A look at why Villanova’s offense is struggling highlights the biggest takeaways from the past week in NCAA Basketball.
The NCAA Basketball season is now in full swing with the Champions Classic and Gavitt Games behind us and the bulk of Feast Week on the horizon. There are day games for the next week and a half, providing what feels like non-stop hoops until the last week of the month.
And, while it’s still early in the season, now is the time when we tend to see separation start to emerge between the very best teams in the country and those who might be a bit overrated. UConn and Purdue started looking like juggernauts this time last year while North Carolina began its descent out of the NCAA Tournament picture.
Those kinds of major shifts may still be on the horizon for the 2023-24 season, but high-level games played this past week have given us significant inside – of both the positive and negative variety. Here’s a look at the biggest takeaways of the week in a new Rauf Report, starting with a look at a red flag with Villanova.
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Villanova’s offense lacks movement, purpose
Villanova wasn’t the only favored team to be upset this week or this season — far from it, in fact — yet its shocking loss to Penn showed major cause for concern on the offensive end.
Head coach Kyle Neptune re-tooled the roster this offseason via the transfer portal with the goal of adding more scoring prowess, which he did. TJ Bamba, Tyler Burton and Hakim Hart were all proven scorers at their previous stops and were expected to take this offense to a new level. Instead, things remain stagnant, an indictment of Neptune’s strategy as a coach.
The elite Villanova offenses we remember under Jay Wright took advantage of the high-level spacing that comes with a 5-out offense and routinely ranked among the nation’s leaders in 3-point attempts, something that hasn’t changed under Neptune. What has changed, though, is how the Wildcats get those attempts.
Wright’s very best teams — think of the 2016 or 2018 national championship teams — were in constant motion on the offensive end, using drives and cuts to collapse opposing defenses before kicking the ball back out to an open shooter on the perimeter. It was a style that forced the defense to react and then relied on players to find the man who was left open by the rotating defense.
Villanova is not operating with that kind of motion under Neptune. In fact, its offense is relatively stagnant and reliant on individual one-on-one moves.
Here’s a look at a handful of key possessions down the stretch against Penn when the Wildcats were trying to pull off the comeback. Notice how little the ball moves, how little pressure the defense is under and just how slow everything moves.
Granted, these are just four possessions throughout the course of an entire game, but it was indicative of the way Villanova played and has been playing. The Wildcats recorded just six assists against the Quakers on 22 made baskets. It dropped their assist rate to 149th nationally, per KenPom, after the Wildcats ranked 286th in that category last season. Under Wright, that number was routinely in the top 30.
That lack of creativity is one of the reasons Penn went into the game with a strong belief it could win. Its 2-3 zone is already designed to stagnate opponents and the Wildcats were more than happy to fall into the trap.
“When we started the scout, I felt like we could [beat them],” Penn guard Tyler Perkins said postgame. “I felt confident with our guys. I felt like we matched up well with them.”
Villanova is entering a stretch in which it will face five KenPom top-50 opponents in its next six games. There isn’t much time for the Wildcats to figure it out, but they will need to quickly or else the season could spiral.
Kansas needs Dajuan Harris Jr. to be a scorer
Kansas survived a tougher-than-expected test against Kentucky in the Champions Classic. While the overwhelming takeaway from the United Center was the potential of John Calipari’s squad, it was also clear that the Jayhawks will need Dajuan Harris Jr. to be more of a scorer this season.
The senior point guard has been a reluctant offensive threat throughout his career. His game centers around running the team and putting his teammates in position to score, playing the role of “traditional” point guard to perfection. As a result, opponents often try to turn him into a scorer, as Kentucky did on Tuesday night.
“That was big boy basketball,” Harris told reporters postgame. “That’s always a fight, a dog fight, every time we play them. I think they wanted me to beat them. They left me open. And then I just had to step up and make the shot.”
And Harris did. He scored a career-high 23 points against the Wildcats, including several key 3-pointers down the stretch that propelled KU’s comeback victory. It was something of a rare outburst given that he only had two points on the season coming in. He went 1-of-4 shooting against Manhattan after not shooting a single shot in the opener against NC Central, something he had fun with on social media after the game.
The Champions Classic showed that Kansas will need Harris to shoot in order to be at its best. It has enough talent to beat the likes of NC Central and Manhattan without him, yet the Jayhawks don’t have enough scorers to really take a back seat.
He has proven to be efficient throughout his time in Lawrence, shooting 45.7 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from deep in his career but has just been a reluctant shooter. Given that Nic Timberlake and Elmarko Jackson have struggled to make the kind of offensive impact Kansas was hoping for, it’s on Harris to provide more of the backcourt scoring punch.
Braden Smith’s pick-and-roll execution is Purdue’s X-Factor
Purdue remains one of the nation’s best teams, something that was anticipated when the Boilermakers returned Zach Edey and the rest of the court from last year’s team that won both the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles.
However, their struggles down the stretch and untimely loss to Fairleigh Dickinson in the first round of the NCAA Tournament showed that something had to change. Enter Braden Smith, who has taken his game to another level, so Matt Painter and the coaching staff have responded by putting the ball in his hands more.
He has been steady through three games for the Boilermakers, averaging 11.7 points, 8.3 assists and 6.0 rebounds. Purdue’s offense is still centered around Edey and getting him as many touches in the paint as possible, but Smith has become a much larger focal point. A lot of their half-court sets now start out with a high screen, allowing Smith to get downhill and read defenses.
This was on full display in its win over Xavier on Monday. Below are four possessions that occurred throughout the course of the game that show all the ways Smith beats opposing defenses through this action.
On the first possession, he goes all the way to the rim and deploys a crafty finish. Then he knocks down an open midrange jumper when the Xavier defense sags off him. On the third possession, he hits the open shooter created by the defense overhelping. And then, on the final one, he hits Edey on the roll for an and-one — which is really the ultimate cheat code given Edey’s size and skill.
Smith was a turnover machine down the stretch of last season and his offensive efficiency dipped dramatically. He’s now Purdue’s clear No. 2 option and is running the show at a higher clip than he did last season. The high ball screens have made him much more efficient and dangerous — something he will have to maintain if Purdue is going to make that elusive Final Four run.
Concerns about Wisconsin
Wisconsin was discussed as a team to watch in the Big Ten and a dark horse nationally coming into the season largely, again, because of what it was returning. The Badgers rank 23rd in the country in minutes continuity, per KenPom, so it was easy to see the rationale for this team taking a step forward.
Unfortunately for the Badgers, all the warts are still there and have been very evident in losses to Tennessee and Providence.
Wisconsin battled against a very good Vols team but was unable to stretch the floor (25.0 percent from 3-point range) against Tennessee’s defense due to the lack of individual playmakers. The Badgers shot the same percentage from deep against Providence but were completely overwhelmed by the Friars’ athleticism. They never led at Amica Mutual Pavilion and trailed by as many as 25 points.
After the game, head coach Greg Gard was extremely critical of his group.
“Credit to Providence. They kicked our ass, so we’ll see how we respond to it,” he told reporters postgame. “But they played hard. We didn’t play hard enough all the time in the show, playing hard covers up warts and I thought they did a good job.
“They made some plays, knocked down shots, but gave them confidence. Loose balls that we don’t get to, we don’t dive on, they get a three. Just hustle plays like that. But that was evident early and by the time we started to figure it out, we were in too deep a hole.”
Their poor shooting and lack of athleticism certainly limit Wisconsin’s ceiling, especially since the Badgers aren’t great on the offensive glass, either (209th in offensive rebounding rate, per KenPom). Throw in the suddenly uncertain status of Connor Essegian moving forward and this group has major questions moving forward that can’t (and perhaps won’t) be easily answered.
Continued struggles for Mike Boynton at Oklahoma State
It’s unfortunate that Boynton and the Cowboys find themselves in this situation, but the seventh-year head coach looks to have Oklahoma State headed in the wrong direction.
Boynton entered the season on the hot seat after missing the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in six years (Oklahoma State would not have made the 2020 tournament) and a loss to St. Bonaventure on Thursday dropped his squad to 1-2. The other loss? A defeat at home to Abilene Christian in the season opener.
The story of both losses was really the same as most other games under Boynton: Oklahoma State played great defense but didn’t have enough offense to win.
“I got sick to my stomach watching that we held them without a field goal the last five minutes of the game and still lost a four-point lead,” Boynton said after the loss to the Bonnies. “Disappointing for sure. It’s a game we felt like we did enough throughout the course of the game to come out with a quality win and didn’t close very well.”
Things will get even tougher for the Cowboys given Bryce Thompson’s injury. Their star player suffered a leg injury against St. Bonaventure and may miss time, further hampering an already struggling unit.
Looking at Boynton’s tenure as a whole, his lone NCAA Tournament appearance came in the one year Cade Cunningham was on campus. He hasn’t guided Oklahoma State to a winning record in Big 12 play aside from that 2020-21 campaign, furthering doubt about his ability to get this program on track.
It is worth noting that Boynton should get some benefit of the doubt given the way the NCAA hammered Oklahoma State (and only Oklahoma State) with a postseason ban as a result of the FBI investigation. Still, through two weeks, the Cowboys are continuing to take steps backward.