Rauf Report: Big weekends by Purdue and Arizona, Tennessee’s struggles, other college basketball takeaways

Brian Rauf details the biggest takeaways of the college basketball weekend, including breakdowns of Purdue, Michigan, and more.

The college basketball weekend was headlined by the start of Feast Week, where the season’s first multi-team events (MTEs) took place in Connecticut, South Carolina and elsewhere.

These events will litter the upcoming holiday week and weekend with seemingly continuous hours of hoops, headlined by the Battle 4 Atlantis and Maui Invitational (held in Las Vegas this season).

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Coaches love these events because they present an early opportunity to see their team in a postseason-type atmosphere and schedule, yet they also can provide insight into teams that can cut down the nets in March. Ten of the last 11 national champions have participated in and won an MTE at the start of the season in which they cut down the nets.

That’s welcome news for teams like Purdue, which ousted a pair of top-20 teams in North Carolina and Villanova on its way to winning the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. And, while this doesn’t obviously guarantee anything, the Boilermakers proved they’re a worthy championship contender with their play in Uncasville.

That’s where we start this week’s Rauf Report, highlighting my biggest takeaways from the college basketball weekend.

Purdue is a legit national title contender

I left Purdue of my preseason list revealing the only teams I believe could win a national championship this season because of their projected shooting struggles, dependent on breakout years from multiple players and concerns about playing both Trevion Williams and Zach Edey inside.

All of those questions were answered in resounding fashion this weekend.

After ranking just 181st nationally in 3-point shooting and 120th in effective field-goal percentage a year ago, the Boilermakers rank 18th and 3rd in those respective categories through five games. Three different players have already made at least 11 3-pointers and five players are shooting at least 44 percent from deep individually.

Last season, only one player — Sasha Stefanovic — connected on at least 40 percent of those shots. The collective step forward this group has taken in this category is noticeable and appears to have staying power largely because of the shots they’re getting.

Purdue has almost always been a team that plays inside-out under Matt Painter, but the progression of Edey has given the Boilers one of the best frontcourt duos in the country. Since both Edey and Williams are true post players and lack foot speed, playing both at the same time would kill offensive spacing and make them vulnerable defensively.

So, Painter is using a platoon system with them, starting 7-4 Edey and using Williams — an All-Big Ten selection a year ago — off the bench (credit to Williams for really embracing this). This keeps a dominant post presence on the court at all times, allowing this offense to work at its peak. If the defense focuses on the man in the middle, it leaves a good shooter open. If they defense focuses on the perimeter, it gives Edey/Williams plenty of room to operate on the block.

That dynamic has made Purdue’s offensive virtually unstoppable. The Boilermakers rank 2nd nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and scored at least 92 points in each of their first four games (and a “lowly” 80 points against Villanova).

The final — and perhaps most important — factor in this surge has been the use of Jaden Ivey as a playmaker.

He has had the breakout many anticipated with his averages rising across the board, but that hasn’t just been with his scoring and rebounding. In fact, Ivey has had arguably the biggest impact on Purdue as a playmaker.

Ivey’s assist rate has risen from 16.4 to 26.5 this season, increasing his total per game from 1.9 to 4.6. He’s almost always the most athletic player on any court he steps on, and Purdue is using his quickness and ability to get into the lane to kickstart their offense when they don’t throw it in the post. And, as a poor shooter (31.8 percent), it also takes him out of shooting situations.

The clip below clearly illustrates his effectiveness and growth as a passer. On the first two possessions, he has no problem getting into the lane. That collapses the defense and leaves a shooter wide open, and each time he hits the open man in stride. If the defense doesn’t collapse, like when he gets a one-on-one situation at the rim in the third possession, he can finish with ease.

Purdue has become an elite shooting team, plays through two All-Big Ten players in the post and has a future lottery pick carrying the load on the perimeter. As long as Purdue plays to its strengths — which it went away from for a stretch against Villanova — this team can potentially beat anyone.

Arizona is UCLA’s biggest competition in the Pac-12

UCLA is still the team to beat in the Pac-12. The Bruins proved that against Villanova and have a real chance to solidify that on Tuesday against Gonzaga.

Behind it, however, the Pac-12 had a major question mark. Oregon was projected to be in that spot, but it was smacked by BYU in its last outing. USC and Washington State haven’t been tested while Arizona State and Colorado have suffered bad losses.

Most of the rest of the conference has been disappointing with the very large exception of Arizona, which made a giant statement in Sunday’s dominant victory over Michigan to win the Roman Main Event.

The Wildcats were a team with raw talent, yet no one really knew what to expect from them under new head coach Tommy Lloyd, a first-time head coach. Sunday’s performance showed how much this roster progressed in the offseason and how quickly Lloyd has made his imprint on this program with energy and intensity.

Arizona is huge — the second tallest team in college basketball with an average height over 6-7 — and use that size and length on the defensive end.

Oumar Ballo, Christian Koloko and Azuolas Tubelis are all taller than 6-11 and anchor the nation’s best interior defense with a block rate among the highest in the country. The plethora of big guards on this roster also excel at limiting opponents’ 3-point attempts and contesting shots around the floor.

Offensively, the Wildcats are a balanced unit with four players averaging at least 12 points per game. They lead the nation in assist rate and love to play fast (2nd in average offensive possession length) and attack the rim (top 15 in free-throw attempt rate). Tubelis is the team’s leading scorer, but it’s guard Benn Mathurin who is a potential lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.

It’s still early and Arizona has to prove it can keep this up over an extended stretch. And yes, the Wildcats aren’t perfect everywhere, but they’re elite in certain areas and have played to those strengths. This is a dangerous team that looks like a real — and perhaps the only — contender for UCLA in the Pac-12.

Michigan lacks offensive explosion

At this point, it’s clear Michigan is not the team we thought it was at the start of the season. The Wolverines still can be, but this group still has a lot of growing to do offensively.

Juwan Howard‘s squad lost a lot of production from last season’s Big Ten champs, including a lottery pick in Franz Wagner and an All-Big Ten player in Isaiah Livers. Michigan filled the holes in its roster with talent, landing one of college basketball’s top transfers in DeVante’ Jones and the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class, but the impact of those newcomers has been lacking.

Five-star wing Caleb Houstan was the headliner of that recruiting class and he has yet to make his mark in the college game. He’s averaging just 7.8 points per game and is shooting below 40 percent from the field. Fellow five-star Moussa Diabate has looked good in stretches but is still coming off the bench.

Jones is not having the kind of impact Michigan had hoped, either, as he has yet to score more than 11 points in a game.

Even the returning players Michigan was counting on have not taken the step forward that was expected, with Eli Brooks being a notable exception. Hunter Dickinson has been limited and Brandon Johns has been relatively ineffective.

This lack of offensive explosion is growing into a real problem. There’s no one the Wolverines can go to when they need a bucket, no one who can consistently create their own shot. That was supposed to be Jones and Houstan, yet those two are still finding their way (Jones’ struggles with foul trouble play a role).

Throw in the fact they’re shooting roughly 32 percent from deep as a team and you have a unit that needs to dominate inside to score. When Michigan has faced a team that can match their size, that’s when they’ve really struggled.

It was one thing when these struggles came against Seton Hall and a truly elite defense, but then they looked somewhat out of sync against UNLV before being smothered by Arizona. It’s now a pattern.

Defensively, Michigan is still playing at a really high level. That isn’t an issue. But if this team is going to compete for a Final Four berth and potentially a national title, the newcomers will have to step up and provide the pop the Wolverines have been missing.

Tennessee’s limiting offense

Tennessee’s 8-8 close to last season was marred by horrendous half-court offense that Rick Barnes has worked all season to correct. The Vols went out and added a scorer in Auburn transfer Justin Powell, landed some high-profile freshmen led by five-star point guard Kennedy Chandler and returned a lot of key contributors.

Through two games, it appeared to have worked, scoring at least 90 in each contest. Now, those came against UT-Martin and East Tennessee State, but it still felt like an improvement.

Saturday’s loss to Villanova eliminated all those good feelings and the doubts from last season reemerged.

Tennessee shot just 33.3 percent in the game, including a lowly 17.9 percent from three. Villanova succeeded in keeping the Vols out of transition and forced them to execute in their half-court sets, which was a major problem again.

Santiago Vescovi (23 points) was the only Vols player who found any kind of success against a solid-but-not-elite Villanova defense. The rest of the team combined for just 30 points on 12-of-40 shooting.

After the game, Barnes told reporters that he didn’t think the poor performance was cause for alarm.

“We are going to shoot the ball,” he said. “We have guys that work hard at shooting. I thought we probably shot a couple of them a little bit quick. We will get better. We have character guys and want to get better. For the majority of them, they have never been in a game like this. We will keep taking our shots.”

The fact Barnes doesn’t seem to think anything is wrong other than shots not falling is alarming. The Vols were rarely able to create good or open looks against the Wildcats as their offense was disjointed and often stagnant. Those are longstanding issues that need to be addressed with more motion, cuts, ball screens, etc.

Tennessee did bounce back with an 89-point outing in a dominant victory over North Carolina on Sunday, but I’m not putting much stock in that. UNC’s defense is one of the worst in the country (as documented in Friday’s Rauf Report) and gave up nearly as many points to both Brown and Charleston.

The Vols have everything else going for them. They look to be elite defensively again (5th in adjusted defensive efficiency) and have tremendous size, athleticism, and talent. They’re even shooting much better from three than they were a year ago.

But good teams will continue to limit Tennessee’s transition opportunities, eliminating some of the athleticism advantage the Vols hold over a lot of teams. If this team is going to contend for an SEC title and make a long run in the NCAA Tournament, it has to greatly improve their half-court offensive execution.

The Mountain West has two legitimate superstars

After a disappointing opening week, the Mountain West had the kind of weekend it needed to reestablish itself as one of the country’s premier non-major conferences. Boise State, Colorado State, Utah State and Wyoming all picked up notable wins that resonated nationally, but the two best teams — Colorado State and Utah State — got them on the backs of two superstars.

David Roddy was expected to be one of the best mid-major players in the country coming into the season. He was a star for the Rams last season and was a preseason All-Mountain West selection.

Roddy makes everything go for Niko Medved’s squad as an undersized 6-5 power forward. He has the versatility to take bigger defenders out on the perimeter, the passing and vision that make him a tremendous secondary playmaker, and the strength and toughness to play small-ball center. Roddy also has terrific touch around the rim, and that was on full display this weekend.

Playing in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands, the junior poured in 30 points to carry Colorado State to a 66-60 comeback victory over Bradley in the first round. In the second round against Creighton, Roddy took his game to yet another level with 36 points and seven three-pointers.

He’s now averaging 23.6 points with 8.4 rebounds per game while shooting 60 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. That’s living up to expectations and then some.

The only Mountain West player who has outperformed Roddy to this point is Utah State’s Justin Bean. The 6-7 forward is thriving under new head coach Ryan Odom to the tune of 24 points and 13.8 rebounds per game.

Since the Aggies surprisingly lost its season opener to UC Davis, Bean has led them to a win over Richmond and a championship in the Myrtle Beach Invitational, capped with a victory over Oklahoma.

Mountain West fans are certainly familiar with these two, but the nation also will be soon. Both are capable of producing against anyone and are dark horse All-American candidates.



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