Rauf Report: Mississippi State; Providence’s X-factor; other college basketball takeaways

Brian Rauf reveals his biggest weekly college basketball takeaways, including in-depth looks at Providence and Mississippi State, in a new Rauf Report.

The college basketball season gave us a sign of things to come during the final week of 2021 as the start of conference play brought about several matchups between ranked teams.

These games feel like there’s some consequence to them because of the conference dynamic and it won’t be long until all of our nights are filled with those matchups.

There would’ve been more but we are unfortunately still dealing with COVID outbursts and cancellations — over 100 teams are either on pause or have had games canceled — but new CDC guidelines have given some hope that these issues will become less prevalent.

Of the games that were played this week, there were a pair of my preseason surprise picks that made major statements, so that is where I’ll start this week’s Rauf Report.

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—Ranking most likely first-time NCAA Tournament teams
—DPI: Game Predictions | Team Grades | Player Rankings

Mississippi State looks like a factor in the SEC

Mississippi State, admittedly, has not been anywhere near as good as I thought it would be through 13 games. At 10-3, the Bulldogs have losses to Louisville, Minnesota and Colorado State (no shame in losing to the Rams, though) and were without a KenPom top-90 win until beating Arkansas on Wednesday.

There were reasons for those struggles, though.

Dominant big man Tolu Smith has only played in five games. Rocket Watts has been severely limited with a hip injury and four other players have missed at least one game.

Transfers Garrison Brooks, Shakeel Moore and DJ Jeffries were thrown into the starting lineup and needed to find their footing. Returning star Iverson Molinar adjusted to the new group around him, too.

Through all that inconsistency, though, head coach Ben Howland has found a lineup that works. When the starting backcourt of Jeffries, Molinar and Moore are paired with Brooks and Cameron Matthews, they form one of the nation’s most potent lineups that has played at least 100 possessions, per EvanMiya.com.

As good as that lineup has been, though, Matthews was inserted for Smith because of his injury. As he works his way back into form, he’ll make Mississippi State more dominant on the interior and should provide Howland with another elite lineup.

The Arkansas game showed just how high the ceiling can be for the Bulldogs. Smith was the best player in the game with 18 points, six rebounds and five steals

If Smith can stay healthy and maintain his production, Mississippi State can play different styles at a high level.

Playing Matthews along with Brooks or Smith gives the Bulldogs more defensive versatility given Matthews’ athleticism and quick hands (top 50 in steal rate) while playing Brooks and Smith together gives the Bulldogs a bruising, twin towers-type lineup.

Mississippi State is unlikely to win the SEC and might not even be in the race considering the strength of the conference’s top half. That said, I do think the Bulldogs will turn into a Top 25 team capable of playing with anyone.

UCF might be the AAC’s best team

In the preseason, we talked on The Hope & Rauf Podcast about how the AAC looked like a clear two-team race between Houston and Memphis. Well, we just talked about Memphis and Houston has lost three of its best players for either the season or significant time to injury. The race is now wide open.

UCF was my favorite to finish third behind those two, and given the state of Houston/Memphis plus what we’ve seen from the Knights, there is a real possibility that Johnny Dawkins’ squad will end up winning the conference.

As I discussed in a Rauf Report a couple of weeks ago, the Knights have a quality defense with elite length and athleticism while using that to play fast offensively (40th in offensive tempo). But UCF needed a quality win to validate its level of play, and it got something resembling that on Thursday against Michigan.

Yes, Michigan is one of the season’s biggest disappointments but it’s the only KenPom top-90 team the Knights have beaten. They’ve played two other such games which resulted in a close loss to Oklahoma and a hard-fought defeat against Auburn.

The win against Michigan also proves that UCF’s strengths — its length and athleticism — are effective against power-conference opponents. The Knights held the Wolverines below 40-percent shooting, won the turnover battle and got what they wanted offensively, shooting 51.8 percent from the field and 60 percent from 3-point range.

That 3-point shooting has been blossoming with this group as both Darin Green and Darius Perry shoot over 44 percent from long range. Those two are typically UCF’s only 3-point threats, but Brandon Mahan snapped out of his slump with five 3s against the Wolverines.

This is just one game, but it validates everything we thought about this group. UCF doesn’t have the strongest January schedule either, so don’t be surprised if we’re looking at this group differently by February.

Memphis will have to win the AAC’s auto bid

A double dose of the American to close out 2021! Who would’ve thought?

In Memphis’ case, though, we’re writing about them for the last time for a while because any at-large hopes the Tigers had are now gone following a loss at Tulane.

Memphis did not have its three leading scorers in Emoni Bates, Jalen Duren and DeAndre Williams in the game, but it shouldn’t have mattered. The Tigers still had more than enough talent to beat the Green Wave easily and couldn’t do it.

Penny Hardaway’s squad is now just 6-5 on the season. While it does have two Quad 1 victories (Virginia Tech, Alabama), it also has a Quad 3 loss and a Quad 4 loss as well. With Houston now expected to struggle given the injuries, there will not be a ton of resume-boosting victories in American conference play.

Because of its poor nonconference resume and the lack of those opportunities, Memphis has put itself in position — again — where it needs to win the AAC Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament.

Providence’s X-factor

Providence has quietly put together an excellent 12-1 start that includes victories over Wisconsin, Texas Tech, UConn and Seton Hall. Maybe the Friars were written off nationally since the one loss came by 18 points against a poor Virginia team, but this is a group that will be a factor in the Big East and deserves a top 20 ranking.

This looks like a typical Ed Cooley team in large part. The Friars have a star in big man Nate Watson, a tall athletic team that is defensive-minded and loves to attack the basket.

But the Friars have been one of the nation’s worst 3-point shooting teams over the last four years and their struggle in that area is largely responsible for this short NCAA Tournament drought, and why they haven’t won a tournament game since 2016.

Providence is still a poor shooting team from deep (213th nationally) but also has something it has only had one other occasion in the Cooley era — a player shooting at least 44 percent from 3-point range.

That is senior Noah Horchler, who is shooting exactly 44 percent on 3s after making 41.9 percent of his attempts a season ago. The North Florida transfer has made multiple threes in seven of Providence’s 13 games so far, all of which have been victories.

The Friars have needed someone who can space the floor and make opponents pay for packing the lane defensively, and Horchler has proven to be that guy. This showed itself in a big way in Wednesday’s win over Seton Hall as he hit five 3-pointers in a 17-point, 13-rebound performance.

Horchler is not Providence’s go-to guy by any stretch. In fact, he’s not even a top secondary contributor. But his role is vitally important to this team’s success as the only player opponents have to respect from 3-point range.

When Horchler is hitting like he was against Seton Hall, the Friars are a very dangerous bunch.

Water finds its level

I tweeted the following after the first six weeks of the season and it traditionally holds true as we switch from nonconference play to conference play, too — not everyone is as good as they seem right now.

Through the first few days of conference play, I think we’ve already seen results that indicate the overperforming teams from the first two months of the season might be coming back to reality.

LSU was undefeated but was ranked in the top 15 because it hadn’t faced a ranked team. The Tigers did on Wednesday and were handled easily by Auburn, signaling that the undefeated record was possibly more a product of their competition than true ability. Wake Forest was 11-1 and was thought of as potentially the third-best team in the ACC until the Deacs lost to a mediocre Louisville team.

Richmond suffered an embarrassing 27-point loss to Saint Joseph’s, essentially ending any at-large hopes for the Spiders. Previously 9-1 DePaul suffered a loss to Butler, indicating the Blue Demons are not poised for a big move up the Big East standings. Utah State lost to Air Force, killing a lot of the hype around the Aggies.

Anyways, you get the picture. More reality checks will likely be coming in the next few weeks, too, as teams like Iowa State, USC and other early-season surprises face more difficult competition.

We’ll see what happens with those teams. But, as the saying goes, water finds its level, and we’re already starting to see that with the college basketball landscape.



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