The Rauf Report details the biggest college basketball takeaways from the week, including the rise of both Arkansas and Rutgers.
The easy — and correct — college basketball takeaway from the past week is that this was the craziest and most unpredictable four days of the season so far.
Six teams ranked in the AP top nine suffered a defeat, two of whom (Auburn, Houston) had not lost since the calendar flipped to 2022.
The most impactful result of the group, however, was Auburn’s loss to Arkansas. It means there will likely be a new No. 1 next week (hello, Gonzaga) and that Auburn’s struggles away from home are real.
The Tigers will still be fine and should remain in the top three in the AP poll next week. This result should say more about a red-hot Arkansas team that has won nine games in a row and will be extremely dangerous over the next month.
Key behind Arkansas’ surge
The truth of the matter is that, despite Arkansas’ win streak, it needed an elite win to validate it. This is a team that had high expectations coming into the year and really disappointed early, suffering Quadrant 3 losses to Hofstra and Vanderbilt. Then they went on this streak which, while nice, had come against teams in the bottom half of the SEC.
A road victory over LSU on Jan. 15 was the lone exception to that but as we’re seeing with the Tigers, they aren’t as good as we once thought (2-6 over their last eight games).
Auburn represented Arkansas’ first real opportunity to get back into the upper echelon of the SEC and the Razorbacks capitalized on it with tremendous defense. They held the Tigers to 25 percent 3-point shooting, forced 19 turnovers, and limited KD Johnson to just two points.
That’s the kind of defensive effort that has been the driving force behind this run from Arkansas.
In nonconference play, Arkansas ranked 96th nationally in defensive efficiency, per Torvik. During this nine-game win streak, however, the Razorbacks are second.
That increased defensive effectiveness should help Arkansas handle a gauntlet of a closing stretch. The Razorbacks still have games against Alabama, Tennessee (twice), Kentucky and a return game against LSU on the schedule starting with a road trip to Tuscaloosa on Saturday.
“We have to continue to get better, so that when we do go to Tampa for the SEC Tournament, we’re fortunate enough to play in that NCAA Tournament, which is everybody’s goal leading into the season,” head coach Eric Musselman told reporters this week, expressing how his team isn’t resting on the accomplishment of beating the top-ranked Tigers. “We want to continue to get better.”
A word of caution about hyping Michigan
The other big victory of the week came from Michigan, who blew out Purdue 82-58, in what was easily the Wolverines’ most impressive performance of the season. Their offense was flowing as well as it has and, defensively, they didn’t let Jaden Ivey, Zach Edey or Trevion Williams get going.
This is the way we all thought Michigan would be playing back in the preseason. All five starters scored in double figures and Hunter Dickinson was the best big man on the court. On the surface, it appears the Wolverines have turned a corner, having gone 6-2 in their last eight games since a 7-7 start.
I do not believe that’s the case.
Four of those six wins have come against teams in the bottom third of the Big Ten and three of them (Northwestern, Nebraska, Penn State) came by a combined nine points. The other victories came over Indiana — also in the bottom half of the conference — and now this victory over Purdue. It’s certainly a great win, but context of how bad Purdue’s defense actually is does matter in this game.
It’s possible the result says more about the Boilermakers than it does Michigan.
The Wolverines are still just 9-9 against the top three quadrants and have not looked dominant for any sustained stretch of time. If they’re for real, we’ll find out soon enough — seven of their final eight games are against Quad 1 opponents and two of their next three are on the road.
It’s possible Michigan does turn it around, but even this recent hot stretch suggests the Wolverines will come back to earth sooner rather than later. This Purdue victory may end up being the highlight of the season rather than a sign of things to come.
The case for Rutgers
Rutgers is another team trending in the right direction, but the Scarlet Knights have perhaps the nation’s most confusing NCAA Tournament resume.
Head coach Steve Pikiell’s squad has a gaudy 5-3 mark in Quadrant 1 games. Only nine teams currently have more victories against the top quadrant and all of them rank in the NET’s top 24. In fact, every team with at least five Quad 1 wins ranks in the NET’s top 40 — with the exception of Rutgers, who is all the way down at 92.
This is where the massive negatives in Rutgers’ resume come into play. It is just 6-6 in games against Quads 1 and 2 (1-3 vs. Q2) with two Quad 3 losses and one debilitating Quad 4 loss (Lafayette).
The Scarlet Knights aren’t even in the bubble conversation because of those resume negatives, but there is reason to think they will get there over the course of the next month.
Six of their remaining seven games are Quad 1 opportunities, so there aren’t opportunities for Rutgers’ resume to get worse. Two of those games are at home, too, which is important. All five of their Quad 1 wins have come at home, going a perfect 5-0 in opportunities against Q1 opponents at Jersey Mike’s Arena. Away from home, the Scarlet Knights are 0-3.
Let’s say that holds true and they go 3-4 down the stretch, winning those two Quad 1 home games against Illinois and Wisconsin. Rutgers would then be 7-7 in Quad 1 opportunities, and no team with seven Q1 wins has ever been left out of the NCAA Tournament field since the selection committee went to the quadrant system.
There is reason to believe Rutgers can get there, too. It is 9-4 in its last 13 games after a rough 5-5 start, and it has picked up four Quad 1 wins in that time, including an 84-63 blowout of Michigan State and 66-64 comeback win over Ohio State in the last week.
Ron Harper Jr. (15.4 pp, 6.1 rpg) has already established himself as one of the Big Ten’s better players and Geo Baker has flashes of brilliance. Throw in the fact that this group has greatly improved offensively over these last 13 games thanks to the emergence of role players like Cliff Omoruyi and Paul Mulcahy, and you have a Rutgers team that could enter the NCAA Tournament picture sooner rather than later.
Why Xavier is struggling
Xavier’s season is going the opposite direction. An 11-1 start that included wins over Ohio State and Marquette caused many to take notice of this experienced Musketeers team and what they could potentially accomplish.
Since it has gotten into the heart of conference play, though, Xavier has been nothing more than a middling team.
Travis Steele’s squad had an elite defense and efficient offense during the nonconference portion of its schedule, but it hasn’t been able to maintain that level of play as the level of competition has increased.
In fact, over the last 11 games, Xavier is averaging fewer points than its opponents, shooting a lower percentage from the field, and has a defensive rating that is higher than its offensive rating.
Xavier has faced four different opponents that currently rank in the KenPom top 75 during this stretch. It is 0-5 in those games. Creighton is the best team the Musketeers have beaten during this stretch and have done so twice, but that Bluejays team is firmly on the bubble.
Xavier’s schedule only gets tougher down the stretch. Two games against UConn await over the next week along with games against Providence and Seton Hall. The Musketeers aren’t a risk of missing the NCAA Tournament at this point, but they do need to end this slide to prove they can make noise once they get there.
Conferences denying auto-bids during realignment is DUMB
The worse and most troubling trend in college basketball right now is conferences banning teams that are leaving said conferences in the offseason from competing in conference tournaments. As a result, it eliminates that team’s chance at an automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
So far, three schools have been affected:
Long story short, there is a new round of conference realignment happening that is largely sparked by Oklahoma and Texas moving to the SEC and the trickle-down effects of that move. The three teams mentioned above are moving up to what are perceived to be better conferences. Because they are leaving, those conferences are enforcing policies banning them from competing in conference tournaments in the year before the move.
On one hand, yes, those rules have been in place. On the other, players are being stripped of the opportunity to compete and represent their school at the highest level. This only hurts the players — the same people those schools and conferences say they’re working in the best interest of (*insert “Yeah, OK” gif here*).
Unfortunately, we may see this list expand, too, as several schools will be switching leagues this offseason.
Loyola Chicago is moving to the A-10 and both Belmont and Murray State are replacing them in the Missouri Valley with UIC. It may not matter to those three since all have NCAA Tournament at-large hopes, but those would be the notable names to watch.
Along with Belmont and Murray State, the Ohio Valley is also losing Austin Peay, who is joining the ASUN.
Southern Utah is leaving the Big Sky for the WAC, who is also pulling Incarnate Word from the Southland.
Monmouth is leaving the MAAC for the CAA, where they will be joined by Hampton, who is leaving the Big South, and James Madison.
My hope is we don’t see any more of these foolish bans but I’m also not naïve. If it does happen, though, let’s have all these banned teams play in their own tournament with an auto-bid to the NIT on the line. These teams deserve the chance to continue playing.
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