Welcome into a new Rauf Report, where I highlight my biggest takeaways from the weekend in college basketball.
There was essentially only one day of hoops action this weekend due to COVID-19 postponements and a light Sunday slate due to the NFL’s conference championship games. However, that simply meant Saturday was loaded.
Six unranked teams upset ranked teams on Saturday alone, perhaps the most notable being Oklahoma’s win over Kansas as the Jayhawks have now lost three consecutive games for the first time since 2013. This isn’t simply a bad stretch for KU either — Bill Self’s squad has some problems they need to fix.
Let’s get into my biggest takeaways of the week, starting with why you shouldn’t trust Kansas now or in March.
Why you shouldn’t trust Kansas
Kansas is a solid team and, despite this recent slide, is going to remain fairly highly ranked. The Jayhawks already have a handful of quality wins and no terrible losses (plus the brand name doesn’t hurt). But if you dig a little deeper, this is a vulnerable group capable of being upset by any NCAA Tournament-caliber team on any given night.
The Jayhawks have played 15 games this season, nine of which have come against teams ranked in the KenPom top 50. They’re only 4-5 in those games and are undefeated against everyone else. Bill Self’s squad is still taking care of the lesser opponents but is having their weaknesses exposed against the better teams they face.
For starters, their offense is not explosive, and there are a number of reasons why. Kansas still hasn’t found a consistent go-to scorer, which is especially limiting. Jalen Wilson looked like that guy for the first month but has fallen off in Big 12 play. Ochai Agbaji has been KU’s most consistent producer, scoring at least 10 points in every game but one this season, yet he has only hit the 20-point mark one time. This shows itself down the stretch of close games as Kansas often has a lack of direction and intent in its offense.
The Jayhawks also haven’t had quality point guard play. Marcus Garrett has not made a successful transition to the position as his assist rate has dropped from last season (19.6% vs. 24.9% in 2019-20) and his defense has taken a step back after winning National Defensive Player of the Year last season. This year, he might not make first team All-Defense in the conference. KU’s offense has looked better with Dajuan Harris running the point but Self doesn’t trust him enough to play significant minutes.
Kansas’ defensive issues go far past Garrett, too. The Jayhawks have failed to even come close to replicating the rim protection Udoka Azubuike provided for four years and haven’t defended the perimeter at a high level (209th in three-point defense).
David McCormack and Christian Braun have been inconsistent, Bryce Thompson has been a disappointment, and the list goes on and on.
The common analysis I’ve seen for Kansas’ struggles has been that it simply doesn’t have the talent of year’s past, and I don’t think that’s entirely true. There are plenty of talented players on the roster that excel at different things. The problem is none of them excel at being “the guy.” We anticipated some these guys making the transition from role player to star, and that hasn’t happened. It’s a team full of role players.
Those role players are good enough for Kansas to stay ranked, yet its offensive mediocrity will lead to several more losses, and might not let the Jayhawks advance past the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend.
Biggest reason why Duke, Kentucky are struggling
This is the question I get asked the most on Twitter and when I do radio appearances because it’s just so out of the ordinary. North Carolina had been included in that sentiment, but they have now won five of their last six, so I’m excluding the Tar Heels.
The problems most often discussed with both Duke and Kentucky are similar as both struggle to shoot from deep, aren’t getting great point guard play, and don’t have the similarly dominant freshmen of the one-and-done era. They combined for two of the top three recruiting classes (UNC had the other one), but neither landed the top-end stars. Duke didn’t land a top 10 prospect, per the 247Sports Composite, and only one in the top 20 (Jalen Johnson). Kentucky did sign two top 10 guys in Brandon Boston and Terrence Clark, but both have been massive disappointments.
The biggest reason for these struggles is the lack of prep time in the preseason and practice restrictions during the season.
We discussed the idea of inexperienced teams getting off to extremely slow starts many times on Hope & Rauf presented by HeatCheckCBB for that reason, and Duke and Kentucky are the extreme of that idea.
Kentucky is one of the least experienced teams in the country by returning just one player, Keion Brooks, from last year’s group. Duke returned more rotation players than normal but is actually less experienced than Kentucky.
A lot of this is by design given how Coach K and John Calipari have adjusted to the one-and-done era, rotating top freshmen in and out and, as a result, essentially resetting their respective rosters each offseason. Because of that, offseason workouts, scrimmages and exhibition games are of utmost importance. Those new players need time to learn the system, learn how to play with each other, and learn the college game.
No team had that this year because of the pandemic, but it has affected the young and inexperienced teams more than anyone else. Duke even had a pause in late December which further exasperates these issues.
Is that to say Duke and Kentucky would be top 10 team in a normal season? No, those flaws mentioned previously would still be present. But I also doubt they would be in serious danger of missing the NCAA Tournament.
This is a strange season for everyone, but Duke and Kentucky are feeling the brunt more than anyone.
Isaiah Livers is Michigan’s most important player
Let’s shift to the individual portion of this Rauf Report by focusing on Isaiah Livers, who continues to be Michigan’s most important player.
The Wolverines have been one of the biggest stories of the season so far with their 13-1 start. Most of their victories have come in dominant fashion, too, which has been a surprise from a team projected to be a borderline top 25 candidate without a true superstar either. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson will likely be Michigan’s top All-Big Ten performer, yet no one is as important to Michigan’s success as Isaiah Livers.
This goes back to last season, too. Michigan’s red-hot start was spearheaded by Livers’ play and, as he dealt with injuries over the season’s final months, the Wolverines also sputtered.
Michigan hasn’t sputtered this season and the consistent play of Livers is one of the biggest reasons why. He’s a versatile 6-7, 230-pounder who can beat larger defenders on the perimeter and smaller ones in the post, and Michigan uses him accordingly, running its offense off his mismatches.
He leads the Wolverines in offensive rating (64th nationally), is 79th in the country in true shooting percentage, and also leads the team in three-pointers made (33-of-74 on the year).
Livers has ramped it up over Michigan’s last few games. He’s 13 of his 22 attempts (59.1 percent) from three over the team’s last four games.
“I’m just locked in,” Livers said following Friday’s victory over Purdue. “I think I’m at a point where I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to go out there and play my game, not overthink it.’ Shot so many shots during the quarantine, I’m built for this, I’m a shooter, so, I have the confidence every time I shoot the ball, that ball’s going in.”
Michigan is now in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten title race and has a favorable schedule (by Big Ten standards) down the stretch, though it is in a mandated pause for the next two weeks. The Wolverines’ ability to navigate that, though, largely depends on Livers continuing to play at a high level.
Carlik Jones should be the favorite for ACC Player of the Year
Speaking of playing at a high level, may I present Louisville’s Carlik Jones?
The grad transfer from Radford has immediately taken over as the Cardinals’ leader and best player, guiding them in points (18.4 per game), assists (4.8) and steals (1.4).
Jones was a phenomenal player at Radford as he was the only player in the country to average at least 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game last year. He also hit this shot as a freshman to win the Big South Tournament. But, as we’ve seen so often with grad transfers, we never know whose game is able to translate from the mid-major level to the power conference level.
Jones has seamlessly made that transition, and Saturday’s performance against Duke was perhaps his best to date.
I think he cemented himself as the favorite to win ACC Player of the Year with that performance.
He has Louisville sitting in third place in the conference despite having players out due to COVID-19 and injuries all season while the two teams ahead of the Cards — Virginia and Florida State — don’t have a player who sticks out as the leader the same way as Jones. That’s not say Sam Hauser and Jay Huff haven’t been great for Virginia or that FSU’s Scottie Barnes isn’t the most talented player in the league; they just haven’t matched Jones’ overall individual impact.
It’s important to remember that there is a month and a half remaining in the regular season. A lot can change, and Jones has to maintain this level of play, but I wouldn’t bet against it.
Recognizing the Champagnie brothers
We close today’s Rauf Report with something I haven’t done before — just a simple shoutout to the Champagnie brothers.
Justin Champagnie is leading the ACC in scoring with 19.9 points per game, helping spearhead Pitt to a surprising 8-3 record so far.
Julian Champagnie has emerged as a star for St. John’s and currently leads the Big East in scoring, also at 19.9 points per game.
I don’t have any insights or analysis other than … how cool is that? Two brothers leading two of the nation’s best conferences in scoring!
Have a great week, everyone.