcia and Brady Manek all added significant secondary scoring punch, too.
North Carolina has been waiting for a go-to guy and a leader to step up for three seasons now. Caleb Love has emerged as that guy.
Dereon Seabron is becoming a star
We’re staying in the Triangle to talk about another burgeoning star in the ACC in Dereon Seabron.
The 6-7 sophomore didn’t have a major role for the Wolfpack last season but showed some flashes late with a 14-point, nine-rebound performance against Wake Forest and a 17-point, 13-rebound showing against Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament.
His rebounding prowess earned him a bigger spot in the lineup this season and Seabron has absolutely taken off. He has five double-doubles in NC State’s seven games and has been the nation’s third best player, according to the Gold Star Guide.
That said, Seabron made his first national statement in Wednesday’s quadruple-overtime victory over Nebraska. He played 57 of the game’s possible 60 minutes and finished with 39 points (11-of-22 FG, 17-of-20 FT) to go along with 18 rebounds.
“I though Dereon was tremendous,” head coach Kevin Keatts told reporters after the game. “His versatility is what makes him so special. We’ve played him 1-4 and sometimes a big guard position. But his speed and his ability to handle the ball, pass the ball, and get to the free throw line, that’s what makes him special. He helps our team in so many ways.”
That positional versatility makes Seabron a matchup nightmare for opponents and is now an advantage NC State is exploiting. He’s averaging 21.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.6 steals per game, leading the Wolfpack in all four categories.
It didn’t look like NC State was going to be an NCAA Tournament team after it lost Manny Bates for the season, yet Seabron has them back on course.
Trayce Jackson-Davis has made the leap
Indiana is also tracking to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a while — its last appearance came in 2016 — largely thanks to the play of Trayce Jackson-Davis.
Shocking, I know, that a two-time All-Big Ten selection and returning All-American would be playing at a high level, but it’s the fact that Jackson-Davis has taken his game to the next level that makes him really stand out.
TJD recorded a stellar 19.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per game during his sophomore campaign, yet there were significant stretches – sometimes spanning entire games – in which he wasn’t engaged and didn’t make an impact. He was held to 13 points or fewer in seven of Indiana’s 27 games, five of which were losses.
This season, despite posting a lower usage rate and playing fewer minutes, Jackson-Davis is posting career highs in effective fieldgoal percentage, true-shooting percentage, assist rate and block rate along with the highest offensive rating of his career.
Part of the reason for his increased efficiency is that he’s now looking to dunk virtually every time he gets the ball:
That only further emphasizes a change in mindset to be more aggressive. Whether it’s the coaching change, something new Mike Woodson has instructed or just something he changed in the offseason, but Jackson-Davis is now the legitimate menace his talent suggested he would be at the college level and Indiana is much better for it.
Memphis is in trouble
Ok, now shifting to the team portion of today’s Rauf Report, which also happens to be the more negative section.
That, of course, means we have to talk about Memphis.
I’m officially out on the Tigers.
Yes, I know it may have been foolish for me to be “in” on them anyways, but things looked like they were changing for Penny Hardaway & Co. this offseason. The Tigers have the most experience they’ve had under Hardaway, brought in two top five prospects in Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren and – perhaps most importantly — added Hall of Famer Larry Brown to the coaching staff.
The additions of Bates and Duren gave Memphis has much raw talent as anyone, which surely would raise this team’s floor. And, if anyone was going to fix their dreadful offense, Brown would be the guy to do it.
Those changes had me believing that the Tigers were a dark-horse Final Four contender. I was wrong.
Turns out, nothing has changed! Memphis still turns the ball over at an alarming rate (349th nationally), struggles on the defensive glass and plays with horrific offensive spacing and flow. It’s rare to see the Tigers run a set play and there’s almost always no off-ball movement.
Without a true point guard, they almost exclusively utilize isolation and pick-and-roll plays. These are designed for skilled, athletic players to either beat their man themselves or make a read based on the kind of help defensive coverage the opponent throws at them. This has been what Hardaway has done for four years now, so it shows a preference — which isn’t really a surprise, considering he excelled in these areas as a player. But Penny Hardaways don’t grow on trees and he hasn’t excelled in finding guards or teaching guards who thrive in those sets.
If there’s an isolation play called, the other four players on the court are generally standing around watching. When it’s a pick-and-roll, the other three do the same thing. Part of the reason these plays work is because of what happens on penetration. Either the ballhandler gets to the rim or the defense sends an extra defender, which creates an open man. Good offenses use a flowing series of passes and cuts to keep the defense moving until they find an open shot.
Here’s a very simple pick-and-pop set from UCLA in its win over Villanova. Johnny Juzang sets the pick for Tyger Campbell, who drives and forces the defense to collapse. That leaves Jaime Jaquez Jr. open for three, so Campbell finds him for a big basket. There’s also a beautiful extra back screen from Myles Johnson to free Juzang on the pop.
Now, here’s one from Memphis. Bates turns down the screen and takes an awful shot — instead of passing to two open players on the weakside — while the other four players stand along the perimeter.
That’s just not good offense, and a lack of discipline isn’t helping things. Poor shot selection is a very common theme across the board — 256th in Rim & 3 Rate per ShotQuality, 276th in the number of shots they have blocked — as is their propensity to foul (321st in foul rate).
This was on full display in their loss to a bad Georgia team on Wednesday. Memphis actually had its best game in terms of taking care of the ball (only 11 turnovers) but sent Georgia to the foul line an astonishing 35 times. That was the difference in the game.
I want to believe that Memphis will improve simply because of the overall talent level on this team. But the same issues that have plagued the program under Hardaway continue to do so, which doesn’t give me confidence they’ll actually be fixed.
Don’t believe any Notre Dame hype/hope
Notre Dame is a confusing team with varying expectations entering the season.
If you believed in the Fighting Irish, it was understandable. They returned 71 percent of their minutes (37th nationally) and Prentiss Hubb was a third team All-ACC performer last season with Nate Laszewski being an honorable mention. To me, there just wasn’t any reason to believe this 11-15 team that ranked outside the top 200 in defensive efficiency would become an NCAA Tournament-caliber team, as many projected.
This season, Notre Dame’s defensive problems remain the same. The Irish are 100th in adjusted defensive efficiency and 356th in 3-point defense. They don’t rebound well (227th in offensive rebounding rate) and are shooting less than 30 percent from 3-point range (271st) despite taking nearly 45 percent of their shots from deep (55th).
Hubb has seen his numbers drop significantly in every category, which certainly hasn’t helped things. But the Irish also lack top-end talent, explosiveness and depth (337th in bench minutes). There is nothing redeemable about this team and they haven’t beaten a KenPom top-260 team yet.
Friday night’s game against Boston College will be telling. The Eagles were picked to finish at or near the bottom on the ACC and present a winnable opportunity for Notre Dame. If the Irish don’t capitalize with games against Kentucky and Indiana on deck, things will go downhill quickly.