The latest Rauf Report looks at a pair of Big Ten teams surprising for different reasons and more in a recap of the college basketball weekend.
It didn’t necessarily feel like it going into Saturday — and it may not feel like it even now — but we may look back at this past weekend as perhaps the most impactful of the entire college basketball season.
Where to start? Maybe with Oklahoma, a bubble team that was expected to stay there until Selection Sunday, picking up a monumental, résumé-boosting 24-point win over Alabama. Or perhaps with Missouri, which stopped its slide to the bubble with a dominant win over Iowa State. Oh, and of course, Mississippi State and West Virginia may have gotten themselves back into the tournament picture with their respective victories over TCU and Auburn.
Charleston was swept up in the madness of the weekend, too. An 85-81 loss to Hofstra ended the Cougars’ 20-game losing streak and put another hit on Charleston’s team sheet that, well, lacks the kind of quality wins you’d expect an at-large team to have. Given the CAA doesn’t provide any opportunities in that realm, Pat Kelsey’s squad may have to win out in the regular season to keep its at-large dreams alive.
Yet none of those performances were the most notable of the weekend. That distinction belongs to Creighton, which blew out Xavier in a reminder to the country that the Bluejays are pretty damn good when healthy. That’s where we start this Rauf Report.
REMINDER: Creighton is really good
Creighton has admittedly been a bit of an enigma this season. They looked like one of the nation’s best teams through Thanksgiving, then went on that six-game losing streak that included defeats to Nebraska and BYU. Many were quick to write off the Bluejays at that point, but Greg McDermott’s squad has quietly bounced back. Creighton has posted a 7-2 mark in its past nine games, with the only losses coming at UConn and at Xavier — and the Jays were in both of those games until the closing moments.
This latest run indicates to me that Creighton is still, in fact, the really good team we saw during the opening weeks of the season.
I’ve touched on the Bluejays’ 3-point shooting in a past Rauf Report, and it’s still an extremely telling statistic (they are shooting 29.8 percent on 3s in their losses, compared to 38.8 percent in wins). The play of star big man Ryan Kalkbrenner has been just as impactful.
The 7-footer missed losses to BYU, Arizona State and Marquette after contracting mononucleosis, and it took him a few games to get up to speed after the illness. He was incredibly effective before that, though, and Creighton benefitted offensively, ranking 14th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Torvik. During the month or so when he was sick and getting back up to speed, that mark plummeted almost a hundred spots to 107th nationally.
In the past five games with a healthy Kalkbrenner, however, the Bluejays’ offense ranks fourth in the country.
The big man’s impact could be felt in Saturday’s blowout win over Xavier. He finished with 17 points on 8-of-9 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and five blocks, dictating the interior on both ends.
Creighton is not a team that has a lot of size. Under normal circumstances, Kalkbrenner is getting 30 minutes a game in the post. So when their star big was out, it meant more than the Bluejays just missing perhaps their best player — it also now had a major structural weakness.
To be sure, Creighton is still a flawed team even with Kalkbrenner. Still, his effectiveness inside puts incredible stress on opposing defenses and is the key to how Greg McDermott wants this group to play.
The real Creighton appears to be back — and with that, this group is back in the hunt for a place atop the Big East standings. Don’t be surprised if the Bluejays play a major factor down the stretch in the conference title race.
How legit is Northwestern?
Speaking of conference title races, the fact Northwestern is all alone in second in the Big Ten is both a remarkable surprise and perhaps a sign that the conference is not as strong as we may have thought a month ago.
But there’s also a real possibility that Northwestern, now sitting at 15-5, is much better than we thought (or still currently think).
The Wildcats haven’t won more than 15 games in a season since 2016-17, which resulted in the program’s only NCAA Tournament appearance in its long history and its first tournament win. Their six conference wins are already tied for the fourth-most in the Chris Collins era. That ’16-17 season is also the only time the Wildcats have finished above .500 in conference play under Collins (or anyone over the past 55 years, for that matter).
The recent success has come on the defense end, particularly on the interior. Northwestern ranks in the top 15 nationally in interior defense and block rate, per KenPom. It also leads the entire Big Ten in defensive turnover rate, meaning the Wildcats force turnovers at a higher rate than anyone else in the league.
The offense is still a cluster at times, which can be expected given how poorly this team shoots the ball (310th in effective field goal percentage), but the backcourt’s ability to create offense helps to overcome that.
Boo Buie, Ty Berry and Chase Audige can all create their own shot off the bounce or break down their defender off the dribble. Poor shot selection has killed them at times in their careers (particularly Buie and Audige), but they’re playing smarter this year. The trio is collectively attacking the basket more — a great thing considering all three shoot over 86 percent from the foul line — and they aren’t turning the ball over (16th in turnover rate).
Northwestern is far from perfect, but the Wildcats are thriving on their recipe of strong interior defense, winning the turnover battle and getting enough offensive creation from its guards.
The team already has road wins over Michigan State and Indiana, along with a double-digit home victory over Illinois. The Wildcats went 3-0 this past week, but two came against the worst teams in the conference, Nebraska and Minnesota. This week will be the true test of Northwestern’s legitimacy, as road games against Iowa and Wisconsin sandwich a home showdown with Michigan.
There is no doubt the Wildcats are vastly improved. A postseason berth, whether it be the NCAA Tournament or NIT, should now be expected. Right now, Northwestern looks like a team that can go dancing — but we’ll have a better idea by the end of the week.
HERE’S Why Ohio State is struggling
Elsewhere in the Big Ten, Ohio State is trending the complete opposite direction. The Buckeyes have lost seven of their last eight games, including defeats coming at the hands of those same dreadful teams in Minnesota and Nebraska. A portion of the fan base is even starting to turn on Chris Holtmann.
This team started 10-3 and was competitive in games against both Duke and North Carolina, which gave OSU two of those three losses. Sure, there is some concern on the defensive end, but those issues stem from a lack of size that has been there all season. It’s not new.
The bigger concern comes on the offensive end, as that’s where the most pressing issues have been recently.
It comes down to this — Ohio State simply doesn’t have the kind of individual shot-creators needed to run a dynamic offense. Brice Sensabaugh is awesome, as covered previously, but he’s being asked to do everything because no one else can (see also: his top-20 usage rate in Division I). The rest of the players need a set to be run or a play to be made for them to have a real impact.
Whenever the Buckeyes face better defenses, ones that require opponents to make individual plays above and beyond the normal flow of a set, they struggle. Their 5-9 record against the top three quadrants shows that.
That’s really hit home over the last eight games, as conference play kicks into high gear. Ohio State’s assist rate has dropped considerably due to that lack of playmaking, and the whole offense has suffered and become less efficient.
The good news for the Buckeyes is that the schedule sets up somewhat favorably for them the rest of the way. They play three of their next four games, and six of their last 10, at home. Their next two opponents — Wisconsin and Michigan — are both struggling as well, and each ranks outside the KenPom top 65.
If Ohio State is going to get right, it needs to happen now.
Cason Wallace is thriving with the ball in his hands
Much has been made of Kentucky’s forced lineup change following Sahvir Wheeler’s injury and subsequent benching. I wrote in last week’s Rauf Report about how it opened up the floor with more shooting and allowed players like Antonio Reeves to really make an impact.
But none of that works if the level of point guard play falls off, and it hasn’t thanks to Cason Wallace’s effectiveness with the ball in his hands.
We know Wallace is a defensive menace and added ball-handling responsibilities don’t change that. Offensively, it has allowed to demonstrate more of his skillset — something both Kentucky fans and NBA Draft scouts are happy to see.
He showed off his passing ability against Tennessee, recording six assists in 22 minutes (an assist rate over 60 percent!) despite dealing with an injury himself. Wallace has scored in double figures in every game since, hitting multiple 3-pointers in each.
Yet his best performance may have come Saturday against Kansas. Although Kentucky lost, Wallace finished with 14 points, six rebounds, five assists and five steals. He was everywhere, providing the kind of impact you want your point guard to have.
Here, he runs the pick-and-roll with Oscar Tshiebwe and hits him in position to attack in the paint. The Kansas defense collapses, which ultimately results in Wallace draining a key 3-pointer.
There’s still growth that needs to happen for Wallace, particularly in the turnover department. That said, it has been clear through five games that Kentucky is at its best when he’s the one running the show at point.
Siena is the MAAC team worth monitoring
We expected to see a MAAC team emerge as a potential low seed that could be dangerous in the NCAA Tournament. We just expected that team to be Rick Pitino’s Iona squad, not Siena.
The Saints have been red hot of late, going 10-2 over their last 12 games. The most impressive performance game on Friday when they beat the Gaels 70-53 in a game that wasn’t even that close. They did so without Javian McCollum, their starting point guard who doubles as their best and most explosive offensive player.
Siena excels beyond the arc on both ends of the floor, ranking in the top 75 nationally in 3-point percentage and 3-point defense. In fact, the Saints rank fourth in allowed 3-point rate, meaning they limit the number of 3s their opponents are taking. That’s something head coach Carm Maciariello has continually stressed as a staple of his defensive system — and it’s working.
This is a balanced offense, too. McCollum is the clear go-to guy on that end, but Jackson Stormo and former UNC guard Andrew Platek also average double figures. Three more players average at least 7.0 points per game, and that versatility has helped Siena tremendously.
The Saints aren’t going to earn an at-large bid, meaning they will have to win the MAAC Tournament to go dancing. But this is a dangerous team worth monitoring as we head into the final month of the season.