Welcome into another Rauf Report, where I highlight my biggest takeaways from the past week in college basketball.
We missed both of last week’s editions as we dealt with the unexpected death of my mother-in-law, who had been in a three-week long battle with COVID-19. As you would think, going through (and still going through) an ordeal like that really hammers home the seriousness of the disease. We hear a lot about people being diagnosed with the disease, quarantining, and then coming back in 14 days without a discernable, visible difference that we can become somewhat numb to it — I know I certainly was. But this is something with very real consequences.
I struggled with that and, through the college basketball prism which consumes my life during these months, projected those onto this season. I had all those thoughts Coach K likes to run through when Duke loses. Why are we doing anything, let alone this?
Then I found that I was throwing myself into college basketball games more than normal (if that’s possible). Having something to entertain me, distract me, and something that gave me a sense of normalcy engrossed me. It provided a safe haven for me.
And yes, there are significant risks to playing this season, which are more uncomfortable given the fact players aren’t being appropriately compensated. But this is not meant to be part of a larger conversation on morality. This sport, and this community, helped me and continues to help me get though one of the most difficult times of my life.
For the record, players should be able to profit off their name, image, and likeness. I’m good with playing because, the way I look at it, it comes with the territory of trying to land a job in one of the most competitive industries. Players also have more access to testing, etc. that keeps them safer.
The team that brought me the most joy during this time was Alabama and, if you’ve been watching them play lately, you understand why. We’ll start this Rauf Report with the Crimson Tide and why they should be in the conversation for the best team not named Gonzaga or Baylor.
Alabama deserves mention as third-best team in the country
Alabama is playing some of the best basketball in the country right now. A 105-75 victory over LSU on Tuesday was the latest in its current eight-game win streak, the last seven of which were SEC games.
The Crimson Tide were largely an afterthought at the start of the streak, finishing the season’s first month with a 4-3 record. They didn’t have a great win and lost at home to a solid Western Kentucky team, which a program with Alabama’s expectations should still win.
Yet Nate Oats’ squad has turned their season around in a big way since. This group has found a groove in their five-out system, spreading out opposing defenses and utilizing a drive-and-kick offense. While it’s worth mentioning that Alabama’s defense (No. 10 in AdjD) is ranked higher than its offense (No. 13), it has been the scoring prowess that has been the driving force behind the surge. However, the Tide aren’t necessarily doing anything different from their first seven games.
According to ShotQuality, Alabama was expected to win each of the three games it lost based on the, well, quality of shots it took. Those shots just didn’t go in.
Alabama has been slowly rising up the rankings during its win streak, only checking it at No. 18 in the latest AP poll. That 4-3 start is the reason many are so hesitant to fully believe in this squad. But if you take ShotQuality’s information into account and assume Alabama fulfilled those projected results — or even if they lost a game because, well, it’s college basketball — the hype around this team feels a lot different.
The biggest topic this season asks who is the third best team in the country. We know Gonzaga is No. 1, Baylor is No. 2, there’s a GIANT tier gap, and then whoever checks in at No. 3 on a given week. Villanova currently holds that spot because it didn’t play for a month and, therefore, didn’t lose for a month, but the Wildcats have shown plenty of flaws. Iowa’s lack of defense gives them a clear ceiling, Tennessee and Illinois have fallen off the map, and Michigan looked the part before being blown out by Minnesota.
Is it possible that Alabama is the team we all thought Michigan was this time last week?
They’re one of only five teams that rank in the top 13 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency (Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan, Virginia) and have played a top 25 schedule so far. They’ve routinely proven themselves against excellent competition, providing more of a resume than a lot of the teams ahead of them that we think are good.
I don’t know if Alabama is really the third best team in the country right now, and it may not necessarily matter with Gonzaga and Baylor’s dominance. But you also can’t make a strong argument that the Crimson Tide aren’t the third best team in the country with the way they’re playing.
Don’t go overboard on the Baylor hype
Speaking of Baylor, the Bears put forth an impressive performance in the biggest game of the week, a 77-69 victory over Kansas.
In the first half, Baylor looked every bit like the team that has the nation’s best defense and No. 4 offense, per KenPom. Scott Drew’s squad swarmed Kansas defensively, forcing turnovers and poor shots, while creating — and making — open shots on the offensive end whenever they wanted.
However, the second half was a different story. The Jayhawks outscored Baylor and cut the deficit to as little as five points before the Bears were able to put the game away late. Their play in that half is not something that has been all that uncommon over the last five games either.
Scott Drew’s squad trailed a 2-7 Iowa State team late in the second half before a strong run in the closing minutes. They also trailed TCU at halftime and nearly lost to Texas Tech before another late surge.
When Baylor goes on those runs, they look incredible. That first half against Kansas was so much fun to watch and the fact they have that in the tank is why there’s a giant gap between No. 2 and whoever ends up at No. 3 that week. But as the Bears continue to play these high-profile games while No. 1 Gonzaga doesn’t, we’re starting to see a push to move Baylor to the top spot.
That should not happen.
Sure, the Zags haven’t looked their best over the last week and a half, but they are still blowing teams out. Mark Few’s squad has been as consistently dominant as it gets and haven’t routinely had those lackluster stretches against much lesser opponents.
This is not to argue that Baylor is bad because they absolutely are not. At the same time, their play signals they are still the clear No. 2 behind Gonzaga. Don’t let recency bias sway your opinion.
Don’t sleep on Georgia Tech
I was the leader of the Georgia Tech bandwagon this offseason, ranking them in the preseason top 20 and picking them as my biggest breakout team for the 2020-21 season for all the reasons you can read here.
Well, the Yellow Jackets kicked things off with back-to-back losses to Georgia State and Mercer to open the new year. They were practicing with no contact in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, and it was clear that wasn’t working.
So, after the loss to Mercer, head coach Josh Pastner reinstituted contact in practices. Georgia Tech is 7-1 since then with wins over North Carolina, Clemson and Kentucky, though that isn’t a marquee win nowadays.
The Yellow Jackers relied on their defense last season but, so far in 2020-21, it has been their offense that has carried them. They rank 44th in offensive efficiency and are 45th in scoring, averaging over 80 points per game. Big man Moses Wright (17.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg) has emerged as a star and point guard Jose Alvarado (17.1 ppg, 3.9 apg, 2.3 spg) continues to be one of the sport’s most underrated point guards.
Defense is finally starting to come around as well. After starting slow, Georgia Tech has really ramped things up on that end. Here’s a pretty telling stat: the Yellow Jackets are 7-0 when they hold opponents to 70 points or less. When they allow 70 or more, they’re 0-3. They’ve held each of their last five opponents under that mark as they’ve turned their season around.
However, all those games have been at home. The real test for this group is coming this week when they face Virginia and Duke on the road before closing the month with Florida State in Atlanta. That stretch will either validate this turnaround or prove its fool’s gold. My guess is that we’ll be taking them a lot more seriously this time next week.
Can we talk about Sean Miller?
Arizona came back to beat Arizona State on Thursday night in dramatic fashion, pushing them to 11-3 on the season.
It was something of a needed win for Arizona, too. Despite their record, they only had one win over a KenPom top 100 team coming into the night and the Sun Devils (No. 72) give them their second.
Even though they won, this game put Sean Miller back in the spotlight for me because, well, he’s still on the sideline. I know most of the questions surrounding Sean Miller’s job status stem from the FBI investigation and NCAA violations, and those questions are warranted. After all, the school already self-imposed a postseason ban in anticipation of severe punishment.
Yet what often gets lost is that Arizona’s on-court play the past few seasons has been worthy of putting Miller on the hot seat on its own merit!
The Wildcats are just 49-29 overall and a measly 23-21 in Pac-12 play since the start of the 2018-19 season, going three and a half seasons without an NCAA tournament victory too.
It’s Arizona’s worst stretch since 1982-1985, which marked the end of the Fred Snowden era, the only season of the Ben Lindsey era, and the program’s first season under Lute Olson.
Sean Miller defenders will point to the lingering potential of punishment from the NCAA as a major hindrance to recruiting, which obviously makes it harder to win. First, that’s not true considering the freshman class the Wildcats had last year (Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Zeke Nnaji) but, more importantly, that’s also something Miller has brought on himself.
His brother, Indiana’s Archie Miller, is mentioned the most in hot-seat discussions, but Sean deserves to be mentioned almost as often.
Drake, Winthrop, and the Selection Committee’s conundrum
With the weirdness of this college basketball season, we thought we might see more mid-majors playing a role in the NCAA Tournament field than normal. Friend of the program Kevin Sweeney pointed out that the latest NET rankings provide some substance to that theory:
The selection committee appears to have used the NET rankings as its base metric since it was introduced, which bodes well for all these teams.
However, I particularly want to examine the teams that bookend Kevin’s list in Drake and Winthrop. Both are undefeated (13-0 and 15-0, respectively) in true mid-major conferences. Both are quality teams that have the potential to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament (i.e., they can play with the big boys) and are going to be scary opponents for any power conference team they face.
But what will make them each an interesting case study from a selection committee are the scenarios if either were to lose a game or two.
Neither team currently has what you would classify as a “good win.” Drake’s best win, at least in terms of KenPom ranking, is No. 145 Indiana State. Winthrop’s is over No. 80 Furman. Both resumes are flimsy if we’re looking at them from an at-large perspective.
Neither has a plethora of quality opponents on the schedule either. Drake recently re-scheduled their series with Loyola-Chicago (No. 24), but that’s the only team they’re scheduled to play that’s currently ranked in the KenPom top 115. Winthrop only has games remaining against Gardner Webb (No. 183), Radford (No. 215), and UNC Asheville (No. 232). Not exactly a murderer’s row of opponents.
What does that all mean?
As we discussed on the latest episode of Hope & Rauf presented by Heat Check CBB, both teams can afford one loss in their respective conference tournaments and still make the NCAA Tournament field. Any loss suffered is going to be disastrous for their resume, yet the sheer number of wins would be enough to get them in.
Two losses, on the other hand, would put either in serious jeopardy (unless one of Drake’s is to Loyola-Chicago). With no automatic bid, no Quad 1 games, only a couple of Quad 2 wins, and likely two Quad 4 losses (again, Loyola-Chicago being the exception), that’s the kind of resume that would be left out of the NCAA Tournament without the “eye test” involved.
That’s where a potential conundrum for the selection committee comes into play. Would they give Drake and/or Winthrop a pass for a bad night or two, choosing instead to focus on a full season of dominance? Or would they punish them for losing to a lesser team they may have already beaten twice?
I think Drake drops one to Loyola-Chicago somewhere along the way and gets in. I also think Winthrop cruises through the rest of their Big South schedule and claims the conference’s auto bid, making this a moot point.
But it is something worth monitoring over the next seven weeks.