Rauf Report: Alabama’s weak spot; sneaky AAC team; other college basketball takeaways

Brian Rauf reveals his biggest college basketball takeaways from the week, including an in-depth look at Alabama, in a new Rauf Report.

A slow week of college basketball action was brought on by final exams at schools across the country, so there was always going to be less to cover in this week’s Rauf Report.

Unfortunately, a spike of COVID-19 cases across the country caused even more games to be canceled or postponed this weekend.

Ohio State has already pulled out of the CBS Sports Classic and won’t face Kentucky. Seton Hall had to cancel its game against Iona at Madison Square Garden. UCLA already canceled a game against Alabama State, leaving this weekend’s showdown with North Carolina in jeopardy.

In total, there are nine programs that are currently on pause and/or have had to cancel games due to COVID breakouts on their own team.

That’s a major concern to monitor moving forward as more high-profile games will likely be canceled/postponed in the coming days and weeks.

Even with all the COVID cancellations, there was only one real notable game so far this week in Alabama’s trip to Memphis to take on the struggling Tigers. And as tends to happen in college basketball, the unexpected happened with Memphis blowing out the Crimson Tide.

Since that game was the lone high-profile game of the week, we’ll touch on what it means for both teams to start this week’s Rauf Report.

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Alabama’s strength is its weakness

Alabama, by design, is an excellent 3-point shooting team that shoots a ton from deep. It’s Nate Oats’ strategy. He’s analytically conscious, and only wants his team shooting triples or layups. In fact, Oats counts mid-range shot attempts as negative points in practice.

The downside of being that one-dimensional on offense makes the Tide, well, one-dimensional on offense. When opponents focus on limiting Alabama’s perimeter attempts and heavily contest its shots, we’ve seen them have success throughout Oats’ tenure.

It doesn’t always work — Gonzaga tried, but the Crimson Tide had no trouble with their drive-and-kick game and were red-hot from deep — but that’s the recipe. I wrote about how that strategy helped Iona in its upset of Alabama a few weeks ago and Memphis utilized its elite length and athleticism to do the same.

Here’s a look at how much the Crimson Tide have struggled from three in their two losses vs. their eight victories:

  • 10.5 made 3-pointers; 35.4 percent shooting in wins
  • 7.5 made 3-pointers; 30.0 percent in losses

Regarding the Memphis game specifically, Alabama also missed a lot of shots at the rim and lost the turnover battle. Both those factors were huge as well. However, there is a trend of Alabama teams struggling when they’re not making threes at their usual clip going back to last year, and this is the latest instance of the continuation of that trend.

What Memphis did differently

Now, to the other side of things. Memphis did have its best defensive game of the season as it appeared rededicated on that end, but there were two notable differences in how the Tigers played that made a difference in the victory.

Two weeks ago, I detailed all the problems with the Memphis offense. There was virtually no off-ball movement, no continuing action, very limited passing and extremely poor shot selection, among other things.

Well, not to oversimplify things, but one of the biggest things Memphis did was actually run offense against the Crimson Tide.

Pick-and-roll sets had added movement to include a third option dropping into the short corner. There were short rolls. There were back cuts and skip passes off them. There was even a short corner post up that passed to a cutter coming off a screen, which immediately morphed into an Emoni BatesJalen Duren pick-and-roll.

These are the kinds of actions we typically see in Larry Brown offenses, which is why I was so excited about Memphis’ potential when Penny Hardaway hired him. Brown was brought in to help with this offense and this was the first game in which we really saw Memphis use these principles — or anything other than standard pick-and-roll or isolation sets.

The other thing the Tigers did differently was that Hardaway played mostly his veterans and Duren. Bates played a season-low 15 minutes and was the only non-upperclassmen (other than Duren) to play in the game. Hardaway went with a lineup of Alex Lomax, Lester Quinones, Landers Nolley and DeAndre Williams around Duren for most of the game, all of whom have been in Hardaway’s system for multiple years.

It worked. Chemistry has been another one of Memphis’ big issues, yet it looked like a strength Wednesday night.

Of course, that was just one game. It’s easy to get things right once and then revert back to bad habits. Memphis will have to continue proving it can play at this level consistently and it gets another excellent opportunity this weekend against Tennessee.

UCF is the AAC’s sleeper

Houston is still going to run away with the American with Memphis potentially being the only team that can keep up with the Cougars.

Behind them, though, UCF is quietly making a case as the conference’s third-best team and a team that can legitimately challenge for an NCAA Tournament berth.

The Knights started their AAC schedule on Wednesday with a 65-48 victory over Temple in what, quite frankly, was an ugly game. The two teams combined to shoot 13-for-59 from the field and 2-for-23 from three in the 1st half. UCF was able to get its offense going in the second half (more on that in a second) but that kind of defensive showing is what the Knights need.

UCF has held five of its nine opponents below 60 points and have only allowed two cross the 68-point mark. Johnny Dawkins‘ squad hangs its proverbial hat on the defensive end, using its length and athleticism to pressure opponents into turnovers (22nd in turnovers forced) and contested 3-point shots (18th in three-point defense).

Both these strengths were on full display against the Owls. UCF held them to 3-for-30 shooting from beyond the arc and forced a significantly higher turnover rate (21.2 percent) than Temple’s season average (17.9).

On the other end, the Knights were able to run away in the second half because they started running. Dawkins instructed his team to push the tempo and create more transition opportunities in order to use their athleticism to its advantage. The strategy worked to the tune of 47 points after the half and is something we’ll likely see continue throughout the season.

UCF’s overall resume right now isn’t bad. At 7-2, both losses are “quality losses” against Auburn and Oklahoma, and the Knights came within a possession or two of beating the Sooners. That said, this group needs more than just a win over Miami for validation.

The good news is that those opportunities are coming. UCF will face Florida State at a neutral court on Saturday and close its nonconference schedule with a home game against Michigan. Both the Seminoles and Wolverines are good enough to be significant victories for UCF’s resume, yet both are also struggling to the point where the Knights have a very legitimate chance to win both games.

Johnny Dawkins & Co. are good enough to win at least one of those games. If they do, the Knights will be viewed nationally the way they should.

Arizona State’s turnaround

On December 1, Arizona State scored 29 points in a 22-point loss to Washington State. It was a disastrous performance that capped a five-game losing streak for the Sun Devils and dropped them to 2-6 on the season.

Bobby Hurley‘s squad hasn’t lost since. They went on the road and beat Oregon in overtime, followed that up with a home victory over a good Grand Canyon team (featuring multiple ASU transfers) and then upset Creighton in Omaha on Tuesday.

So, what changed? Not all that much, as it turns out. Arizona State is shooting roughly the same percentage over its last three games as it was during the first eight games, is still being outrebounded and still not getting a significant bump in the turnover department.

The Sun Devils, however, are playing much better 3-point defense. Opponents shot 36.3 percent from deep during that 2-6 start but over the last three games, that percentage has dropped to just 21.5 percent.

To say that Arizona State’s guard play has been inconsistent would be an understatement as the Sun Devils have failed to get reliable production from anyone on the perimeter. However, Hurley told reporters after the Creighton victory that he’s proud of how that group has been competing.

“It just comes down to the fight and the toughness and trust in each other. We’ve played great competition so we’ve been really tested so we’ve been in these moments. Even our last two wins have been really been close within the last few minutes and to figure out a way to win has given these guys some confidence.”

Is this turnaround sustainable? I’m not so sure. These three victories have come by a combined eight points against teams with flaws of their own. Hurley’s future with the program remains dicey, too.

But the Sun Devils have a chance to prove it. Three of their next five games are against undefeated teams (San Francisco, USC, Arizona) and another is against UCLA. If Arizona State’s turnaround is legitimate, we’ll find out before the first business day of the new year.

What happened to Washington State?

Remember that Washington State 51-29 win over Arizona State? That was been a rare highlight in what has turned into a disastrous month for the Cougars.

A popular sleeper pick to make the NCAA Tournament in the preseason, Kyle Smith‘s squad’s only route to March now involves multiple upsets over the Pac-12’s elite or the conference’s automatic bid.

Wazzu is a dismal 2-4 over its last six games with three of those losses coming at the hands of Eastern Washington, South Dakota State and New Mexico State. The offensive dropoff from their 5-0 start to this 2-4 stretch has been staggering, particularly because the level of competition hasn’t really increased.

Those offensive woes are obviously problem No. 1, yet Washington State was supposed to have an elite defense. However, that has even let the Cougars down a bit during this stretch. They were outrebounded by Eastern Washington, let South Dakota State shoot 62.5 percent from three and lost the turnover battle against New Mexico State.

All of their losses have been close — the four have come by a combined 13 points — but losing to the caliber of competition Wazzu has faced is not a good sign, especially when their best win is against a sub-.500 Arizona State team.

Washington State’s offense has to improve if the Cougars are going to get their season back on track. If not, they will finish in the bottom half of the Pac-12 yet again.



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