This week’s Rauf Report is headlined by another stellar performance from Texas, a pressing issue for Baylor and more.
Feast Week is now in the rearview mirror, putting this week’s focus on the final ACC-Big Ten Challenge and the Big 12/Big East Battle. These conference challenges are changing next season due to new TV rights deals and the bureaucratic minutia that drives college sports (thanks, football), but they still provide a slew of high-profile matchups that provide more intel on specific teams and conferences.
The ACC-Big Ten Challenge reinforced what we had learned during Feast Week. UNC’s offense is a real problem — which I broke down in a Rauf Report earlier this week — while Florida State and Louisville still stink. Meanwhile, Virginia and Purdue continued to look like national championship contenders and the favorites in each respective conference.
Elsewhere, Texas reasserted itself in that mix with a victory over Creighton on Thursday night. The Longhorns have played two huge games — one against the Bluejays with the other being their victory over Gonzaga — that have helped indicate the height of Texas’ ceiling.
Chris Beard’s squad can win the national championship, yet there is still a major flaw that could come back to haunt the Longhorns.
Texas is a national title contender – with a flaw
Texas’ victories over Gonzaga and Creighton might be the best two wins any team in the country has to this point. This team has experience, quality depth and an elite defense capable of throwing even the most efficient offenses off their game.
There’s a lot to like about this team and its floor is extremely high. The Longhorns should be the favorite to win the Big 12 right now, surpassing Kansas and Baylor.
But, if Texas starts to struggle or ends up losing some games down the line, it’s going to be because of its lack of perimeter shooting.
The fact this is a weak spot for the Longhorns isn’t surprising as they were a notoriously bad 3-point shooting team a season ago. Zero starters shot over 33.8 percent from deep, and it ranked outside the top 200 nationally in that category. Tyrese Hunter was thought to only make things worse as he was a 27.4 percent shooter at Iowa State.
Yet things might be even worse than projected. Texas is shooting just 28.9 percent from three as a team, which currently ranks 315th nationally. That’s including their excellent performance against Gonzaga when they went 13-of-33 (39.4 percent) from beyond the arc, which also says something about the Zags’ poor perimeter defense, which I detailed previously.
In their other five games, the Longhorns are shooting a woeful 25.7 percent — and three of those games have come against teams that rank outside the top 300 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. Texas has played bad defenses and is still shooting this poorly, indicating this isn’t just a short-term struggle or a few bad games. This is an issue.
Can Texas overcome it? Absolutely. We’ve already seen it happen against two elite teams. But its lack of 3-point shooting is certainly something worth monitoring.
Baylor’s guards are a concern
We’ll stay in the Big 12 to discuss the week’s most shocking result. Baylor trailed Marquette by 20 points within the first 12 minutes of the game and never threatened. The Golden Eagles were dominant defensively, forcing 20 turnovers — 12 of which were steals, many of which led to easy baskets in transition.
There were some questions about Baylor’s guards entering the preseason. Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer have proven to be elite secondary options throughout their collegiate careers. Both have played a major role in the program’s recent run of success.
But that duo is now stepping into lead roles as Baylor’s primary ball-handlers. Star freshman Keyonte George is helping out, too, though there is no denying that Flagler and Cryer have the ball in their hands more than they have in their careers. It’s early, yet that trio has not handled pressure well at all.
Following the Marquette game, Scott Drew felt like that performance was an outlier for those three.
“I didn’t see that coming. Credit the crowd. Credit them for building momentum. Credit Shaka for having them prepared and how hard they played. At the end of the day, we fed to the fire by turning it over and making some uncharacteristic mistakes.”
We may look back at the end of the season and see this game as an outlier, but I’m not so sure that is.
The Bears have played four games against teams with NCAA Tournament aspirations – Marquette, UCLA, Virginia and Norfolk State (yes, we need to include the class of the MEAC). In those four games, they’re averaging nearly 15 turnovers per game. Baylor has a turnover rate that sits outside the top 100 nationally with that backcourt, particularly George, being the main culprits.
The backcourt is what drives Baylor. All three of those aforementioned players average at least 14.4 points per game and boast quality offensive ratings. They’re extremely talented and do a lot of things well; they just don’t take care of the ball well enough right now.
It’s very possible the backcourt will grow into their new respective roles and improve. After all, that’s what Scott Drew teams do. This is a weakness right now, though, and one that can and will be exploited by the excellent defenses in the Big 12.
Manny Bates is the key to unlocking Butler
Butler has been up-and-down through the first eight games of Thad Matta’s return. The Bulldogs hung with a very good Penn State team before falling and have nice wins over BYU and Kansas State. They have also lost to Tennessee by 26 points and were blown out by an NC State team that still has some questions.
The biggest key to getting more “good Butler” and less “bad Butler” is to get center Manny Bates more involved offensively. The Wolfpack transfer is one of the nation’s best rim protectors and interior defenders but has shown more offensive chops than he did during his time in Raleigh.
When he is getting involved and giving Butler a legitimate threat inside, the Bulldogs look capable of playing with anyone. When he’s not and they don’t have that interior threat, well, they look like they did in its blowout loss to Tennessee.
Butler is hoping for a breakout season under Matta and the ingredients are in place on the perimeter. If this program is going to get back in the NCAA Tournament mix, it’s going to be because Bates has an individual breakout season, too.
Zach Edey is the National Player of the Year frontrunner
While we’re on the topic of big men, let me take the opportunity to gush about Zach Edey.
We mentioned Purdue’s surprisingly strong start to the season at the top of the column and what the Boilermakers have done has been impressive. They already boast wins over Marquette, West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke and just went on the road where they easily handled Florida State.
Freshmen guards Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith are certainly ahead of schedule and are playing like stars, but Edey is the biggest (literally and figuratively) reason for this success.
Edey’s skill set has never been questioned. He’s a 7-4, 290-pounder with soft touch around the rim and a wide array of post moves. He’s nearly impossible to stop when he’s on the court, which had been his main issue. The junior only averaged 19 minutes per game last season as he rotated with Trevion Williams down low. Opponents found ways to attack his lack of mobility on the defensive end, limiting his effectiveness.
But Edey has been able to stay on the court through seven games, averaging over 30 minutes per contest. The lack of mobility still lingers at times but he’s improved as a defensive anchor, upping his block rate from last season. Staying on the court has allowed him to really take over games offensively, scoring at least 20 points in six consecutive games with five double-doubles on the season.
He’s also doing things like this, which is a ton of fun.
The way he’s playing with the numbers he’s putting up and the impact he’s having on one of the nation’s best teams, Edey is the clear National Player of the Year frontrunner right now — especially with Kentucky (Oscar Tshiebwe), Gonzaga (Drew Timme) and North Carolina (Armando Bacot) all struggling relative to expectations.
New Mexico looks like an NCAA Tournament team
Speaking of expectations, New Mexico has surpassed all of them during its 7-0 start and is starting to look like a force to be reckoned with in the Mountain West. The Lobos solidified the start with an impressive victory at Saint Mary’s this week, overcoming a double-digit deficit in the first half thanks to a balanced scoring effort.
They carried the load last season, but the difference this year has been Wichita State transfer Morris Udeze. He gives Richard Pitino’s squad a needed inside presence and has been even more dominant than anticipated. Udeze ranks second in the Mountain West in scoring (18.6 points per game) and has largely stayed out of foul trouble — a problem he consistently ran into while with the Shockers.
The Lobos now have a trio that can play with anyone in the country. The Mountain West is wide open behind San Diego State and New Mexico is playing like its stiffest competition. If they keep it up, the Lobos will be in line for an at-large bid come Selection Sunday.