Rauf Report: Arizona’s trend; Kentucky’s offensive shift; other college basketball takeaways

Azuolas Tubelis, Arizona

Brian Rauf reveals his biggest weekly college basketball takeaways, including in-depth looks at Arizona and Kentucky, in a new Rauf Report.

The college basketball season has hit its annual holiday slowdown when games are scarce as players return home for a short holiday break following exams. And the games that are played, well, let’s just say there are more cupcakes than just the ones grandma made for Christmas.

It’s a well-deserved break for players and coaches alike. But before the sport essentially goes dark this weekend, we did get a few nights of quality action. Villanova got an important victory over Xavier on Tuesday night to end its slide while Alabama continued its own slide in a 79-78 loss to Davidson, again showing the issues we discussed in last week’s Rauf Report.

Wednesday was the big day, though, highlighted by Tennessee’s home upset over Arizona. It was the only game of the week between ranked teams, so it seems only fitting that it’s where we start this Rauf Report.

Duke’s AJ Griffin knows the best is yet to come
Purdue’s Stefanovic is thriving in a crucial role
—DPI: Game Predictions | 1-500 Player Rankings

Arizona’s offensive drop-off against good defenses

Arizona is a really good team that has arguably been the biggest surprise of the season. Tommy Lloyd has come in and taken this talented group to the next level, and their play has put ‘Zona in conversation with the very best teams in the country.

The Wildcats have a phenomenal defense thanks to their tremendous size (second-tallest team in the country) and athleticism on the perimeter, ranking in the top 10 in interior defense, block rate and overall defensive efficiency. That size also makes them a really good offensive rebounding team, too.

Yet a lot of the buzz centered around Arizona’s offense since it led the nation in scoring. Going into Wednesday’s game against Tennessee, Arizona had scored at least 80 points in every game and eclipsed the 100-point mark three times.

However, it’s safe to say those numbers are a little bit inflated given the schedule the Wildcats have played so far. They have played four games against top-150 defenses, essentially the top 42 percent of defenses in the country.

In those games, Arizona’s offense goes from historically good to rather pedestrian. The Wildcats take fewer shots, become a putrid 3-point shooting team, and sport a poor assist-to-turnover ratio.

Teams will obviously play better against worse teams — that’s just the nature of sports and competition (for the most part) — but the difference typically isn’t this vast, especially when the cutoff is whenever they face some slightly above average defensively.

For context, Arizona currently ranks:

  • 1st in scoring
  • 1st in assists
  • 10th in field goal percentage
  • 74th in 3-pointers made per game
  • 109th in 3-point percentage
  • 147th in turnovers

But if you take Arizona’s numbers against the top 150 defenses, those ranks would be:

  • 25th in scoring
  • 25th in assists
  • 90th in field goal percentage
  • 269th in 3-pointers made per game
  • 347th in 3-point shooting
  • 304th in turnovers

That’s essentially an entirely different unit! This is important to know now because Arizona’s schedule ramps up now. Every defense the Wildcats will face in Pac-12 play ranks in the top 150 except one (Oregon State). Four rank in the top 50 and two — UCLA and USC — that rank in the top 20.

As fate would have it, Arizona’s next two games are on the road against UCLA and USC.

Again, I think Arizona is a really good team. They’ve impressed me all year and are a legitimate Final Four contender, especially if Bennedict Mathurin continues to play at this level.

That said, talk about the Wildcats potentially being the best team in the country is a little overblown. The offense has to improve against respectable defenses if they’re going to reach their full potential.

Kentucky’s offensive shift

Speaking of offensive changes, Kentucky made some over the last week and it’s paying off in a big way. It started with a 98-69 drubbing of North Carolina, and the Wildcats followed it up with a 95-60 victory over a good Western Kentucky team that has already beaten Ole Miss and Louisville.

All of this came on the heels of a dreadful 66-62 loss to Notre Dame. I said I wasn’t worried about that performance considering Kentucky had its worst 3-point shooting game of the season but John Calipari has revamped his offense nonetheless.

As he told reporters after the UNC victory, Calipari went back to his “old-school dribble-drive stuff” and running the offense off of that action. This involves spacing the floor with shooters to create driving lanes and getting primary ball-handlers to attack downhill.

The progression of Sahvir Wheeler perfectly exemplifies this. During much of the season, Wheeler was not in position to attack in half-court sets. As this clip against Notre Dame shows, Wheeler would be taking the ball sideways off a ball screen, almost going parallel to the basket.

Against UNC and Western Kentucky, however, Calipari was able to get Wheeler the ball in positions where he could get downhill and attack the rim.

These things can make all the difference in the world and Kentucky has the personnel to play in a drive-and-kick system.

Wheeler is at his best when he can get into the lane, which this is designed to accomplish. The Wildcats have capable 3-point shooters — namely Kellan Grady and TyTy Washington — to space the floor, and Oscar Tshiebwe is a one-man wrecking crew who does a team’s worth of rebounding by himself, so he can handle being the only big in the paint.

Is Kentucky going to score at least 95 points every game like it did vs. UNC and Western Kentucky? No. But this offense is also less likely to get stuck in the mud like it did against Duke and Notre Dame.

Auburn might be the SEC’s best team

Those offensive changes should put Kentucky right in the thick of the SEC title race, but there’s a real possibility that Auburn is actually the conference’s top team.

There are plenty of contenders at the top. We just talked about Kentucky, Tennessee just beat Arizona, LSU is undefeated, and Alabama has wins over Gonzaga and Houston. Yet, when we look up in March, I would not be shocked if Auburn is sitting atop the SEC standings.

The Tigers play incredibly fast — faster than any team Bruce Pearl has had in the last four years — and it feels like an onslaught of tidal waves crashing into their opponents. Guards Wendell Green, Zep Jasper and KD Johnson are all relatively small in stature but are lightning quick and get after it defensively. Green has particularly emerged as a star in the backcourt, ranking 36th nationally in assist rate and is shooting 37.5 percent from three.

Of course, no Auburn blurb can go any further without mentioning Jabari Smith. The 6-10 freshman is a projected top-three pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and has freakish skills across the board. He leads the Tigers in 3-point shooting (45.2 percent), offensive rating and true shooting percentage while also ranking in the top 50 nationally in defensive rebounding rate. Smith is very-good-to-elite in just about every category, making him virtually unguardable giving his size and athleticism.

Given everything I just mentioned, it should come as no surprise that Auburn has a top-20 offense. However, the Tigers actually have a higher-rated defense (11th).

The guard play certainly plays a major role here — Auburn is 16th in steal rate — but it’s the interior defense led by Smith and UNC transfer Walker Kessler that makes the defense special. Smith can do a little bit of everything while Kessler has proven to be an elite rim protector. He’s second in the country in block rate and already has more blocks this season (44) than the entire North Carolina team he departed (43).

I should also mention that Allen Flanigan played his first game of the season for the Tigers on Wednesday. That’s important because Flanigan was Auburn’s leading scorer a year ago and missed the first 11 games with an Achilles injury.

Auburn’s only loss this season came in double overtime against a quality UConn team, which certainly isn’t a bad loss. I think this team would be assessed much differently (in a positive way) if it were undefeated.

Regarding the SEC race, the Tigers do benefit from scheduling. Auburn only has to face Kentucky and LSU once apiece and both at home. They also only play Tennessee once, though that game will be in Knoxville. Bruce Pearl’s squad is the only one of the top five SEC teams mentioned previously that plays five total games against that top tier (the rest play at least six), which certainly bodes well when battling for a regular-season title.

Given the talent, Flanigan’s return, and the way the rest of the season sets up, don’t be surprised if Auburn wins the SEC.

Hofstra is a potential Cinderella

The holiday break also serves as an easy transition from nonconference play into conference action, so we’ve seen a majority of teams play their last scheduled nonconference games until the postseason.

Hofstra falls into this category, beating Monmouth on Wednesday to wrap up its nonconference slate with an 8-5 record. That’s not very telling on the surface but the Pride have proven to be a very dangerous opponent in the process.

Just ask Arkansas, which Hofstra beat last weekend on a neutral court.

The Pride also took Houston to overtime in the season opener and threatened to upset Iona, Maryland and Richmond in the closing minutes before ultimately falling short. This team has been right there all season and finally broke through against the Razorbacks, proving they will be a tough team to face in CAA play and eventually beyond.

Hofstra’s offense is a big reason why. Speedy Claxton has implemented a drive-and-kick system that spaces the floor with shooting and gives this guard-heavy rotation room to attack, using quickness and athleticism to their advantage.

The results have been pretty good so far. The Pride rank in the top 80 nationally in turnover rate (15th), effective field-goal percentage (32nd), percentage of 3-pointers attempted (42nd), 3-point percentage (78th), assist rate (78th) and total offensive efficiency (52nd).

Zach Cooks and Aaron Estrada operate as the playmakers while Darlinstone Dubar and Jalen Ray are the snipers, both shooting over 40 percent from deep.

Hofstra’s small lineup has its holes defensively but, as we’ve seen, it has the offense needed to hang with the big boys. That makes them a potentially dangerous team worth keeping an eye off if they’re able to make it through CAA play.

We need more MTEs this week

I think I make this point around this time every year, but it still holds true.

There are 358 teams playing D-1 basketball this season and from today through Monday, there are only six games being played across the sport, and one of those games involves a D-2 team.

Contrast that scheduling scarcity with the Thanksgiving schedule, the other major holiday in which college basketball thrives. There are so many multi-team events (MTEs) during that week that many are either on a channel no one can find or are broadcast “exclusively” on a streaming website because there isn’t airtime for it.

College basketball fans are watching and will watch the Diamond Head Classic this weekend because: 1) it’s a good event and has become a tradition, and 2) it’s literally the only thing the sport has going.

My solution? Move some of those tournaments to this week. Get the airtime, exposure, and experience that isn’t actually possible during Feast Week. It’ll be best for everyone involved.

Note: There will not be a Rauf Report on Monday given the lack of games being played. The next one will be released on Friday, 12/31 and the next episode of Hope & Rauf presented by HeatCheckCBB will be released on 1/3.