The Rauf Report looks at the biggest college basketball takeaways of the week with in-depth looks at Big 12 and SEC leaders.
College basketball is entering the forefront of the sports calendar with the NFL playoffs winding down (I’m picking a Chiefs-Eagles Super Bowl – boring, I know). As a result, the SEC/Big 12 Challenge is at center stage this weekend.
The event has a handful of quality matchups on tap in its final year, most notably Kansas-Kentucky and Tennessee-Texas. This comes on the heels of the last ACC-Big Ten Challenge, as new TV contracts have shaken up this part of the sport. The SEC is beginning a new challenge with the ACC next season, while it remains to be seen what the Big Ten and Big 12 will do.
One opportunity the SEC/Big 12 Challenge missed (and one that hopefully another will adopt in the future) is dynamic scheduling.
With this challenge at the end of January, there was an opportunity for a real competition — the best team in one conference vs. the best in the other, second-best vs. second-best, etc. The teams could leave the date open and then, say, three weeks out, take the highest-rated teams (using KenPom, T-Rank, NET, conference standings, etc.) and create the matchups from there.
In honor of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, this Rauf Report will look at a pair of teams from both conferences, starting with an Iowa State squad that is quickly emerging as a true Big 12 title contender.
Iowa State quietly lives and dies by the three
Iowa State has been known for its defense under TJ Otzelberger and probably will be for as long as he’s the head coach.
The Cyclones were fifth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency last season and are in the top 10 again this year. It’s their identity and what drives the team.
But this Iowa State group has the ability to pack more of an offensive punch than last year’s team – particularly from 3-point range — and that’s the biggest reason why they’re tied for the lead in the Big 12 instead of near the bottom, where they were at this time last year.
ISU ranked 278th in 3-point shooting last season. So far this season, the Cyclones are at 108th, making 35.3 percent of their shots from long range. However, that 35.3 number has not been a steady number this team hovers around on a game-to-game basis – they have either been really hot or really cold.
Otzelberger’s squad has made at least 37.5 percent of its threes in 10 of the 19 games played this season. In the other nine, it has failed to cross 32 percent and has fallen below 30 percent more often than not, too. Unsurprisingly, this swing has had a huge impact on its success or failure as a whole.
Iowa State is 9-1 when it makes at least 37.5 percent of its 3-point attempts. That data set includes some of the Cyclones’ biggest wins, including victories against UNC, Baylor and Texas. The only loss was a two-point road defeat to Kansas.
On the flipside, in those nine other games, Cyclones are 6-3, and three of those wins were in Quad 4 games (IUPUI, NC A&T, Milwaukee).
Taking this a step further, ISU’s closest games have been when it has struggled from deep. It is shooting a combined 30.8 percent in its nine games that have been decided by single digits or were losses while shooting a combined 38.8 percent in the 10 games it has won by double digits.
We know what to expect from Iowa State defensively. However, Iowa State’s overall potential relies on in its ability to shoot the ball from deep.
Alabama’s doesn’t live and die by the three, but it impacts them a LOT
Alabama’s approach to the 3-point shot isn’t as much of a surprise. It has been a staple of Nate Oats’ explosive system going back to his days at Buffalo and it has worked extremely well for the Crimson Tide. Oats’ teams would rather take a contested three than any kind of mid-range jumper – ultimately banning two-point jumpers in practice – which, whether or not they make them at a high clip, results in a high rate of 3-pointers attempted.
The Tide have ranked in the top 20 nationally in this category in each season since Oats took over as head coach, including 14th this season. Efficiency dipped drastically last season (303rd in 3-point percentage), but the philosophy remains the same.
Because of that, good or bad 3-point shooting nights have much more impact on Alabama’s success than a team like UCLA or Xavier, neither of which shoot frequently from beyond the arc.
The Crimson Tide has been spectacular this season. At its best, Alabama is probably the best team in the country. However, because of the 3-point shooting, this team has the potential to either blow out really good teams or struggle with much lesser opponents.
Alabama shot 45.5 percent form deep against a KenPom top-50 Liberty team and won by 36. In their rout of Arkansas at Bud Walton Arena, the Tide shot 45 percent from long range. They made 20 threes in that 40-point drubbing of LSU.
That same team also struggled mightily against an 8-13 South Alabama team because it shot just 28.6 percent from three. A 25.9-percent showing had Jackson State hanging around for 30 minutes. A 26.7-percent mark against Vandy allowed the Commodores to hang around, while a lowly 17.9 percent nearly cost them in a three-point win against Mississippi State.
Alabama is so good at other things that it doesn’t live and die by the three in the traditional sense. It can win games — and has done so — without a great 3-point shooting night because of its other strengths, particularly on defense. But the one-game, do-or-die scenario in the NCAA Tournament isn’t forgiving, meaning this much reliance on the three has the potential to be an issue.
Antonio Reeves is Kentucky’s X-factor
Kentucky is the other team that is surging in the SEC and is currently riding a four-game winning streak into this weekend’s showdown with Kansas. An injury to Sahvir Wheeler forced John Calipari to make a lineup change and play both Chris Livingston and Antonio Reeves more, unlocking UK’s offense.
With added shooting and versatility on the court, there is more space for everyone to operate. Wheeler is a great playmaker but isn’t a threat as a shooter and his lack of size limits him at the rim.
The move has elevated the team as a whole, yet it has especially benefitted Antonio Reeves. The Illinois State transfer is starting to play like the highly efficient perimeter scorer Kentucky needed. As his usage has increased recently, so has his efficiency.
“He’s been good,” Calipari said of Reeves following UK’s victory over Vanderbilt. “Very confident. Playing better defensively. Rebounding balls. Mixing it up. And he’s not just worried about offense. He’s worried about playing.
“He’s on a different level from where he’s been.”
It’s been a big boost for Kentucky, which has lacked much perimeter scoring pop this season. It remains to be seen if Reeves can keep this up for another month or two instead of just a few weeks, but his impact has certainly been noticeable.
Ismael Massoud is the secondary scorer Kansas State needs
Just as Reeves has stepped up for Kentucky, Ismael Massoud has developed into a reliable secondary scorer for Kansas State since the start of Big 12 play. Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson will always be the focal point of the offense, but Massoud has thrived in an increased role thanks to his perimeter shooting.
“Everyone learns and develops at their own pace, so at the beginning of the year, I was trying to do what the coach was asking me to do and stuff like that, and I guess now it’s starting to click,” Massoud told the Topeka Capital-Journal. “I’m starting to play a lot more because they’ve seen me doing a lot more of the stuff they want me to do. So, it has been clicking for me now.”
That clicking has also helped K-State’s offense as a whole. Having a lethal pick-and-pop threat likes Massoud stretches opposing defenses and creates more space for players like Nowell and Johnson to drive and operate in the lane. That’s particularly crucial for Nowell given his 5-8 stature.
Massoud has helped the Wildcats maintain an efficient offense against the many elite defenses in the Big 12 and is only going to pay dividends for Jerome Tang’s squad down the line — so long as he keeps it up. Massoud is highly unlikely to continue shooting over 57 percent from three. But if he can continue to be a threat opposing defenses have to worry about, it makes K-State that much more dangerous.
Johnell Davis can take FAU to another level
Florida Atlantic is one of the best stories in college basketball, as our Eli Boettger explained in his HC+ feature on the Owls and head coach Dusty May.
The driving force of their offense, which ranks 33rd nationally in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric, is its balance. Five players average at least 9.4 points per game, nine average at least 4.8, and no one is averaging more than 26.2 minutes per game. This style has worked to the tune of a 20-1 record and a current 19-game winning streak.
There is still the possibility that things change drastically in the next month, but FAU has the metrics of an at-large team, meaning it would make the NCAA Tournament even if it did not win the CUSA Tournament. On that stage and in that aforementioned do-or-die scenario, I’m a believer that teams need at least one shot-making, go-to guy to make any noise in March.
The Owls appear to have found their guy in Johnell Davis. The 6-4 guard has upped his game in a big way over the last month and has become one of the frontrunners for CUSA Player of the Year.
Davis has had some huge games during this run, including a 36-point outburst against preseason conference favorite UAB and back-to-back games with at least 20 points against UTEP (20) and Middle Tennessee (25).
Florida Atlantic is a really good team that doesn’t need Davis to be this level of a star just to make the NCAA Tournament. Yet having him be that guy does make the Owls that much better and that much more of a threat when the Big Dance comes around.