It feels like college basketball is in chaos, and that has led to what I realize will be somewhat of a negative tone in this Rauf Report.
That chaos isn’t the kind of chaos we were fearing — the season isn’t in danger of being canceled anytime soon (thank goodness, and knock on wood) — but more of the typical chaos we’re used to in the sport.
Is anyone actually good? Baylor and Gonzaga are excluded, of course — a potential national championship matchup has never felt more obvious and inevitable.
Six ranked teams lost on Saturday alone, and of the 25 teams in my power rankings on Sunday, 10 suffered at least one defeat this week. There were teams that lost and moved up multiple spots despite losing! Why? Teams ahead of them lost more and/or in worse ways.
Because of this, we’re going to focus on several negatives that could sink a handful of NCAA Tournament teams. Let’s this get Rauf Report started with Iowa and a look at its X-factor, which generally determines the team’s success.
The Hawkeyes have actually been a fairly reliable team this season. Fran McCaffery’s squad is phenomenal offensively and has perhaps the nation’s best player in Luka Garza, yet it has limitations defensively that give it an obvious ceiling.
As such, Friday’s loss at Illinois wasn’t necessarily a surprise. It did, however, reinforce Jordan Bohannon‘s importance to Iowa’s attack.
The fifth-year senior has been a staple in the starting lineup since his freshman season, serving as the team’s primary playmaker and reliable secondary scorer. In fact, he has led the Hawkeyes in assists and finished second or third on the team in scoring each season. That’s the case this year as well but after coming off hip surgery, his contributions have been a bit more sporadic.
When he hasn’t been able to deliver, his teammates haven’t been able to pick up the slack.
Here’s a look at Bohannon’s stats in Iowa’s victories as opposed to their losses:
Pretty jarring, right? For a team that is so explosive offensively — second nationally in offensive efficiency — and for how much rightful praise is heaped on Garza, Bohannon is the guy who takes everything to the next level.
Garza is as reliable as they come, and wing Joe Wieskamp has been a consistent second option. The rest of the roster can contribute in big ways but are largely set in their roles and haven’t always stepped up. Bohannon gives this offense a legitimate third option when he’s on, and that is when Iowa is virtually impossible to defend. When he’s off, though, the Hawkeyes are extremely vulnerable, and their defensive struggles play a larger role in the outcome.
Virginia’s flimsy resume
I still think Virginia is a good basketball team and Saturday’s surprising loss to Virginia Tech doesn’t change that. However, it did make me look harder at its overall resume and, well, it isn’t great.
The Cavaliers are still 11-3 and are in sole possession of first place in the ACC at 7-1. They have those things going for them but from a resume perspective, their accomplishments don’t match where they’re going to be placed in the AP poll this week.
Tony Bennett’s squad has only played three games against teams ranked in the KenPom top 50 so far. They are 1-2 in those games. That’s their same Quadrant 1 record, too.
That’s one Q1 win for a team that was ranked in the top 10 and no one questioned it! How crazy is that? Virginia deserves the benefit of the doubt, but it’s fair to call this team unproven.
UVA nearly has as many wins against Q3 and Q4 teams (five) as they do against teams in Q1/Q2 (six). That’s because most of the damage the Wahoos have done has come against a poor nonconference schedule and against middling teams in the ACC.
We claimed UVA was “back” following an 85-50 win over Clemson a couple of weekends ago, yet Clemson is so very clearly not the team we thought it was back then (more on them in a little bit). Their two best wins, per KenPom, are over Georgia Tech and Syracuse, and neither were projected to be in the NCAA Tournament field in our bracketologist Lukas Harkins’ latest update.
Because this is a down year for the ACC, there aren’t the plethora of Q1 opportunities that are normally there. That said, there’s an upcoming five-game stretch starting next weekend (Louisville, at Georgia Tech, UNC, at Florida State, at Duke) that will solidify them as either a contender or pretender.
From an eye-test perspective, I lean much more towards the “contender” portion. This is one of the best offensive teams Virginia has had under Bennett. Their defense, while not what we’ve come to expect, is still one of the nation’s best as well.
I am curious to see how they perform over the next three weeks since I was hit with the realization that this group is still unproven.
Clemson’s offensive regression
Clemson, on the other hand, had proven to be a good team just a few weeks ago. They had nonconference victories over Purdue and Alabama that were aging like fine wine and a double-digit home victory over a very good Florida State team. Brad Brownell’s squad was playing complementary basketball with elite defense supplemented by smart, methodical offense.
Then Clemson had to take a COVID-induced pause following a Jan. 5 overtime victory over NC State. The Tigers went 11 days between games before returning to action against Virginia.
Since then, Clemson has been a completely different team.
We already discussed the 85-50 beatdown UVA handed the Tigers, but Clemson’s struggles have extended well past that. They have now lost four of their five games since the COVID pause, losing by an average of 24.5 points per game. The lone win came over Louisville in what was one of the lowest scoring games of the season.
The root cause of Clemson’s newfound struggles is its offense has dropped off a cliff. The Tigers currently have the lowest scoring average (304th) and offensive efficiency (100th) of any team projected to receive an at-large bid in Harkins’ latest bracketology update.
That’s not good to begin with, and those numbers get even worse when looking at the last five games.
Everything is going in the wrong direction. Shooting percentages and scoring are both down dramatically, particularly their three-point shooting. However, Clemson is shooting even more threes than they were before the break.
There are a number of individuals who have seen their impact drop off significantly, but it’s so widespread that it’s impossible to pick out any one player who needs to turn it around. The whole team needs to turn it around to avoid backsliding out of the NCAA Tournament altogether, and it starts with taking smarter shots.
Defense driving Oklahoma’s surge
OK, let’s talk about something positive, shall we?
Oklahoma had the best week of anyone in the country, pulling off two top 10 victories (Texas, Alabama) to wrap up a historic month. The Sooners’ win over the Crimson Tide on Saturday was their fourth top 10 victory during the month of January, making them the first team since 1974 and third team ever to beat four top 10 teams in the single month.
How’d they do it? Short answer: defense.
Long answer: Oklahoma has placed an increased emphasis on defending the perimeter by playing more aggressively. During the first 10 games of the season, the Sooners allowed opponents to shoot 39 percent from three-point range which, if that number were the same today, would rank 331st in the country (tied with Western Illinois).
With more pressure and tighter coverage, Oklahoma was not only able to increase the number of turnovers forced, but also drastically improve its three-point defense.
That 28.4 percent, if extrapolated out for the entire season, would rank 16th in the country. Pretty big difference between 331st and 16th, right?
The fact this worked so well against Alabama, in particular, is a positive sign for Oklahoma moving forward. The Sooners are one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country and get a significant amount of their offense from beyond the arc (15th in 3PA/FGA, 12th in percentage of points from three), yet the Sooners limited them to just 10-of-28 shooting from deep.
My questions about Oklahoma in the preseason centered around its offense and who would consistently score outside of Austin Reaves, Brady Manek, and De’Vion Harmon. Those limitations are still there (hence the 6-4 start), yet the Sooners defense has diminished the need for more offense. It’s worth noting that Reaves didn’t play against Alabama and Manek only played eight minutes against Texas, and the Sooners still won both games.
This stretch has solidified Oklahoma as a tournament team. How dangerous they will be, however, is dependent upon their ability to maintain this level of play defensively.
Gonzaga’s slow starts
Gonzaga is still going to win the national championship and finish the season undefeated. I’m not backing off either of those stances here, so cool your jets, Zags fans.
BUT that doesn’t mean the Bulldogs have been flawless lately.
Since starting WCC play, Gonzaga has gotten into a trend of starting slow. The Bulldogs are so good and so overwhelming that they have yet to really be tested in the second half. That doesn’t mean the Zags have made it easy on themselves, though.
In three of their last four games, Mark Few’s squad has gotten behind by some fairly considerable margins.
Saint Mary’s built a double-digit lead (22-12) over Gonzaga in the game’s first 11 minutes. San Diego had a five-point lead over a similar timeframe and Pepperdine on Saturday led the Bulldogs by nine at the first TV timeout.
This is something Gonzaga is aware of, and star big man Drew Timme touched on it following this weekend’s game against the Waves, a 97-75 GU win.
“We’ve just got to do a better job internally. There’s nothing that any team does to us that we can’t handle. Coming into the environment, especially like this, like every environment, there’s no energy, no fans, you’ve got to create it on your own. We’ve got to do a better job of coming out ready from the jump.”
It’s just something to keep an eye on here in case it turns into a bad habit because, quite frankly, this is the only thing that’s even a little bit wrong with Gonzaga.