Brian Rauf details his five biggest takeaways from the past weekend in college basketball in a brand new Rauf Report.
Well, that was a fun weekend of college hoops, wasn’t it?
This season has made history for the collective struggles of the sport’s blue blood programs. Kentucky is going to miss the NCAA Tournament unless it somehow captures the SEC’s automatic bid, and it looks like both Duke and Michigan State are in the same boat. North Carolina is unranked and Kansas fell out of the rankings for the first time in over a decade. The pandemic has made this a crazy, one-of-a-kind season, and the blue bloods have suffered.
Yet each of these teams won on Saturday, and they all might be turning the corner.
Kentucky knocked off Tennessee, giving them three straight wins for just the second time this season. Duke and Michigan State beat Virginia and Indiana, respectively, reviving their hopes of potential at-large bids. North Carolina beat Louisville by 45 points (Louisville was coming off a COVID pause without a full roster but, still, 45 points). And Kansas reasserted themselves in the Big 12 with a convincing home victory over Texas Tech.
That would be the overwhelming storyline coming out of the weekend any other time this year, and we will touch on it a little later. But the biggest storyline came from Sunday’s showdown between No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Ohio State, which the Wolverines won 92-87.
The level of play was so high from both sides that it’s being called the game of the year and only reasserts the place of both teams as likely No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
However, there was one factor that seemed to limit Ohio State down the stretch and helped Michigan escape Columbus with a victory. That is where we start this Rauf Report.
Ohio State’s limiting factor
Despite being ranked No. 4 in the country, Ohio State is the most proven of anyone. The Buckeyes hold nine Quadrant 1 wins — two more than anyone else in the country — and have road victories over three KenPom top 15 teams (Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa).
That, coupled with the way this group played on Sunday, should indicate they won’t be falling out of the top five when the new AP poll gets released. It probably signals that you can bet on them making a long run in the NCAA Tournament, too.
But their lack of offensive playmakers came back to bite them down the stretch and could be the differentiating factor when they face the cream of the crop in the sport.
Duane Washington and EJ Liddell are Ohio State’s offensive leaders holding down the backcourt and frontcourt, respectively. The duo combined for 53 of Ohio State’s 87 points against Michigan and took 33 of the team’s 60 shots. Everything ran through them, which is the way the Buckeyes play — both are used are nearly a fourth of all possessions when they’re in the game.
At the same time, neither is a bona fide superstar who is talented enough to carry the team on their own. They’re the two that Ohio State will go to in late-game situations, so Michigan keyed in on them and the Buckeyes’ offense stalled.
Washington and Liddell were the only two Buckeyes who scored from the field from the 10-minute mark until the final minute when Ohio State was chasing the game. During that time, Michigan went on a 23-11 run that turned a four-point deficit into an eight-point lead. The Buckeyes went 2-8 from the field and turned the ball over three times during that run.
Meanwhile, Michigan had five different players score over the same stretch. Their offensive versatility proved to be the difference in the game.
Gonzaga and Baylor each have this as well. The Zags have four different players that average at least 11.3 points per game while Baylor has four averaging at least 10.2.
We’re splitting hairs here, but that’s what you have to do when it comes to discussing the elite teams in college basketball this year. This is one trait the other teams have that Ohio State does not. It cost them Sunday and might cost them in the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament, too.
Let’s slow down before we start anointing struggling blue bloods as “back”
Okay, now back to the blue bloods. We’re going to take these on a case-by-case basis because, while the overwhelming thought (or want) coming from Saturday’s action is that these teams are #BACK, I’m warning that we should slow the hype train for each.
Let’s start with Kentucky. The Wildcats have won three games in a row to get back to .500 in SEC play, which is a great thing! Their offense has also started to look better, having scored at least 70 points in each of their last six games — a number they had hit only five times in the previous 15 games. But these three wins came against two teams in the SEC’s bottom four (Auburn, Vanderbilt) and a Tennessee team that is faltering with a terrible offense. Kentucky is still perhaps the most talented team in the conference, yet they haven’t proven they can win consistently all year, let alone consistently beat quality competition. Let’s see how they close the season against Florida and Ole Miss first.
Duke’s win over Virginia also put them on a three-game win streak and gave them their second Quad-1 win of the season. Matthew Hurt continued his great play and they’re now 5-0 without Jalen Johnson. At the same time, this is a Virginia team with only three Q1 victories with their best win, according to KenPom rating, coming over North Carolina. The Blue Devils are certainly headed in the right direction, but they still have work to do.
Michigan State also has work to do as well. Winning at Indiana gave the Spartans their third Q1 victory but are a combined 5-9 against the top two quadrants. That game probably says more about the Hoosiers than it does Michigan State, no matter how great Aaron Henry played, though Tom Izzo’s squad has two huge opportunities with Illinois and Ohio state traveling to East Lansing this week.
North Carolina’s win over Louisville doesn’t change their outlook, either. As I mentioned at the top, the Cardinals were coming off a 19-day COVID pause and didn’t have a full roster. This happed to Louisville one other time this season — they took a shorthanded roster to Wisconsin following an 18-day COVID layoff. The result? A 37-point loss. It’s a great win for UNC’s psyche but shouldn’t get them back in the top 25.
And that brings us to Kansas, who is the one blue blood I did put back in my top 25 power rankings this weekend following their win over Texas Tech. Much of their five-game win streak is a product of a weak run in their schedule (includes a victory over Kansas State and two over Iowa State), but the emergence of KU’s big man has played a major role as well.
David McCormack is Kansas’ key
David McCormack was perhaps the most popular and easiest “breakout” pick in the preseason. The former McDonald’s All-American was stepping into a bigger role for the Jayhawks as a junior, claiming the spot left for him by Udoka Azubuike. I even wrote about it here.
But that breakout didn’t happen. Instead, McCormack kind of struggled, particularly out of the gate. Limited by foul trouble, poor shooting, and general ineffectiveness, he did not have the kind of impact he was hoping to have or that Kansas needed him to have. Bill Self went looking for other contributors and, without the depth of options we normally see from the Jayhawks, KU sputtered.
That all came to a head during a three-game losing streak in January. A decision was made to get McCormack more involved offensively and he has responded. Kansas has, too, as they’re enjoying more team success as a result of playing through the post. Look at these splits before and after that three-game skid:
McCormack’s usage is up, his averages are up, and his efficiency is up. This is the kind of production we all expected to see from him in the preseason and he has finally become a consistent, reliable option for the Jayhawks.
Kansas will continue to need it, too. One of their biggest problems this season has been their lack of a go-to scorer and just overall lack of reliable offensive weapons. Everyone has been inconsistent and this trend has largely continued. If McCormack can keep providing that stable force inside, it raises both KU’s ceiling and floor.
Alabama’s three-point shooting
Alabama was ranked as my No. 3 team in late January when they won 10 straight games and emerged as a very real Final Four contender. The Crimson Tide are still of that caliber, but there’s also no denying they haven’t looked like the same dominant group in the six games since that win streak came to an end.
Nate Oats’ squad is 4-2 during this stretch with both losses coming to teams outside the DPI top 35 (Oklahoma ranked 39; Missouri ranked 77) and two wins coming by four points or less against teams at the bottom of the SEC (South Carolina, Vanderbilt).
That’s not ideal, especially when measured against the standard Alabama has set for themselves.
Now, the Crimson Tide have become so much more than just a three-point shooting team, yet their success from long range still has an over-weighted impact on how well they play. Here’s their three-point shooting percentage based on the three distinct stretches of their season so far:
- During 4-3 start: 29.3%
- During 10-0 stretch: 40.5%
- During last six games (4-2): 36.1%
Those numbers over the last six games are slightly inflated considering it includes a 60 percent outing (18/30) from deep against Georgia. The Tide shot a combined 31.3 percent in the other five games, going 3-2 in those contests.
And, yes, obviously, any team is much better when they’re making shots at a high clip as opposed to the alternative. But Alabama is at the extreme of that impact because of how much they rely on the three, ranking 15th nationally in 3PA/FGA and 12th in the percentage of total points they get from beyond the arc.
Alabama’s defense (No. 2 nationally in efficiency, per KenPom) gives them a really high floor and they continue to improve on that end. It’s a major reason why they’ve already clinched the SEC regular season title. That said, if they’re going to return to their January form — when they looked like a Final Four team — it’s going to start with their three-point shooting.
Freshmen need to save Tennessee’s season
We will close this Rauf Report with a look at Tennessee, who has been struggling mightily since the first month and a half of the season. In the middle of January, the Vols were 10-1 and ranked in the top 10 in the country. Since then, they’ve gone just 5-5 and are in danger of falling out of the AP top 25 altogether (they fell out of my rankings this week).
Tennessee’s offensive regression has been the biggest reason for the downfall. It’s not necessarily a true regression but more of a lack of progression in their half-court offense.
Alabama handed the Vols their first loss back on Jan. 2 largely thanks to a gameplan that focused on transition defense. Tennessee is a tremendous defensive team with great athletes, and they’re at their best when they can turn defense into offense and get out into the open court. The Crimson Tide succeeded in limiting that and forced the Vols to beat them in the half court, which they struggled to do.
Other teams have since tried replicating this formula and it has worked.
And that is where Tennessee’s freshmen come into play.
Jaden Springer is the team’s leading scorer (12.0 points per game) and Keon Johnson is third (10.3 ppg) as Tennessee has become very reliant on their individual abilities to carry the load. Springer missed losses to Florida and Missouri at the start of this 5-5 stretch but since his return, the play of these two generally dictates the outcome for the Vols.
When Springer and Johnson have combined to shoot at least 40 percent from the field during this stretch, Tennessee is 5-0 and is averaging 80 points per game. This is when the Vols have enough offense to look like a second weekend team.
But when they’re less efficient and shoot below 40 percent, Tennessee is 0-3 and the offense becomes extremely stagnant (56.7 points per game). That’s a huge swing.
Obviously, it’s not only on Springer and Johnson to turn Tennessee’s season around, yet they’re the ones that have shown they can be the most effective in this half-court offense. As such, the burden is on them, whether they’re ready for it or not.